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Take the B-Train!

What’s the story on the B-Train? It ‘s arguable that what we call the modern B-train (a set of trailers joined by a fifth wheel on the lead trailer) is a Canadian invention that was prototyped and developed in Canada by Hutchinson Industries of Toronto, Ont., (now a subsidiary of Treamcar), under the tutelage of Ralph Hutchinson Jr., sometime in the mid to early 70s. I’m saying that because I’m looking at an ad from 1982 that Joe DeSimone tells me depicts a set that was manufactured in 1977, originally on behalf of Imperial Oil (Joe was a young engineer at the time who had just started with the firm but wasn’t involved with the prototype). The photo shows it’s a tandem/tandem/tandem configuration, and the ends of both opposing tankers are beveled (presumably for better clearance on tight turns). But it’s really not unlike what Canadians are driving today on the highways grossing 140,000 lbs. LCVs excluded, although Ontario has allowed for the inclusion of fifth wheel-coupled 53s, although I haven’t seen any yet.

On the subject of B-trains, it is worth noting that Martin Phippard has passed through this world on Nov. 11 of this year. He will be sadly missed by trucking enthusiasts and those close to him.The guy was a great writer, truck salesman, and for a brief time an assistant editor in the early days of Motor Truck magazine, sister publication to Truck News. Martin lived in Warminster, England, but spent some of his years in Canada. He was a terrific truck journalist and videographer, and his pages on Hank’s Truck Pictures are worth viewing.

But the point I’m getting to is that Martin loved B-trains and drove them whenever he could get the chance, in places as diverse as Holland, Sweden and Zimbabwe. He wrote a serious essay about the configuration on Hank’s Truck Pictures and came to the conclusion that there were B-trains running around much earlier than 1977 in places like New Zealand and South Africa.

In Canada, itself, Ken Hellawell says that Adam Ledig was driving a flat deck B-Train for OK Transportation back in 1961. The front deck had a fifth wheel bolted on the back which was mounted on another piece of frame that fit inside the lead trailer’s frame.

And according to Doug McKenzie, “My Dad was an owner-operator with Tank Truck Transport back in the 50’s and he frequently mentioned that they had developed one for their use.”

Whether or not the B-train was born in Canada is debatable. But the fact is that the modern version of the B-train became popular after several crashes, mostly in Michigan in the early 70s, involving heavily laden fuel and lumber A-trains (this is why Michigan has some of the strictest axel-weight restrictions and why you see six axle trailers in the State. A-trians with their converter dollies and pintle hooks might better described as “wiggle wagons” which are in another league and nowhere near as stable as the B-trains. C-trains were also developed at this time, but are rarely seen these days. But B-trains are found in every province in the country and have proven themselves as the best method for hauling the most weight in 60 feet of combined trailers. Whereas the US, with a few exceptions in places like Michigan and Washington State, have never embraced the B-train. Some States won’t even allow them on their roads. B-trains in a word, are as Canadian as hockey, lacrosse, back bacon and maple syrup.

Have you got a B-train story? When did you first encounter them? How do you like driving them? Let me know, I’m researching a feature.

Harry Rudolfs

Harry Rudolfs

Harry Rudolfs has worked as a dishwasher, apprentice mechanic, editor, trucker, foreign correspondent and taxi driver. He's written hundreds of articles for North American and European journals and newspapers, including features for the Ottawa Citizen, Toronto Life and CBC radio. With over 30 years experience in the trucking industry he's hauled cars, steel, lumber, chemicals, auto parts and general freight as well as B-trains. He holds an honours BA in creative writing and humanities, summa cum laude.
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8 Comments » for Take the B-Train!
  1. Bill says:

    I have a set of Hutchinson B-trains (1986) that I haul every summer. I would much rather have them than a single trailer anytime. They are way more maneuverable and it is easier to get around tight turns with than a single 53 footer.

  2. Arthur says:

    I hauled B-Trains from 86 to 91 carrying steel lumber and building materials. They handled the weight well and I could often turn around in places I never could with a full length trailer. The money was good too I got 1.5 cents per mile more than on a four axle and extra for the tonnage.

  3. George says:

    Drove “B” trains for TTR in Oshawa for a year. They were 2, 30 foot vans pulled by an Argosy. We would back them into the dock. Open the doors between the 2 trailers and the lead trailer would slide back into the back trailer making the “B” train completely drive through. It did make for interesting dock maneuvering and comments from shippers/receivers.

    • Bill says:

      When I first started hauling B’s my nickname was 40 acres. As in give me 40 acres and I’ll back these trains in straight. Mine were and still are tankers, so you don’t have to be as exacting as freight wagons.

  4. Harry Rudolfs says:

    My first experience with B-trains started back in the late 80s. I got hired by Frederick Transport which was opening up a bulk division in London, Ont. My “training” involved delivering a load of coiled steel to Wayne, Mich., then picking up a load of corn somewhere around Chatham for Labatt’s in London. Then the driver-trainer cut me loose and the manager insisted I pick up more coils at Dofasco in Hamilton. I had injured my knee that day and it was swollen up hugely. But you know how it is, first day on the job, you don’t want to turn down any work. So I drove to Hamilton wincing in pain every time I had to clutch. I worked 21 hours that day and got paid $90 training allowance. But the rub was that they never gave me a truck afterwards. I surmised that because I’d been injured they thought of me as a liability. Needless to say, they kept telling me they didn’t have a tractor for me every time I called. After a couple of weeks of this, I turned in all my credit cards and started looking elsewhere.

    Fast forward to 1997 when I got hired by Eaton’s as a fleet driver. Soon after my initiation, the driver trainer, Sweeney was his name, but I don’t remember the first name, called me in for B-train training. This involved coupling and uncoupling a few times, and then a trip along a designated route that Sweeney had mapped out. Don’t worry about backing up, he told me. “You never have to!” Nonetheless, on one of my first runs to Ottawa at the Bayshore Mall, I think it was, required me to spot the rear unit in the door. Instead of breaking the set apart, I decided to learn how to back up. It took me 45 minutes to put the trailer in the door, but afterwards, got pretty good at it. I could even jacknife the units and put the rear trailer in just about any dock without too much trouble.

    Eaton’s only lasted another year or two and its unraveling was a major blow to the Canadian psyche. I’d moved on, meanwhile, and didn’t encounter B-Trains again until last week, when someone at Purolator decided that the run coverage drivers should all be trained for B-train capabilities. The subsidiary of Canada Post has been trying out a set for over a year now, leased from SLH, and I’ve been chomping at the bit to pull them.

    I expected there might be something new in the technology, since it’s been 15 years since I danced with those old grey Eaton’s trailers, but everything was just about the same. These are a set of Manacs, and everything was where I remember it. The hideaway fifth wheel worked the same way with a wheel well in front of the fifth wheel where the air and hydro lines get tucked away.

    Puro is looking at getting some more of these, I’ve heard through the grapevine, and it makes good sense to me. During non-peak times many of the depots don’t need 53 footers, and one driver can cover two shipping centers in the same shift. I also feel confident pulling Bs. Many drivers will tell you they like this configuration better than running a singles (they are much more maneuverable) and they’re much preferable to the A train pups that you seen UPS pulling around. If you’ve ever seen a driver lose one of these on ice, you’d know what I mean. The tail starts whipping from side to side and loss of control usually ends badly. Stick to the B-trains Puro, please, and make sure the lead unit is the heavy one.

    • Bill says:

      Try loading the pup heavier than the lead and enjoy the nightmare! Once and only once I listened to someone in Winnipeg tell me to load the pup heavier than the lead with liquid. I got it to Fort Francis without incident but I never listened to anyone again about how to load a set of B’s that I was pulling.

    • Leadfoot says:

      Well Harry my first experience with the b-trains was with Purolator back in the 90’s. We had just started to experiment with them and we had bought a couple of used sets that had a tandem lead and a single axle rear that also had bifold barn doors on the front end so that you could slide them together and load them as a single 60′ trailer. I started pulling them with a single axle international and finally talked them into a Kenworth tandem tractor.

      I never wanted to pull them and I remember my first training run where our driver trainer came with me on a run from Toronto to Ottawa. I told him no way I was going to run over 90 kmh and by the time we arrived in Kingston I was doing the old 110 kmh without even realizing it.

      I pulled them for several years and loved them. I would rather pull them behind me any day over a 53 footer. I am now pulling them again, in fact as you know I am pulling the set you described above. Great to have them back again, just wish they were being loaded a little heavier. They make a lot of sense to have them in an operation such as ours and I think this set is here to stay and maybe we will get some more along the way.

      Come along for a ride on a Sunday switch and you will have a feel for them all over again.

  5. Bob.K says:

    Transport division of Cassiar Asbestos out of Whitehorse Yukon was using B trains
    in the early 70`s to haul asbestos from Clinton Creek, North of Dawson City to Whitehorse
    They were flat decks with sides and a plate was used to load the lead trailer from the back
    trailer which had a removable bulkhead. Not sure of the name but believe they were from

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