CENTRE OF THE ACTION: Shunter Akber Popal enjoys the job because of the non-stop action in the yard. And the fact he gets to go home after his shift.
Even the average dumb-ass four-wheeler is familiar with the “stars” of the highway: the glamorous Freightliners, Kenworths, Macks, Volvos, Internationals and Peterbilts.
But shunt trucks usually go unnoticed and unappreciated.
Yard tractors do the grunt work behind the scenes in closed yards, terminals, ports and distribution centres, operating night and day, often reversing as much as driving forward. The little dogs lift outrageous loads and thread trailers through obstacles into seemingly impossible spots and corners.
But today’s shunt truck was only an afterthought. According to Kalmar Industries, makers of Ottawa tractors, the first truck equipped with a hydraulically-lifted fifth wheel was fabricated in Kansas in 1958. Fifty years later, in April 2008, Kalmar has just produced its 45,000th shunt truck.
Even so, these specialized tractors were slow to catch on. In the old days, trucking companies would supply the shunt driver with an old city truck to move trailers around the yard. The hydraulic concept picked up speed in the late 80s and early 90s with the introduction of Just-in-Time material handling and automated loading systems.
Today’s fast-paced shipping environment would not be possible without shunt trucks. And a good shunt driver is worth his or her weight in platinum.
It’s estimated one can do at least three times the work of a driver who has to crank the dollies and pull the pin manually.
Shunt trucks squat a little lower than Class 8 tractors and the hydraulic boom has to be able to fit inside the frame so the fifth wheel can lie flush with the deck.
The cabins are square, narrow and flat-sided with lots of glass allowing almost 360-degree vision. Entrance is gained through the rear sliding door with steps accessing either side of the trailer.
Yard donkeys generally sit on single axles with rigid rear suspensions; tandems might be necessary for some heavy on-road applications but they are rare. Manufacturers can and do create just about any kind of variation of shunter, from articulated sectional frames to special gooseneck booms.
The trucks’ short wheelbases give them amazing maneuverability. Power is supplied by Cummins or Cat engines, usually around 200 hp since the units aren’t required to go fast. Allison automatic transmissions are ubiquitous in the shunt truck world as are Meritor axles.
Two major shunt truck manufacturers supply most of the world’s needs: Kalmar which makes the Ottawa models in Ottawa, Kansas, and Capacity which produces the Trailer Jockey brand at a plant in Longview, Texas.
Ottawa is the most recognizable name but Capacity has also established a major presence in Canada. Some companies with large fleets tend to have both makes in their repertoire. Although some shunt drivers prefer one to the other, I’ve driven both and they’re so similar I have to look twice to see which brand I’m driving.
There’s a new player on the scene, as well. Terminal Investment Corp. (TICO) manufactures its own version of a terminal tractor at its plant in Savannah, Georgia. According to its Web site, they’ve been making shunts for use in ports since 1985, but are now marketing them throughout North America. TICO’s cab is fiberglass rather than metal, and is much wider, allowing the insertion of a second seat for training purposes.
A company looking to buy a shunt truck should consider whether it will be utilized in-plant or be required to drive on-road. The majority of terminal tractors sold in Canada are plated and street legal. Still, the urge to go for the off-road option must be tempting.
Customers going this route can choose an industrial engine rather than one of the EPA07 motors with soot-burning capabilities.
An off-road tractor, however, can never leave the yard under its own power, and fuel and servicing have to be supplied on-site.
I’m curious to hear how the new engines are functioning in the shunt community.
Having to stop shunting operations for 20-50 minutes while the DPF unit cycles through a high temperature burn-off is a new variable that shunt drivers never had to deal with before. It could throw a wrench into some tight shipping schedules. Unofficially, I’ve heard that a small percentage of users are having problems with their EGRs and that new software patches are on the way from engine manufacturers.
Another factor is exhaust stack damages, which are not uncommon in this kind of work. On-road terminal tractors with EPA07 engines now come with very expensive exhaust stack components that can cost $3,000-6,000 to repair. Hence, Kalmar and Capacity have mounted steel plates and posts around the catalyst and DPF units to minimize damages.
Shunt truck manufacturers have a slough of options available, from beacon lights to motorized and heated mirrors. John Uppington, Ottawa manager for Woodbine Truck Centre in Markham, Ont., won’t sell an Ottawa tractor without including a “fifth wheel unlatch interlock” which prevents the jaws from opening while the vehicle is in motion.
Capacity, on the other hand, likes to boast about its Dura-Ride rear suspension. According to Mike Hignett of Glasvan Great Dane in Mississauga, Ont. (the Capacity dealer for southern Ontario), the system, “provides a stable platform even when the trailer is lifted 16 inches…It’s a lot more comfortable for the driver and smooths out the rough ride. It also reduces the vibration on trucks, ultimately resulting in less downtime and maintenance.”
A shunt truck’s life is measured in hours instead of kilometres. The average life span of a shunt truck is about 10 years, and it will work about 3,000 hours per year, though there are many that work twice as hard. Leased units may cycle every three to five years, while purchased tractors might be kept for seven years before being upgraded.
OK Transportation has a long time association with Canadian Tire Corporation so it’s natural that they should provide shunting services for the retail giant in Brampton, Ont. OK currently has 28 shunt trucks servicing three different clients (using a mixture of Ottawa and Capacitys). But the dedicated CTC tractors get the most work, operating two 10-hour shifts per day, from 4 a. m. to midnight.
According to the OK management team, the units get traded in every four or five years when they reach 18,000-20,000 hours.
Shunt truck users can range from major US transport companies who float up their own equipment to small business owners who see an advantage in buying their own shunt truck.
“The market is so diversified,” says Uppington of Woodbine Truck Centre. “In some cases, the only equipment a customer may own will be a forklift truck and a shunt truck. All the other vehicles in the yard are owned by carriers.”
Ray Stewart, owner of National Shunt Service of Cobourg, Ont., sees a niche in supplying shunt equipment and drivers to businesses across Canada. He currently looks after the shunting needs of various customers in Southern Ontario and one client in Chilliwack, B. C.
“We bring a lot of other things to a client, like dock audits, yard maintenance checks, space and volume management solutions,” he says. Stewart has also developed the software for a handheld radio frequency dispatch platform that works off the wireless router from a customer’s shipping/receiving computer. The shunter is provided with a handheld unit that clips into the truck where he can record and cross off assigned moves and locations. “It also provides a database for shippers in real-time from which they can extrapolate information.”
Stewart says the shunting business has not suffered despite the downturn in the economy.
“Our business tends to operate in distribution centres where we’re seeing continuous growth and investment by national and international companies,” he says.
It has been a bad winter for drivers in most of Canada, and the same is true for shunters. I asked top NSSL driver Mike Maclellan what he does to keep rolling.
“I call it waltzing trail
ers around in the snow,” he says. “You lead and they follow. You try everything to get going – salt, shovel. If you know your equipment well, you know how to put it in gear as the revs are coming down so you get a little jump. Otherwise you just spin.”
Last year I went on assignment and worked a week of shunt shifts at Purolator’s Ontario hub to get into the character of the story. This year I took a pass: it’s just too hard and intense, but never boring.
Better to leave shunt driving up to people that enjoy it, like my colleague Akber Popal who works nights at the Metro West facility.
“I do like this job. You’re always the centre of action, sometimes running around outside opening barn doors. This is a busy place so there’s always something to do. I watch drivers come in from Moncton and Calgary, but I’d rather go home at the end of my shift.”