GRANDE PRAIRIE, Alta. – Logging trucks may be big and, well, lumbering, but if a pilot project underway now in Alberta works out as hoped, they could end up being bigger still.
The experiment being conducted currently allows nine-and 10- axle B-trains and their associated increase in capacity and weight (an increase from the previous maximum of eight axles) to be used on some of the province’s highways.
It’s an attempt by the province and the forestry industry to give a hand up to a sector that’s been feeling the pinch for several years -even before the current economic crunch hit -thanks to such factors as reduced new housing starts in the US.
The added capacity raises the maximum weight that can be hauled by about 10%, to about 78,000 kgs.
That lets companies run fewer trucks, which saves them money and increases their efficiency. A side benefit is fewer logging trucks on the highways.
Before such a project could be given the green light, however, they had to ensure the trucks would not only fit, but would be safe and stable and wouldn’t ruin the highways on which they drove.
This prompted a feasibility study that looked into the possibility of running 10-axle B-trains consisting of, essentially, three tridem groups: a drive and two trailers, each of which would be of the existing legal weight but which together would total 78,300 kg gross combined weight.
“You want to answer a couple of things in these feasibility studies,” says Eric Amlin, program leader for transportation research at the FERIC (Forest Engineering Research Institute of Canada) division of FPInnovations, a non-profit organization that does research for the forest sector aimed at improving its international competitiveness. “First, is it practical for this truck to work, is it safer or equal in safety to the existing fleet and, second, does it meet the TAC performance standards? That was our task.”
The study looked at vehicle dynamics -the safety and stability of the truck, the road, and the impact of the heavier vehicles on the province’s highways and bridges.
“You define the features of the truck and the trailer that are appropriate for giving you that stability,” Amlin says, “and one of those is wide track axles, which are really good at improving rollover thresholds, one of the TAC performance measures.”
So far so good: the 31.5-metre long trucks’ stability was deemed acceptable. FERIC also found that a tridem group operating at legal weights (the same weight per axle as before) didn’t impact the pavement any more than the existing fleets do.
In fact, Amlin says, “A truck like this carrying those kinds of weights impacted the pavement less because those trucks tend overall to be more friendly to the pavement than a typical B-train.”
Alberta Transportation did the bridge analysis, mostly in the northern part of the province where the lion’s share of the log transporting takes place.
Amlin says the analysis “determined that on some routes the bridges were of acceptable strength, so the truck would be okay.”
But not all bridges measured up. “There are some major bridges that can’t handle any more weight,” says Larry Lefebvre, general manager for Minhas Brothers of Grande Prairie, one of the first trucking companies to run the bigger rigs. “And we’re trying to figure out a way to get the bridges upgraded to allow these heavier weights.”
The issue, which apparently affects mostly multi-span bridges, means that until the structures are beefed up the trucks have to either go around them or haul a reduced payload equal to what was allowed before the pilot project.
“But there’s some work going on with the government in terms of what can we do to get these bridges to be able to handle these weights so that we can better utilize the configurations out there,” Lefebvre says.
That, of course, involves money -as scarce a commodity for governments scrambling to balance their budgets as it is in the private sector these days, and the specialized nature of the problem works against finding a quick solution.
“The very fact that (the 10-axle trucks) don’t operate on every road of the province means there’s not going to be a great demand for them because of those limitations,” Amlin says. “Even if there’s enough interest and motivation to upgrade bridges in the other areas where they’d like to run the trucks it remains to be seen who’ll come to the party with the money to do it.”
It’s definitely a challenge. Lefebvre says that, while the province has been phenomenal, “They’re running into a budget issue right now in terms of being able to fix the bridges, so we’re looking at different avenues. Maybe there’s federal money that can be used to help. If something can be worked out then that would be a huge benefit not only for the forest industry but for other industries that need to haul across those bridges.”
So much for the infrastructure. There’s also the challenge of private operators being able to afford the trucks that would let them participate at the higher weights -trucks which (even though they may be used in the forestry industry) don’t have a habit of falling from the trees.
“A company would have to find the equipment to meet the requirements,” says Alvin Moroz, director of transport engineering for Alberta Transportation. “So there’d be some start-up time for a company to acquire the equipment and while it generally would be equipment that exists somewhere, they may not necessarily have it available right at this minute.”
Moroz also points out that, because this is a test project right now, “I’m not sure people would be willing to go up there and actually build new equipment until we know what the long-term solution would be.”
This led to mulling over the possibility of using nine-axle units as a way for a company to “branch out” into the larger vehicles without having to assemble completely new units from scratch.
“The committee also looked at the existing fleet to see what can be done to improve its productivity,” says Amlin. “Keeping with the theme of helping the industry survive in these economic times while staying within the envelope of safety and acceptable infrastructure impacts, we wanted to know how much weight can be put onto these fleets.”
Amlin says some operators looked at it as an opportunity to migrate to the 10-axle units piecemeal, so that instead of buying the typical tandem rear trailer of a B-train, they’d buy a tridem rear trailer, configured to meet the requirements of a 10-axle, graduating to a tridem 10-axle B-train in steps.
“Our role once again, in concert with the bridge engineers at Alberta Transport,” Amlin says, “was to look at the question of how much weight can be put onto a nine-axle without breaking the bridges or having the truck fall over easily.”
So far, so good. “It’s been seamless,” says Lefebvre. “One of those things where you wonder how come it didn’t happen sooner?” He says there haven’t been any operational issues at all.
“You’re limited as to where you can go and some of the grades we were just making with eight axles we’re not making with nine, but we haven’t really had to change much in the bush except maybe reduce some of the grades to get out because we’ve only focused on the B-trains themselves.”
It’s helping to create the improvements that were hoped for. “Very conservatively, we’re packing 10% more payload,” says Lefebvre. “So instead of using 10 trucks to move something we only need nine, which means you’ve reduced the traffic on the road.”
Lefebvre estimates the new configuration could mean up to a 20% reduction in the number of trips hauled.
“That translates not only to the reduced number of trips,” he says, “but to cutting greenhouse gas emissions -all those buzzwords there.”
Lefebvre says the project is a prime example of what can be done when different groups work together for a common cause.
“The success so far is directly related to three parties: the i
ndustry, the government and FERIC,” he says. “If I can emphasize anything it would be that the cooperation, the willingness to work together has been almost unprecedented in what we’ve achieved in the last year or so.”
Lefebvre says that previously, the industry’s efforts were spread out, with some companies lobbying the government independently and some through the Alberta Forest Products Association -but when they all came together in December of 2008 “We made phenomenal leaps and bounds.”
If the pilot project works out as hoped, it could spread to other aspects of the forestry industry.
“We’re in discussions on being able to haul finished products as well -wood chips and any other forest product,” Lefebvre says. “Anything we can do to facilitate moving the product on the highways would be a huge benefit, but right now the permits are only for raw logs on the highway.”
“We’ll see how it goes,” says Alberta Tr a n s p o r t a t i o n ‘ s Moroz, “and if it’s successful it may continue long-term. It’s an ongoing review process, the intent of which is to explore different options and try things out, see what’s successful and what isn’t.”
Though he isn’t specific, Moroz warns that other issues could pop up that may not have been considered, but which could indicate that the idea just isn’t working and could lead to its being discontinued.
“That’s the type of approach we’re taking. It’s a general review to see how we can increase efficiency without adversely affecting the roads, the bridges or other traffic.”
The project isn’t limited to companies who may be first out of the gate, either. Moroz says there’s no set limit as to how many companies can get involved. “It’s open to anyone who can acquire the equipment and operate under (the restrictions),” he says.
As for Minhas’ Lefebvre, he’s pleased with the cooperation the province has given.
“I’ll be the first one to toot the province’s horn that they’ve been phenomenal through this process,” he says, “and that’s what’s made a lot of the difference. Transportation costs are a huge part of the cost of product,” he points out.
“This may or may not be a make or break for some companies, but it might also be one of those pieces of the puzzle that helps them down the road.”
A “jigsaw” puzzle, perhaps?
“If I can emphasize anything it would be that the cooperation, the willingness to work together has been almost unprecedented in what we’ve achieved in the last year or so.” -Larry Lefebvre, Minhas Brothers