Truck News


Here Come The Yard Mules

Up until 2007, off-road terminal tractors were a rarity. They were priced similarly to the road-legal shunts and most customers opted for being able to certify their units if the need arose. Even thou...

Up until 2007, off-road terminal tractors were a rarity. They were priced similarly to the road-legal shunts and most customers opted for being able to certify their units if the need arose. Even though most of these shunts would probably never leave the yard, they could still go and get their own fuel if necessary. And if the plant were to undergo construction, add new entranceways, or an additional drop yard was needed down the road, then the equipment wouldn’t be limited to backyard duty.

But the popularity of off-road shunts has increased greatly in the last few years. According to sales reps, off-road terminal trucks now account for about 25% of new orders. Buyers are increasingly cost-conscious these days and swapping an EPA engine for an industrial one can knock thousands off the price. And there are no worries about damage to the delicate and expensive exhaust stack on EPA models, or having to wait for them to burn off soot while doors are crying for trailers.

Shunt trucks have been around for about 50 years. Traditionally, the Canadian market has been split between Capacity trucks built in Longview, Texas and Ottawa tractors made in Ottawa, Kansas. New kid on the block TICO (Terminal Investment Corportation) builds its own tractor in Ridgeland, South Carolina and also has a long history in the US, but has just entered the Canadian market.

The trucks I tested were all 4×2 off-road shunters, typical of what you’d get from each manufacturer if you were looking for a tractor to service a tandem-tandem yard. Horsepower varied from 204 to 173 to 160, but this is not a huge issue in most shunting operations unless very heavy loads are involved. Each truck was powered by a Cummins QSB industrial engine, although Cat engines are still available this year (except in the TICO). Next year, all three makes expect to add Navistar engines to their repertoires.

The three trucks came with different packages and options, but the prospective buyer should understand that a myriad of possibilities are available from each manufacturer, and many factors have to be considered when pricing a unit. For instance, all three shunts had heated mirrors but only two of them had a motorized right-hand mirror. But I’m sure the manufacturers will bend over backwards to accommodate any configuration of options specified by a customer.

In my driving career, I’ve done hundreds of hours in both Ottawas and Capacities. But coming off the highway, my chops weren’t particularly hot during these test drives, though I got a little better with each swing. My primary interest was driver comfort, safety and efficiency. I drove each truck hard as though it were Christmas season at Purolator’s Rexdale hub: lots of starts, stops and squeezes; jackknifes and hard swings in both directions; twists and spins, etc.

During a vehicle inspection, Capacity and TICO can have their engine and transmission read from outside the cab. But a daily check of oil in the Ottawa involves hopping up on the hood (unless you want to raise the cab). One nice feature of the Allison electronic transmissions standard in Ottawas and Capacities are the built-in prognostic functions. This tells the driver, without getting out of the cab, the transmission fluid level, how much life is left in the filter, and when the transmission oil should be changed.

Capacity’s Mike Hignett gave me room to boot around their rental yard with a new TJ5000. It’s a nice big yard in Mississauga, Ont. and I was able to pull trailers comfortably at 40 km/h. I liked the array of spot lights on the Capacity, the more visibility the better. This unit was also the only one that came with a differential lock-out, a nice feature to have in the snow.

The empty trailers and a hard packed surface meant I couldn’t do justice to Capacity’s Dura- Ride air bag isolation system. I’d really need some loaded trailers and rough terrain to feel the difference. The cab itself rides on a four-point air bag system, as does the TICO, while Ottawa has gone to a three-point air cab system.

Ottawas and Capacities handle very much alike. These trucks have a wheelbase of 122 inches and 120 inches respectively. The TICO truck sits on a shorter wheelbase (116″) and thus swung sharper. I used the motorized mirror to good effect when blind-siding on both the Capacity and TICO. The TICO model also comes with heated convex mirrors, a nice touch.

When it comes to transmissions all you can get in shunt trucks are Allison automatics, but three different Allisons in this case: the 3500 RDS electronic in the Capacity; a slightly higher geared and lighter duty 3000 RDS in the Ottawa; and the old style Allison MT 653 transmission in the TICO (TICO reportedly still has access to 700 of these pre-electronic transmissions).

Some drivers like the old-style, almost obsolete, MT transmission because it allows them to slightly rock a truck when it’s stuck in the snow. But a clear advantage to the electronic transmission is that the boom can be operated on the Ottawas and Capacities while in gear.

I preferred the shifter lever on the Capacity to the electronic touch pad option that came with the Ottawa, only because in the winter you’ll end up poking the shifter pad with salty and grimy fingers when your gloves get wet.

The instrument gauges are also very similar in the Ottawa and Capacity. I was most comfortable with the layout of the Ottawa dash, but I also liked the marine toggle switches that Capacity is using. TICO’s instrument panel is simple and functional with well-lit toggle switches displaying icons.

All three models score equally well with cab accessibility. Capacity has gone to a 16-inch step, and the steps and gratings on all machines were more than adequate. All had good climbing rails, and yellow or orange painted grates to designate safe areas on the catwalks for footing.

Head clearance in the Capacity is 66 inches (except in its 72″ Texan cab) and the TICO and the Ottawa have clearances of 68 inches. Instead of a sliding rear door, TICO has gone to clear plastic, air-operated folding bus doors, which seem to increase rear visibility and ease of exiting the unit.

TICO has done a few things differently. It has gone with a synthetic composite cab rather than a steel one, which it claims can withstand great amounts of stress. Its machine is also equipped with a full-height trailer protection guard which can act like a roll-bar should it tip over. TICO’s cab is the roomiest and the interior stretches 52 inches wide. It also has room for a passenger seat, which can be bolted on and comes as an option. This could be a great advantage for a driver trainer certifying a shunt pilot. Too often, training for shunt drivers is nonexistent.

Defrosting is a big problem on all shunts and the TICO comes with two external defroster fans, which I appreciated as my yard test in Montreal occurred on a wet and humid day. It also has an extra pair of glad hands, which means you can keep working if one rips off.

Unfortunately, because it is a port truck I suppose, the TICO had no hydro cable or trailer spike. These should be essential in any yard, closed or open. The air horn button is located on the floor where the high beam button used to be on cars. This might be a good place for it rather than a pull cord on the roof. That way, a driver can give a couple of toots on the horn while backing under without moving his hands from the steering wheel.

I couldn’t test the heaters on any of the trucks as it was the middle of summer. But neither shunt truck had air conditioning and this bothers me.

Dealers will tell you that off-road trucks are usually ordered without A/C. This is Canada, folks, with extremes in weather. And these yard mules have a lot of glass and get hot working in the sun. A comfortable shunt driver is a good shunt driver.

All three trucks rode well. In my opinion the Ottawa was the best truck for handling and steer-ability, but the differences between it and the Capacity were
only microscopic.

Nothing wrong with TICO’s ride either, it turns tightly and seems comfortable enough, but it would take a few more hours for me to get used to it.

Last, but always worth mentioning, is the cup holder. Spilt coffee is not an unusual occurrence in the shunt truck profession, and I’ve heard this can affect electrical connections in the dash. So it is heartening to see both TICO and Capacity units come standard equipped with cup holders. Anyone wanna go f’coffee?

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