TORONTO, Ont. –Truck stops have long been ‘beacons’ of the road for truck drivers and holiday-makers, providing food and a place to rest and shower, perhaps a little conversation and distraction.
Nostalgia for the classic mom and pop operations runs high, as is evident from some of the commentary Truck News gleaned when querying truckers about the truck stop experience.
“When I first started running south in the early 70s (West Coast mostly) the truck stops weren’t franchised chain operations, they were mostly mom and pop run and catered to trucks and their keepers, not the great unwashed public. Most of them were clean and well-run and people got into that business because they had an affinity for the road and the folk that ran it for a living. These operations today are only there for the money, they don’t give a damn about drivers or their problems,” said one contributor in a critique of the modern truck stop experience.
Forced to make stops at a particular chain, the driver went on to comment about “infrastructure held together with bailing wire and bubble gum, readers that don’t work properly, water heaters that don’t work at all, shower taps and nozzles that are a joke, staff that couldn’t be less interested in helping the public, fax machines that seldom work, and the list goes on and on.”
Indeed, both the ‘mom and pop’ independent operations, and the larger truck stop chains, are dealing with some challenging issues as service providers in today’s economic climate.
“Very few truck stops offer full service anymore, by this I mean, pump the fuel, check the tire pressure, wash the windows and headlights. This is a thing of the past. The truck stops that offer these services are few because it costs a lot to maintain this type of truck stop. When (truck drivers) buy fuel, they look for the lower price and do not realize that the large, full-service location has to make money in order to offer all the services that they enjoy,” said Marsha Bird, CEO of the North American Truck Stop Network (NATSN), which represents independent truck stop operators across the US and Canada.
“Having said that,” she added, “several of the NATSN truck stops do offer full service and drivers are appreciative of this.”
Lisa Mullings, president and CEO of the North American Truck Stop Operators (NATSO), said that the current budget crunch “guarantees that we will continue to face proposals to commercialize rest areas.”
This could create a negative impact for businesses on North American highway systems, she noted.
Mullings also commented on another issue hitting truck stop operators, and especially the independents, hard: transaction rates that credit card companies are charging retailers.
“Many suspect credit cards will be the next shoe to drop in this economic downturn, leading to calls for significant reform of lending practices. The outrageous interchange fees and the terms by which they are set could be radically altered, levelling the playing field for the retail industry,” said Mullings.
“One of our biggest issues is the transaction rates that the billing card companies are charging independent truck stop operators,” said Bird. “Our operators are charged a percentage of the total purchase (ie. 1.85%), which was a huge increase for them to swallow even in 2001 when this was first implemented. Before, all locations received a flat fee that could range from 35 cents to 65 cents, so you can see how hard this became when a driver purchased $300 worth of fuel and the truck stop had to pay $5.55 for the transaction that from the beginning he paid only 65 cents at a maximum. Of course when one billing card company was allowed to charge this percentage, they all followed, so this cost the truck stops. The large corporate chains were able to hold onto a flat fee and the billing card companies said it was because they (chains) did more transactions per month than the independents. This was a hard pill to swallow and now with the cost of diesel being even higher than in 2001, the truck stops and their transaction fees are a battle that some cannot overcome and they had to close their doors,” she said.
In December 2008,Flying J and its Big West refining and Longhorn Pipeline subsidiaries filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11 of the US Bankruptcy Code.
The filing did not affect the company’s Canadian operations. The company declined to comment for Truck News, but in an earlier statement J. Phillip Adams, Flying J president and CEO, said that the company’s objective is to move through a reorganization process as quickly as possible, and that the company filed, facing liquidity pressure from the drop in the price of oil, and the lack of available financing from its traditional sources due to disrupted credit markets.
For some truck stop operations, one strategy has been to roll out infrastructure to meet customer demand for diesel exhaust fluid (DEF), which will be required on most 2010 model year engines, which will use selective catalytic reduction (SCR) systems that reduce NOx through a catalytic process in the exhaust stream.
One of the challenges around DEF requirements at this point is for truck stop operators to determine actual on-the-road demand, and how many trucks needing DEF will fuel centrally, for example, when they fuel up centrally with diesel (as opposed to at their home terminals).
Truck stop chain Pilot Travel Centers has unveiled a massive rollout plan to distribute DEF by 2010. About 100 locations will offer bulk dispensers at the fuel island, while the chain’s 328 locations will all offer pre-mixed containers.
“Everyone is prepping up for it,” said Bill Mulligan, vice-president of development, facilities and environmental for Pilot Travel Centres. He told Truck News that the roll-out will set up the required infrastructure in anticipation of 2010 demand, and is part of the chain’s strategy to make truck stop customers’ lives easier, more efficient and cheaper, he said.
“We’re having to deal with an across the board decrease in fuel sales, so we’re eliminating as much overhead as possible, reducing labour costs, and introducing energy efficiencies,” he said.
“Engine manufacturers estimate that some 100,000 trucks on the road at the end of 2010 will need DEF,” he added.
“The number of gallons required is expected to be in the order of 54.6 million gallons of DEF in 2010, and that demand will ultimately increase to roughly 1.3 billion gallons in 2019.”
According to Terry Ross, vice-president, construction and environmental services with Love’s Travel Stops and Country Stores, Love’s also has plans in place to install bulk containers for urea distribution at 50 locations beginning later this year.
“The specific locations and time-frame of the roll-out will be dependent on the initial demand for DEF. To ensure that our customers using 2010 SCR engines will have availability across Love’s network, we will offer packaged containers at all 165 locations. Long term, as these engines become more prevalent, Love’s plans on having bulk distribution capability on the fuel islands at all locations,” Ross said.
Another contentious issue pitting drivers vs. truck stops is the availability of parking facilities or rest areas, especially since in many parts of North America, truck stop locations have gone to ‘paid parking.’
“This is due to drivers buying their fuel at the chains and then parking for the night at the full facility;when they do this, they do not understand that the truck stop has the wear and tear of maintaining the parking lot, plus the employee and the benefits they have to provide to that employee in order to have a big parking lot,” said Bird.
“One thing I find that would help keep the parking lots cleaner, not totally clean due to the nature of some people being so lazy and care-free or simply not caring at all, is more garbage cans in the lots. A driver, not fuelli
ng up, but parking instead, will take his trash bag with him and drop it in a garbage can that is close and on the direct path he or she is taking to get to the entrance of the truck stop,” said one truckers’ forum member.
Facing a shortage of available parking along highways, some truckers have resorted to alternatives that haven’t always proved safe.
In March in North Carolina, trucker Jason Rivenburg was shot and killed while resting in his truck, parked in an abandoned gas station that was reputed to be a safe rest stop. His death has resulted in the creation of ‘Jason’s Law’ which aims to lobby for more secure areas along highways for truckers.
In January 2008, meanwhile, the NATSO Foundation created the Travel Safely Network program (TSN), which is developing guidelines and partnerships to better understand and meet the needs of professional drivers and the travelling public.
In southern Ontario, with the majority of leases about to expire, the provincial government has begun rebuilding its 23 Highway Service Centres located along Highways 400 and 401.
“We are in the process of selecting a new operator to redevelop our network of highway service centres. We are anticipating that a new operator will be selected this spring and will then proceed with redevelopment plans. More details about the construction timelines will be available once a new operator is selected and a construction timeline agreed upon,” said Bob Nichols, senior media liaison officer, Ontario Ministry of Transportation.
“We are aware that there has been an increase in truck parking along shoulders at some of the highway interchanges, however we are attempting to minimize this through additional signing to private sites that have 24/7 food and fuel service,” he added. The redeveloped service centres will also increase truck parking capacity to accommodate more truck drivers while travelling.
“The Ministry is aware that commercial operators’ needs could be improved at service centres. Potential service providers are being encouraged to be innovative and provide additional amenities that would benefit commercial drivers such as shower and laundry facilities and other environmentally progressive features such as truck parking electrification,” said Nichols.
As leases expire, the oil companies currently located on these sites carry out necessary environmental clean-up work. During this clean-up period the sites must remain closed for the protection of the environment, the safety of the public and the safety of the workers prior to turning the site over to a new operator. Once the clean-up phase has been completed, most sites will be reopened with interim services, which will include re-opening the parking areas for commercial and private motorists along with accessible washrooms, vending machines and drinking water, said Nichols.
“Once a service centre has been closed, special signs with orange tabs will be posted on the highway in advance of those service centres that do not have fuel or services indicating the exits at which 24/7 fuel/food are available. These signs will also be posted closer to those specific exits to remind drivers that those sites are coming up. Highway users will be notified well in advance of service centre closure timeframes. Advance information about the temporary closures will be posted on signs along the highway and on posters within the service centres that will be affected.”
Truck stop and rest area improvements can’t come too soon for those who rely on their services.
But for some truckers who believe the good ol’ days of truck stops are long gone, they are content to drop in and then get on their way ASAP.
“I try to spend as little time as possible in them. Fuel, clean the windows, thump the tires, quick whiz, gimme my fuel bill, and I’m gone,” is one trucker’s view. •
-Can truck stops contribute to a healthy lifestyle for truckers? Find out in Part 2 of the series next month.