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Industry Issues: Costly Delays at CN Intermodal Yard

The recent "strike" by frustrated container owner/operators servicing CN's Brampton intermodal yard underscores some very serious problems being confronted more and more by the trucking industry: long...



The recent “strike” by frustrated container owner/operators servicing CN’s Brampton intermodal yard underscores some very serious problems being confronted more and more by the trucking industry: long delays; the associated costs of those delays; and the need for carriers, owner/operators and drivers to be reasonably compensated for them. This latest flare-up was at an intermodal terminal, but it could just as easily have occurred at any number of distribution centres, shipping docks or warehouses which continue to promote a “hurry up and wait” approach to business and where unloading/loading delays are chronic. It is an issue that everyone involved in the supply chain – including shippers, consignees, 3PLs and intermodal service providers – should pay attention to.

Carriers and their drivers cannot be expected to sit and wait for hours on end without being compensated for lost time. In addition to worries over increased costs, lost pay and lost business opportunities elsewhere, the “hurry up and wait” philosophy is exacting a personal toll on drivers. Frustration levels are high. At the CN yard this frustration bubbled over into protest and picket lines.

The risk of similar job action has no doubt increased for certain other facilities where the problems have become chronic. For others, the response will be more subtle – drivers will simply decide they no longer want to service certain shippers/consignees. They’ll go work somewhere else.

More and more, the question will be: Who will replace these drivers? For sure, drivers want to be fairly compensated for delays.

But they also want to drive, not sit. In the last couple of years we have already seen fewer drivers that want the hassle of crossing the border. Others have refused to haul loads into some of the more infamous distribution centres, where the facility operators are quick to levy fines when a shipment misses its appointment time but don’t seem to get fussed when they let trucks sit for hours before they get around to them. Who can blame the drivers who pack it in because they can no longer tolerate or afford to be in the business?

The problem will only become worse when the economy kicks in again. All signs point to a rebound in U.S. economic activity beginning this year and picking up steam next year. That alone is setting the industry up for a capacity squeeze. Those businesses that co-operate and work with their carriers and treat their drivers with respect will be first on the list to receive service.

The urgency to reduce and/or compensate for delays is soon to be further exacerbated by the upcoming changes to the laws governing a truck driver’s hours of service both in the United States (January 4, 2004) and eventually in Canada. In the U.S., drivers will have some flexibility to split time, which will enable them to at least attempt to use loading/unloading delays as rest time in a sleeper berth. Granted, the flexibility will be limited. A driver’s work day will be button-holed into 14 hours per day. And, the rules will be enforced more vigorously than in the past.

At least the U.S. is going to allow some time splitting. As it currently stands, the Canadian hours of service proposals require drivers to have one continuous rest period of at least eight hours per day, plus another two hours that can be used in increments of no less than half an hour. Unless this is changed, in Canada, drivers faced with three- to seven-hour delays can climb into the bunk BUT it will not count as rest time. It will be lost time. The pressure on drivers to utilize their available working hours productively will only be increased in the coming year.

It is imperative that shippers/consignees work with their carriers to reduce delays in loading/unloading. Both parties need to listen to their owner/operators. Carriers and owner/operators need to be compensated for all controllable delays and for all ancillary services provided. Through cooperation and dialogue pressure on rates can be moderated by eliminating supply-chain inefficiencies caused by waiting.

Wild-cat strikes and threats of withholding services should not be the impetus for such dialogue to commence.

– David Bradley is president of the Ontario Trucking Association and chief executive officer of the Canadian Trucking Alliance.


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