Ode to the B-train

by Harry Rudolfs

Another LCV season has come and gone in Ontario, and by most measures the program has been a success in this province. As of October 2013, there were 295 LCV permits shared between 72 carriers, and we can expect the program to keep ramping up. But as the double-53s sleep for the winter, let’s not forget the heavy-hauling doubles that keep motoring no matter what the weather or time of the year.

I’m talking B-trains here: one tractor pulling two trailers coupled together by means of a fifth wheel attached directly to the rear of the lead trailer. These sets have earned their keep on Canadian highways for more than three decades: 60 feet of combined trailers grossing up to 63,500 kgs/140,000 lbs. And not to be confused with A-trains: two pup trailers hauling much lighter payloads linked together by a pintle hook and ring extended from a converter dolly, a kind of rolling fifth-wheel assembly. By eliminating the ambulatory converter, the B-train removes a point of articulation and has been proven to be more stable and much safer than A-train “wiggle-wagons.”

I first encountered B-trains in the mid-80s, during a one-day training session for a bulk job in London, Ont. This particular company hauled everything in those buckets. The trainer was a senior driver who sat in the passenger seat while I delivered coils of steel to Wayne, Mich., crushed glass to Wallaceburg, a load of corn to Labatt’s in London, and finished the shift loading up more steel coils on a set of flats in Hamilton.

Years later I was hired as a fleet driver for Eaton’s and pulled their aging B-trains for a couple of years, just before that great Canadian institution closed its doors in 1999. No bulk commodities here; this was light stuff going to department stores, and versatility was the name of the game. One driver could cover two stores in Montreal or Ottawa, all pin-to-pin work.

The driver-trainer at Eaton’s told me not to worry about backing up. “You never have to,” he said. But when I got to the Bayshore Mall in Ottawa on my first night run, it sure seemed a lot easier to try reversing into an adjacent door rather than splitting the trailers. It took me 45 minutes to figure out how to back the trailer in straight, but after that I got pretty good at it, even jackknifing the set at times to get into some tricky docks.

I’ve always liked the solid feel of a good set of doubles when they’re loaded and set up right. They turn much tighter and some drivers will tell you they prefer them to 53-footers. Even better, most companies pay a premium to pull them.

So what makes a good B-train driver? “The same thing that makes a good LCV driver,” says Desmond Hearn of Crossroads Training Academy in Barrie, Ont. “Attention to detail, safety procedures, lots of experience and excellent driving skills.”

His driving school has one client that is particularly keen on cultivating B-train drivers, and Hearn can provide specialized training for candidates looking to upgrade.

“They’ve got to be able to back them up,” adds Hearn. “Our customer delivers to some difficult places and wants the drivers to be skilled with this equipment.”

Unlike LCV certification, no formal training programs for “train” drivers exists in this province, but Hearn thinks it should.

“An operator should be certified for every piece of equipment they use – B-trains, A-trains, tankers, anything like that – that shows they have received training and understand how to operate it safely. Why not?” he asks.

My most recent experience with B-trains occurred a few weeks ago. Purolator has been running a set for the last year, leased from SLH and I’ve been chomping at the bit to try them out. My chance came the other week when the driver-trainer pulled me aside for a few hours. I practiced hooking, splitting, sliding the tuck-away fifth wheel, hooking again, followed by a short run up Hwy. 427, followed by more hooking and splitting.

This was a fairly new set of gleaming Manacs, and frankly I expected there would be some technological changes in 15 years. But these were essentially the same as Eaton’s old corrugated wagons, except they are lighter and stronger, and the sliding bogies are stainless steel these days.

The configuration is almost exactly like the first prototypes developed by Hutchinson Industries of Toronto way back in the mid-70s. But before I make the case for the B-train as the symbol of Canadian unity, here’s a little about its genesis: Shippers and truckers have always liked the idea of running more than one trailer. If a Teamster could hook two wagons behind his animals it stands to reason he could almost double his revenue. Wagon “trains” of double wagons were not unusual on the Cariboo Wagon Trail in British Columbia back in the 1860s. And those early coupling systems may have been the precursors of the technology used on modern trailer trains.

As far as the claim that the modern B-train originated in Canada, let’s look at the history. The late Martin Phippard (historian, truck enthusiast and former assistant editor of sister publication Motortruck, who passed away recently in England) disputes the contention that the B-train was born here in an engaging article “B-Trains, Interlinks and B-Doubles” found on www.hankstruckpictures.ca (well worth the read).

Phippard claims the earliest example of a B-train was fabricated by Dan Keeney, a truck line owner in California, way back in 1947, who was the first visionary to install a fifth wheel on the back of a trailer. In Canada not much later, according to Doug McKenzie, “My dad was an owner/operator with Tank Truck Transport back in the 50s and he frequently mentioned that they had developed one for their use.”

Veteran trucking interloper and consultant Ken Hellawell recalls that Adam Ledig was driving a flat deck B-Train set for OK Transportation of Scarborough, Ont., back in 1961. “The front deck had a fifth wheel bolted on the back which was mounted on another piece of frame that fit inside the lead trailer’s frame.”

As Phippard notes, “It is a moot point as to whether a trucker engaged in hauling lumber from Ontario saw and copied the 1970s B-train configuration from a Michigan-based steel hauler, or whether it was the other way around.”

Personally I liken the phenomenon of monkeys on separate islands discovering hand tools about the same time. Something was in the zeitgeist in that era.

B-trains and C-trains (now obsolete), seemed to solve a weight problem as evidenced by several bad crashes in the GTA and Michigan in the early 70s. These major mishaps involved heavily-laden A-trains hauling fuel and lumber. A subsequent Michigan DoT study determined that weight was an important factor, and to this date Michigan has some of the stiffest axle-weight restrictions, which is why you need six axles for the same load that can be handled by four axles in Ontario. It also explains why Michigan is one of the few US states that is accepting of B-trains.

The Canadian connection takes us to a shop in Downsview, Ont in 1976, to a family-owned business founded by William J. Hutchinson in 1918. Imperial Oil engineers had approached a tank trailer manufacturer about designing a coupling system that would safely accommodate heavy loads; the detachable “A” train converter was too unstable. Right from the get-go, engineers at Hutchinson and Imperial Oil were looking at moving the maximum 63,500 kgs (140,000 lbs).

“Yes it was exciting,” says Ralph Hutchinson Jr., who was directing the project for Hutchinson Industries. “It was a fairly new concept. There had been smaller versions of B-trains in the States, but we had to start from scratch in dealing with weight issues like weight displacement, for instance. It was a steep learning curve.”

These days, Joe DeSimone is vice-president of sales at Tremcar (which acquired Hutchinson several years ago), but in 1976 he was a novice engineer who had just started with the family-owned company. He wasn’t directly involved in the B-train initiative, but he remembers the buzz around the activity, and the first attempts to fabricate a prototype.

“We were very instrumental in the development,” says DeSimone. “We did something unusual for those days – hired an outside engineering firm to do a stress analysis at the back of the lead trailer. That resulted in a very good base, and it allowed the development of the B-train. Along the way we refined the design, using less material but making it stronger, streamlined the components, made it more visually appealing, and brought the two trailers closer together.”

The B-train has always been a winning formula in Canada. By the early 80s a number of other trailer manufacturers had jumped into the market with their own B-train offerings. Among them was Manac, which today calls is itself the leader in B-train manufacturing in North America. In 1982 they built some of the first B-Trains for Labatt’s using the revolutionary hideaway fifth wheel. The trailers could be joined and loaded straight through or split at the transfer point without requiring cross docking. The vice-president of Sales at Manac, Tom Ramsden, estimates they sell about 500 sets yearly of “flats, dumps and vans,” the majority to Canadian customers.

“Typically a customer will want 60 feet of trailers overall, either 30/30 or 32/28,” says Ramsden. “We’ve changed some little things over the years on the frame, making it stronger and maintenance easier. But what hasn’t change is the slide-away boogie activated by a third glad hand, that’s pretty well unique to us.”

The B-train may have been discovered in California or Whitehorse or New Zealand prior to 1977, but Canadians have warmly embraced the design while the US has shown only lukewarm interest. Besides Michigan and Washington, and a few grain states in the Midwest, “Canadian-style” B-trains are rarely seen south of the border. Some states even prohibit their operation within their jurisdictions.

But in Canada, B-trains are well represented in every province and you can run coast-to-coast with a gross of 62,500 kgs and never have a weight problem at the scales. Fact is, B-trains are as Canadian as hockey, lacrosse, back bacon and maple syrup. And that’s the way we like it!

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  • I sure enjoyed your article on the, B-Train, Our Co. has three unit & use them to haul asphalt out of Billings Mt & Salt Lake Ut. to Boise Id, there getting a little old but still very servable, once a driver gets acquainted with them, you have a fight on your hands to get them away from them, enjoy your magazine…Don Rehberg…Boise Idaho

  • As a point of interest – this B-train that Ledig was driving was a converted A-train. It was converted by Mobile Tank Industries for Adam Ledig who was hauling as a Broker for OK Transportation. He was carrying loads for Canadian Tire from the Toronto area to SS Marie. He approached the President of Mobile Tank – Hugh Canning – to come up with a solution so he could haul steel loads back from SS Marie, as he couldn’t back up his unit to load his vehicle and was returning empty. Hugh says he didn’t copy anyone, he just came up with the idea back in 1961 which supports Harry Rudolfs thoughts on the subject. Hugh does remember discussing this unit with Ken Hellawell, assuring him it was legal.