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On-Road Editor: All Aboard?

MONTREAL, Que. - I can watch those long trains taking the wide turn onto Hwy. 20 from my hotel room across the seaway from Montreal's Big "O" stadium. These are the "grands trains routier," known as t...

MONTREAL, Que. – I can watch those long trains taking the wide turn onto Hwy. 20 from my hotel room across the seaway from Montreal’s Big “O” stadium. These are the “grands trains routier,” known as turnpike doubles in the rest of Canada, pulled by Robert, Guilbault, Daily, Transnat/Boutin, Morneau or Thibodeau tractors, on their way to Quebec City, Riviere-du-Loup or Sherbrooke.

Long Combination Vehicles (LCVs) are nothing new to Canada. They’ve been operating in Alberta since 1969, and LCVs have been working by special permit in Quebec since 1985.

But turnpike doubles are a novelty for a boy from southern Ontario. I’ve always enjoyed driving B-trains, but that’s only 60-70 feet. These Quebec monsters are something else, stretching to 125 feet or more (about 38 meters – there’s no restriction on total length). That’s even longer than the triple combinations currently running in Alberta (up to 35 meters). Robert Transport is a leader in long train technology holding 50 of the 300 grand train permits issued in Quebec. And they make good use of those permits. Last year the family-owned trucking business made 3,761 train moves, and might eclipse that number again this year.

So it’s good to see Claude Robert’s personal 670 Volvo hooked up to a long train at the company’s headquarters in Boucherville. And it’s fitting that the company’s head office sits on the banks of the St. Lawrence River, which for many centuries was the main access route for transport into the rest of Canada.

Gilles Beaulieu, the company’s trainer/preventionist conducts the pre-trip inspection on Claude’s tractor and the coupled trailers. “A lot of companies want to run doubles into Ontario. But we want to be the first,” he tells me with pride.

The inspection covers four separate units, since the doubles are connected with a converter dolly which requires its own pre-trip. Beaulieu calls them “buggies.” Most of Robert’s 50 buggies are manufactured by Manac, but the most recent one was fabricated in the company’s own shops.

What’s unique about Robert’s converter dollies is that they’re equipped with a GPS receiver dish, about the size of a smoke alarm, and a recording plate that sits behind the fifth wheel. LCVs are restricted to 90 km/h in Quebec and provincial authorities want to know what speed a big train is travelling at all times. Rather than installing a tachometer (how passe), Robert has opted for satellite technology. If one of Robert’s trains is stopped at the scales, it can provide a digital record to the head office, which in turn, can fax that information to the inspection station almost instantaneously.

The CEO’s Volvo is outfitted with lots of high-tech gadgets: sensors, side-view cameras and a Telma braking system among other things. It’s comforting to know that Claude sometimes takes a turn behind the wheel himself, pulling a load to the Mississauga terminal when his schedule permits.

But Beaulieu tells me this is the first time this tractor has been hooked up to a long train. He takes me along on a short training run from the home terminal to Saint-Hyacinthe and back. Making the turnaround at the overpass, I can only stare out the side window in awe at how much length we’re pulling. It seems as though the last trailer is still exiting off one ramp while the tractor and lead unit are making the turn onto the next one.

All long train drivers in Quebec must have an “F” endorsement on their licence, although these are also available to drivers from out-of-province whose employers hold LCV permits. I’ve seen at least one Ontario carrier pulling double 53s in Quebec. Applicants must have five years experience and then pass a written examination.

“We start with premier drivers, so if they can drive this far and make the turns, I know they can drive,” says Beaulieu. New drivers have to remember to keep turns wide since the second trailer tracks slightly inside the radius of the lead 53′.

“You can’t back them up. Well maybe you can back them up about six feet, but that’s all.”

Hooking up is a more complicated procedure. First, hook to the tail trailer and pre-trip it, dropping it somewhere so you have room to link up with 120 feet of train. Then, pin to the lead unit and back up to the converter dolly, locking it into the trailer’s pintle hook. Finally, you have to maneuver dolly and lead trailer so they’re square with the tail before sliding the fifth wheel under the second trailer.

According to Beaulieu, this takes four hours the first time, while he meticulously guides a trainee through the process, explaining all the components. After that, the process should take about an hour each time.

“There are steps that have to be followed and they have to be done in the right order,” he says. “For about a month I’ll watch his times to make sure he’s not doing it too quickly. If you’re going too fast you might miss something.”

Since I don’t have an F endorsement, my only chance to drive is around Robert’s sprawling 80-acre lot in Boucherville. It’s like a little trucking village, with buildings, garages, cold storage, and other facilities dotted around its periphery, bisected by a railway line. From north to south the property stretches 1.8 km with stop signs and intersections.

Around the yard, the trailers pull straight and easy. Because of the excessive length, I lose sight of the last trailer in the mirrors while making turns. Other drivers give me lots of room, imagining that it is Claude, not me, driving his truck.

Robert’s train drivers are also paid a premium for the work they do: $0.08 cents per mile more for company drivers and 10% more for owner/operators. As well, drivers earn a substantial bonus for hooking up trains because of the extra steps involved.

One thing’s for sure, with the tandem converter in place, you’ve got lots of brakes on these trains. As long as the trailer payload doesn’t exceed 40,000 lbs, Quebec allows quad- or triple-axle 53s to be connected together using tandem-axle converters. Quebec’s long trains have a stellar safety record. In fact, if you look at the statistics from Alberta and Quebec, you might believe that the longer the truck you are driving, the safer the vehicle.

But the question remains, what would it take to bring turnpike doubles across the border in Ontario? Highway 401 and 417 would seem to be likely candidates to receive the first long trains since the infrastructure appears to be in place.

Doug Switzer, manager of government relations for the OTA, thinks it will take another election before an Ontario government will consider allowing LCVs to operate in the province.

“Politically it’s a very difficult decision for the government, (they’re) sensitive to the fact that Ms. Jones driving a Honda Civic already thinks that trucks are too big,” he says.

Sophie Tremblay, coordinator of technical and operational issues for the QTA, thinks many Quebec carriers would jump at the chance to run doubles in the Toronto-Montreal corridor. “The only thing we need is the political will from Ontario to let LCVs go through,” she says.

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1 Comment » for On-Road Editor: All Aboard?
  1. Harry Rudolfs says:

    that story is from 2007, and now they are as common as house flies on the 401…I have a feeling a lot of them are speeding though. They’re allowed to run out going down hill but on the flat sections they’re definitely doing better than 90kph…I’m going to take some readings in the next few weeks..

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