On-road Editor: ‘Dancing With the 53’

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TORONTO, Ont. – In the States they’re called yard mules, yard dogs, goats, hostlers, shifters or switches. But in Canada they’re simply known as shunts or shunt trucks. And some localities like Halifax still refer to them as Brutes, although Levy Auto Parts of Weston, Ont. only made about 230 all-Canadian vehicles, and the last Brute was rolled out the doors in 1989.

The first Ottawa yard tractor was built in Kansas in 1959, but it was the early ’90s before the trucks really caught on with transport fleets and shippers. Before that time companies would usually give the yard man an old city truck to move trailers, while a few experimented with remote-operated jaws and a hydraulic fifth wheel mounted on a platform above the frame of the tractor.

Today there are only two manufacturers of shunt trucks in North America: Kalmar which makes Ottawa trucks in Ottawa, Kansas, and Capacity which builds the Trailer Jockey brand in Longview, Texas. From the ground up, these units bear little resemblance to the conventional highway tractor.

Shunts are short wheelbase tractors with no rear suspension and a hydraulic fifth wheel boom. The frame is wide enough to accommodate the elevating device so it can lay flush with the top of the frame (42.5″ as compared to 33-34″ on a regular tractor). The cab is a single-seater offering great visibility – almost 360 degrees.

Shunters are designed to provide easy accessibility to the back platform and either side of a trailer. The units are subject to tough operating conditions, five to six moves an hour, with lots of starts and stops and severe-duty cycles, many of them working seven days a week, 24 hours a day.

At Woodbine Truck Centre, John Uppington shows me a line-up of Ottawa shunt trucks equipped with ’02 engines.

“These are spares for our rental fleet,” he says. But he explains that the next generation of engines will have to conform to tougher emission standards. Their mufflers will contain catalysts, diesel particulate filters and sensors to measure exhaust gas temperatures. As a result, he says, Kalmar’s newest trucks will come equipped with a half-inch plate steel shield to protect the stack and its expensive components.

Fleets and companies considering the purchase or lease of a shunt truck have to wrestle with whether or not to make it “street legal.” Industrial engines are much cheaper but most buyers choose plated units. About 80% of shunt trucks may never leave the yard, but a simple procedure like fueling outside the plant requires road-certified vehicles.

“We have Cat and Cummins engines available for off-road applications, but we only have Cummins available for on-highway use, which is a mid-range engine certified to work in our vehicle, anywhere from 155 to 240 hp,” says Uppington. “These engines don’t need big horsepower because they’re going slowly.”

Fans of shunt trucks have divided loyalties when it comes to brands. Both makes are about equal in ability and price, and both provide a variety of options including backing lights and beacons. With every Ottawa sale, Uppington includes Kalmar’s lock-out system that prevents accidental trailer drops while the vehicle is in motion.

George Cobham Jr. of Glasvan Great Dane in Mississauga (the Ontario dealer for Capacity shunt trucks) is enthusiastic about Capacity’s DuraRide system, a $2,500 option.

“Shunt trucks work in a lot of yards with rough terrain,” he says. “The beauty of the DuraRide air suspension is that it does not compromise the stability of the truck or trailer when the boom is lifted.”

According to Cobham, it’s not unusual for a shunt truck to exceed 25,000 hours. “But a lot of high usage operations will turn trucks over every 13,000-15,000 hours, that’s about 4-6 years,” he says.

“When I watch a good shunt driver it’s a beautiful thing,” says Uppington. “With so many trucks working in a confined space, you wonder how they manage to coordinate all those moves. Some drivers coming off the highway are just useless by comparison.”

You either love the job or loathe it. Shunt drivers have to be able to stay calm under pressure and spot trailers within inches. It helps to have a good memory and be able to remember where you saw a particular trailer. And the craft requires precision and quickness, adaptability and good problem-solving skills.

Some drivers make a career out of shunting. And some don’t even bother to renew their A/Z or Class 1 licence, since their job never takes them out of the yard.

Yvonne Hansel-Cockburn has been shunting for about 10 years of her 21-year career as a truck driver for Purolator Courier.

“For me, shunt driving is the path of least resistance. I don’t have to worry about logbooks, scales or schedules. All I have to do is show up and move trailers when they ask me,” she says.

Yvonne tells me this is easy work but I don’t believe her. As a junior driver I’ve done my share at the Hub. The facility’s 12 shunt drivers handle 112 doors and about 200 loads that arrive in a four- to six-hour period.

Many of those trailers have to be moved between the bulk docks to the unload doors more than once. The scene grows increasingly frenetic as the 10 p.m. clear time approaches: dropped trailers and waiting loads serve as an obstacle course while the shunts scream across the yard filling and popping dock doors.

Courier operations are dependent on good switching services because of tight window times and air cargo schedules. But transport companies, and the automotive sector, with its Just-in-Time mentality, are equally reliant on shunt trucks to keep the freight moving. Electronics, food warehouses and commodities shippers increasingly see a need for yard tractors – an empty door means lost productivity and missed appointments.

No one is more aware of this fact than Ray Stewart, president of National Shunting Service Ltd. of Cobourg, Ont., whose company offers complete shunting packages, including yard trucks and drivers, to Canadian shippers and distributors.

“With everything being so time-sensitive, shunting has become such a key part of the supply chain. We integrate ourselves with the staff in the office,” says Stewart. “Instead of a driver sitting and waiting for calls, our lead hand driver would be the company representative at the site. They can identify a client’s needs, whether it needs heat or three axles and what kind of carrier is required. We also supply a customer with a yard maintenance program, monitoring the flow of trailers and we place them strategically so they can be quickly loaded.”

Michael MacLellan is one of NSS’s top shunters. His main assignment is with a busy pallet manufacturer in Cobourg where he does about 60-70 moves in eight to 12 hours, but he also helps out at other accounts in Brampton and Mississauga.

“The yard I work in is designed to hold 40 trailers and I’ve regularly got about 50 to deal with,” he says. “I call it dancing with the 53. That means I use every inch of space available in the yard, spotting them really tight.”

MacLellan says he’s sometimes required to make up waybills when the shippers are busy loading trucks.

“I’m there to ‘wow’ the company and it pays off. The company doesn’t have to worry about anything and I get invited to all the barbecues and Christmas parties.”

Most importantly, MacLellan enjoys the challenges of shunting and the satisfaction he gets from the job.

“I’m there to help the company thrive. It’s a whole different type of trucking,” he says. “When I leave for the night and look in my rear view mirror, I know everything is set up right and ready to go.”

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