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Sixty-foot trailers: The Ontario experience so far

By now, most everyone in the trucking industry – not just in Ontario but certainly across Canada and perhaps in the US, too – knows that Walmart Canada recently announced it was seeking a permit from the Ontario Ministry of...


By now, most everyone in the trucking industry – not just in Ontario but certainly across Canada and perhaps in the US, too – knows that Walmart Canada recently announced it was seeking a permit from the Ontario Ministry of Transportation to conduct a one-year trial of a “supercube” tractor-trailer unit that includes a semi-trailer of 60.5-ft. in length – 7.5 feet longer than the current North American semi-trailer standard of 53 feet.

By now you have all seen the pictures. While today the issue is limited to Ontario, there is little doubt that the proponents of this new configuration would like to see it introduced across Canada and who knows where else? No other jurisdiction allows semi-trailers (except for special non-divisible loads) of the length proposed by Walmart although a few jurisdictions like Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma come close.

Perhaps, therefore, the experience in Ontario and how the Ontario Trucking Association approached the issue will be of interest to those from elsewhere.

The first thing to understand is that the proposal to allow the longer trailers is not something the trucking industry was asking for. The industry has grown comfortable with standardization at 53-ft. trailers (and has invested billions of dollars in the 53-ft. fleet). The controlled expansion of Canada’s long combination vehicle (LCV) network in recent years has provided a significant productivity boost.

Not surprisingly then, the idea of a 60.5-ft. trailer does not enjoy anywhere near the level of support from the trucking industry that the move to 53-ft. trailers or the controlled used of LCVs did.

This proposal was clearly thrust upon the industry and many did not and do not welcome it. Most have enough other things on their plates to worry about without having to come up with the capital to re-equip their fleets, even if it is just Ontario for now, or how in the heck their drivers are going to be able to get these things in or out of so many shipping docks. And if things go wrong, it will be the trucking industry, not the shippers, who will wear it.

If OTA were simply to have posed the simple “yes” or “no” question to its members: Do you want 60.5-ft. semi-trailers in Ontario?, the majority would most assuredly have said “no.” Of that there is little doubt. However, there are always other considerations.

This is not a simple “yes” or “no” matter. Strident opposition can simply take you out of the debate, especially where decisions and undertakings have already been made on an issue. There is also the question: What is the right thing to do?

Over the past number of years, there has been a flight of business – particularly in the manufacturing sector – from the province. Ontario is competing with every other jurisdiction in the world for direct investment. A productive and efficient goods movement sector is a magnet for investment. And, the more direct investment, the more economic activity and the more business for truckers.

Consequently, the association’s long-standing position is that it will not stand in the way of changes to Ontario’s truck weights and dimensions standards that would enhance the productivity of the industry, its customers or the provincial economy at large – so long as the proposed vehicles maintain or enhance highway/road safety; meet or exceed provincial dynamic performance standards; produce environmental benefits such as reduced GHG emissions; and allow for a sufficient return on investment. In addition, OTA has also long held that only carriers with acceptable safety records – those who are prepared to ensure the safety of their fleets and their drivers – should have access to such special permits.

There can be no doubt that for certain freight and certain operations, the proposed extended length trailer does support productivity enhancement.

Right now, the allowable design is restricted to the designated drop-deck trailer, so in the scheme of things the overall productivity gain may be less than some anticipate. Nevertheless, for OTA the issue becomes one of: a) that the proposed vehicles hold up to scrutiny under the accepted dynamic performance criteria; b) that they will be operated safely where they are to be used by properly qualified carriers and drivers; and c) that there is a properly monitored, controlled and managed process of introduction and eventually rolling-out of the 60.5-ft. trailers over time. Basically, what is needed is something that is directionally consistent with the pilot and rollout of LCVs.

The initial proposal fell well short, in our opinion. For starters, OTA strenuously objected to the clauses in the proposed Memorandum of Understanding between the Ministry of Transportation and Walmart, which clearly stated the permits would be held by the shipper. There can only be real control and oversight of – and adherence to – the permit conditions if the permit is held by the entity in care and control of the vehicle – ie., the carrier. This was non-negotiable for OTA.

OTA also felt that the proposed permit conditions themselves were too weak and again should directionally be similar to those established for the Ontario LCV program. In other words, they should mandate a meaningful level of carrier qualification (certainly more than what was being proposed – ie., that the carrier only had to have a satisfactory safety rating).

OTA also felt there needed to be driver qualifications (there were none in the original proposal), especially given the swing-out characteristics of the proposed trailer and the fact a shorter tractor – the tractor in the Walmart proposal actually built from a glider kit, but presumably a cabover or a day cab would also work – would be needed to fit within the current envelope. And, OTA felt (at least during the trial) the permits needed to prescribe specific origins and destinations.

Furthermore – from both a safety perspective and in consideration of the fact that the industry is already heavily invested in 53-ft. trailers – the MTO should adhere to a multi-year gradual phase-in of the number of operators and permits available, again along the lines of the LCV program.

The Walmart semi-trailer would appear to mainly have application as a specialized trailer for dedicated runs, but if other designs are allowed, the floodgates could be opened and the consequences could be enormous. OTA argued the ground rules needed to be set before heading any further down the road.

In the end, a workable and credible compromise was found. No doubt you will, or have already, read the details of the revised permit conditions, of the limited nature of the trial itself and the commitment to a gradual, measured phase-in if the limited trial is successful.

OTA’s key concerns were addressed: the permits will – as they should – be held by the carriers. This leaves the business decision of whether to invest in and use the extended length trailers in the carriers’ hands.

The qualifications for the carriers and the drivers were upgraded so not just any operator will qualify to be in the program and during the trial, at least, the permits will prescribe specific origins and destinations.


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