Taking the Long Way Home

by James Menzies

CALGARY, Alta. – It’s 8:30 p.m. and the majority of Alberta’s office workers and nine-to-fivers have settled into their homes for the night.

The traffic volume begins to thin out and it’s clear sailing on the well-travelled Hwy. 2 between Calgary and Edmonton. It’s at this time of night that the big boys come out to play.

Wade Harder, a 12-year trucking veteran with Luke’s Cartage is pulling into the carrier’s Calgary yard with two 48-foot trailers in tow. Between them is a two-axle converter – a piece of equipment with a hitch at the front and a traditional fifth wheel at the back connecting the front trailer with the rear.

The total length of this combination is a staggering 38 metres (truck included) and if grossed out, it would weigh in at 62,500 kg. Harder quickly drops the rear trailer, and then the converter. As he prepares to drop the front trailer, another Luke’s driver pulls into the yard – right on cue. It’s a well orchestrated relay. As I jump into the cab with Harder to pick up two trailers at nearby refrigerated warehouse, Sysco, the other driver picks up the trailers Harder just delivered to Calgary and prepares to take them elsewhere. Harder has just completed his first of four runs between Red Deer and Calgary of the night, he tells me as he pulls into Sysco’s yard.

Hooking up to two 48-foot trailers (in Alberta the rear trailer can be up to 53-feet) is a four-step process that takes an experienced driver no more than about 15 minutes. First, Harder lines the converter up with the rear trailer.

Then, he hooks up to the front trailer and lines it up with the converter. A small trailer hitch on the back of the front trailer must be lined up with the converter and there’s no room for error like there is with a fifth wheel.

“Sometimes you get lucky and hit it right on, and sometimes you’re a bit off,” says Harder after seeing he’s off by about an inch.

He lines it up perfectly on his second attempt and secures the connection between the converter and the front trailer.

Finally, he backs the unit up, connecting to the rear trailer and after pre-tripping the trailers we’re set to go.

Due to a closure on Deerfoot Trail, we have to manoeuvre our way through more city streets than usual, but Harder handles it like an old pro, using every inch of roadway there is as he corners through intersections.

He’s been driving long combination vehicles (LCVs) for three years now, but he admits it took a while to adjust to having an extra 48-feet of trailer to deal with.

“It takes a lot of getting used to,” said Harder. “The trailers actually follow pretty close to each other.”

The configuration we’re hauling is called a “turnpike double” in Alberta. It’s the longest configuration allowed in Canada. Other provinces, including Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Quebec also allow the use of LCVs.

Other LCVs operating in Alberta are Rocky Mountain doubles and triple trailers. Not anyone can drive an LCV.

A driver must have a minimum of 150,000 kilometres under his or her belt, must complete a safety course and must have a clean driver’s abstract.

Also, LCVs can only be operated on select highways and only during off-peak traffic times and they must not exceed 100 km/h.

Alberta Transportation records show they’re the safest vehicles on the road – bar none.

And while the units obviously weigh more than your typical configuration, when you consider the fact there are fewer truck trips required and more axles underneath the unit, road damage is minimal.

As Harder works through the gears on the Eaton Fuller 18-speed transmission and gets the 500 horsepower Caterpillar engine up to speed, he says the biggest threat on the road is four-wheelers, many of whom don’t know how to drive around such a large truck configuration.

“Some of them don’t realize they’re as big as they are when they try to pass,” says Harder.

Surprisingly, despite the extra weight, Harder says LCVs have a far shorter stopping distance than single-trailer units – mainly because of the extra brakes and number of wheels on the pavement.

“If I had to stop in a hurry, I’d rather be pulling two trailers than one,” says Harder.

One of the biggest considerations when hauling two 48-footers is to ensure the heaviest trailer is at the front.

It’s easy en route to Red Deer, because one of our trailers is empty.

Otherwise, Harder says he’d weigh them at a nearby scale to ensure the lighter trailer is at the back. If he’s got it wrong, it doesn’t take long to figure it out.

“Your back box will really start wobbling and off-track (if it’s heavier),” said Harder.

As we near Red Deer, the traffic thins out even more and a large percentage of the vehicles on the road are LCVs, many hauling refrigerated goods much like we are. Harder talks about his love of trucking – instilled by his father who hauled crude oil for Gibson Petroleum.

That passion also rubbed off on each of his brothers who also find themselves working in the trucking industry. Although part of Harder would like to run linehaul for a while, just to see the country, he counts himself fortunate to be home with his young family every day.

He’s got a wife and two teenage daughters at his Innisfail home.

“It’s nice to be home when your daughters turn 13, because that’s when all the trouble starts,” he says with a grin.

Luke’s drivers are paid per kilometre while on the highway, and then hourly within the city.

It’s a good deal for Harder, because it ensures he’s getting paid even if a shipper is slow to load his trailer. Harder says it’s a good carrier to work for, which is the main reason he’s stayed with them for nine years.

“They’re a good bunch of guys and everyone gets along. That’s important nowadays,” he says. “Most of the office staff have been on the road as well, so they know what we go through out here.”

In fact, the fleet used to organize company camping trips, and while that doesn’t happen formally anymore, it’s a tradition a group of Luke’s drivers including Harder has continued on their own.

Harder can’t help but look forward to the upcoming weekend when he and a group of co-workers are heading to a cabin for some R&R.

“We still like to get together for a few beers and relax,” he says. It’s that camaraderie that makes for an enjoyable work environment.

We pull into Luke’s Red Deer yard and although it’s nearly midnight, it’s alive with activity. Shunters buzz around the yard like ants, moving trailers that look oddly large for the small shunt trucks pulling them.

The nighttime mechanic shows up with lunch box in hand for another long night of pulling wrenches on Luke’s large fleet of Freightliners and reefers.

He doesn’t have to come in until 4 a.m., but he grins as he explains he never gets any work done if he waits until then, because the drivers start arriving back at the terminal wanting him to check out this sound or that vibration.

“I get more work done between one and four because all you guys are on the road,” he quips to Harder.

Within 45 minutes, we’ve dropped the two trailers in Luke’s yard and hooked up to two more. One is full, the other half full and among other things we’re pulling pork, mushrooms and baking powder.

Harder pops into the terminal to refill his coffee cup and we’re back on Hwy. 2 heading southbound.

Even with a heavier load than on the way up, the 500 horses under the hood get the truck up to speed fairly quickly and it’s difficult to tell there are two trailers behind us.

The engine purrs away at 1,500 RPM in 18th gear. The only time the extra weight is noticeable is on hills, and there are few of those on this run.

We pass the miles with idle chit-chat.

I ask Harder what his favourite part of the job is.

“This right here,” he says with a nod out the window. The road stretches out ahead of us and as the sky begins to clear, a full moon peaks at us through the clouds.

What’s your least favourite part?

“Probably waiting around for my trailers to be loaded.”

What’s the most important consideration when pulling LCVs?

“You want to know where you’re going when you’re pulling thes
e things. You wouldn’t want to get lost in the city and have to turn around pulling one of these.”

On the way to Red Deer we noticed a high percentage of the vehicles on the road were LCVs. Harder says he sees more and more of them on Alberta highways all the time.

Just for fun, we decide to count the northbound LCVs between Red Deer and Calgary as we make our way back to the Calgary terminal.

Harder predicted we’d see at least 20, and he was right. We saw a total of 33 LCVs headed north on Hwy. 2.

That compares to 61 other transport trucks.

Nearly 30 per cent of the trucks on the road were LCVs, and that number is a bit skewed since we were also counting flatdecks and tankers.

It’s just after 2 a.m. as we pull into Calgary and Harders’ comment about preferring to have two trailers than one if he needed to stop quickly almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Ahead of us, a car drives through a red light into the intersection we’re approaching, directly into our path.

Then, like a docile raccoon, he sits there frozen in our headlights.

Harder calmly gets on the brakes and makes a quick downshift and the driver finally collects his wits and drives the rest of the way through the red light.

“If we were any closer, he might have got it,” says Harder, shaking his head. For Harder, it’s just another night behind the wheel of an LCV.

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