Trucking on the Rock

by Katy de Vries

ST. JOHN’S, Nfld. – It’s not uncommon for a trucker to experience four-season weather changes during a single trip across Newfoundland and Labrador and, like the climate and terrain in this province, the problems truckers face can be just as unpredictable.

Dealing with those issues, many of them distinctly different than any faced by truckers in the rest of Canada, is a particularly challenging task for the Atlantic Provinces Trucking Association (APTA), which also faces the formidable job of addressing the issues facing truckers in the three other Atlantic provinces.

“We have a group of carriers that we represent in Newfoundland and Labrador. As an association manager, I appreciate the working relationship we have with the sister associations in that province because without having them to act as my eyes and ears, it can mean that we become a bit insulated from the issues that they encounter,” said Ralph Boyd, president of the Atlantic Provinces Trucking Association.

Newfoundland truckers have two associations – the Newfoundland and Labrador Carriers Association (NALCA) and the Newfoundland and Labrador Independent Truckers Association (NALITA).

“For the most part, carriers, companies and drivers are willing to work together on issues,” said Marvin Way, president of Way’s Transport of Corner Brook, Nfld. and also a NALCA board member. “But because we are so seasonal in this province, and we are all trying to compete for what little business is out here, it becomes a very competitive environment.”

Business is strong in the summer, thanks to the fisheries, but companies have to make those six months of revenue carry through for the next six.

Transport costs to and from the province, meanwhile, create a barrier that puts business at a competitive disadvantage, said Gord Peddle, NALCA president and head of D.D. Transport in Mount Pearl, Nfld.

“Your customers often expect that if they get a product moved from point A to point B in Ontario for $100, they can get the same service in Newfoundland. In actual fact it just costs a lot more to move a product in this province because we have to get it on and off of the island,” said Peddle.

Marine Atlantic, the year-round ferry service that connects North Sydney, N.S. to Port-aux-Basques, Nfld., has been working with the trucking industry to try to implement better service, said Peddle.

“We have a long way to go yet in terms of service and rates but they have committed to doing something for us,” Peddle said. “Marine Atlantic has more of an indirect impact on us than we all like to think about, because once our manufacturers are at a disadvantage in global competitiveness, that means less business for the trucking industry. So it really puts a stranglehold on us as an industry, and our economy here as well.”

With lean logistics practices calling for streamlined inventories, the focus here, as in the rest of Canada, is on using trucks as rolling warehouses. Many of the goods moved in and out of the province are time-sensitive, so a ferry delay could leave “a lot of panicking people waiting for groceries,” said Way.

Marine Atlantic also uses a rate structure that doesn’t make sense to truckers, said Jon Summers, president of NALITA.

“They charge in increments of 10 feet, so if a truck is 72 feet long, that driver pays for 80 feet and I figured out that the extra charges, depending on the number of trips per year, can equate to $5,000 each year,” said Summers.

Not to mention that when a long-haul trucker spends up to 36 hours waiting on the wharf to get onto the ferry, he loses a month out of the year in wait times, added Summers.

“Marine Atlantic has a captive audience with truckers,” said Summers. “If a driver doesn’t get on one ferry, they know he has to get on another to get across and they know that is guaranteed revenue for them so they generally pay more attention to the passenger cars and tourist traffic.”

Both associations meet with Marine Atlantic regularly to try to get all parties working in unison.

Infrastructure problems

Newfoundland and Labrador’s highway infrastructure also leaves a lot to be desired, and combined with the Marine Atlantic wait times it opens up another issue for truckers in the province: Newfoundland and Labrador lacks designated rest stops, which makes it difficult to comply with the HOS regulations, said Summers.

Irving Big Stops are only obliged to allow truckers to stay there for a few hours and the highway shoulders are not paved so there is nowhere to pull off the road.

“We will get a ticket if we park along the highway. We can get asked to move if we stay at the truck stops and if we move our rigs we are in violation of the regulations, so basically we need to know which law to break,” said Summers.

The NALITA has been working on finding out whether a driver can log off (HOS) while he is on the ferry because if he uses his ferry time as working time he may not be legally able to drive off the boat, said Summers.

Insurance blues

Although the entire country is dealing with insurance premium hikes, Newfoundland and Labrador-based carriers have added difficulties when it comes to finding coverage.

They have only one insurance underwriter that will provide quotes to the province, and they are charged a 15 per cent insurance tax on top of the premium. This is an out-of-pocket expense that no other trucking company outside of Newfoundland and Labrador has to pay.

Although NALCA has yet to receive a favourable response to its concerns from the insurance companies and the provincial government, the association remains hopeful ongoing conversations will bear fruit.

“Insurance has been gobbling up a lot of the small players and it’s sad because at the end of the day we need them,” said Way. “I’m considered a step above a small carrier, with about 300 pieces of equipment, but we are on a pendulum because we are dealing with all of the major issues in the province’s industry and we’re dealing with them from a small carrier’s perspective.”

Workman’s comp

Yet another distinct issue taunting companies in Newfoundland and Labrador is worker’s compensation rates.

“My number one cost is fuel, but behind that is workman’s comp,” said Way. “We are competing with the mainland companies and that puts us at a disadvantage when bidding on contracts. Mainland companies can bid cheaper on a local job than I can even though I am a local carrier.”

NALCA has hired a professional in the field to challenge a new worker’s compensation proposal called Prime and designed to reward companies that comply with occupational health and safety standards.

“In theory the Prime proposal may sound good,” said Peddle. “But, there apparently will be no caps in what the premiums and charges will be, so if a driver makes a simple mistake and there is an unavoidable accident within the company, then the company will be on the hook for the entire cost, which really defeats the purpose of insurance.”

The Prime proposal will be a deterrent to business because carriers will be required to raise rates to cover the worker’s compensation expenses, added Way.

One might be surprised to learn that despite all the issues they face, Newfoundland and Labrador truckers remain optimistic.

But they do, said Way, waxing poetic on the sheer variety of hauling available to them.

“We have a billion-dollar industry here with shrimp and crab and a booming oil and gas industry off the East Coast of the island. We have mineral deposits and forestry,” said Way.

Not to mention the fantastic scenery, he added.

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