Better times ahead for intermodal

by Carroll McCormick

Better times appear to be in the offing for Quebec’s intermodal trucking industry, at least according to Rod Fabbro, president of Transport Harlyn.

“There is peace now,” said Fabbro.

“Things are now completely reversed, vis a vis labour strife. The strife maybe opened the eyes of company owners so they sat down and negotiated better rates.”

This despite the fact that 25 corporate drivers in Harlyn Express just signed a five-year contract with the Teamsters.

But O/Os won’t have any of it.

“The strike just left such a bitter taste with the O/Os that they don’t want anything to do with the unions,” Fabbro said.

Fabbro’s forecast of better times comes five years after simmering dissatisfaction over truckers’ working conditions blew up, resulting in a massive truck shutdown on Highway 20 near the Quebec-Ontario border, June 18 and 19.

In October 1999, upwards of 3000 trucks pulled over in province-wide demonstrations.

Three new unions had emerged and were jostling for power, O/O memberships and their moolah.

After angry demands were tabled before the government, the Forum on Trucking was established to address grievances.

In late 2000, unions launched a three-week intermodal strike in Montreal. Carriers filed lawsuits and the government passed a law forbidding interference with intermodal transport. The unions schemed to force mandatory membership by all Quebec O/Os, but a small group of gutsy O/Os sicked the law on them and won.

Things have been looking up ever since, and not only according to Fabbro.

An executive with another big Montreal carrier, who asked not to be identified – a common request these days – said, “There is no doubt that there is a better respect between the transport companies, the customers and the O/Os. Rates were so depressed over the years, that the movement that happened two to three years ago brought a better balance.”

Demand is reportedly exceeding the supply of trucks and drivers, although this has not meant an immediate raise in driver and O/O pay. Still, it doesn’t hurt drivers’ pocketbooks that shortages have companies competing to lure them in. One company has shortened the application procedure to reduce the chance of losing prospective drivers to the competition, and is planning in-house training to bring driving school graduates up to operating speed.

More worrisome though, are reports that fewer people are entering the workforce.

“There are definitely fewer interested in getting in this business than before. We used to tell sales people to go get the business and we will get the work done.

“Now I tell my sales people to take it easy until we get more drivers. There are not that many people new coming into this industry,” said the anonymous executive. “We have a very good package and [still] it is very hard to get new drivers.”

Meanwhile, back at the Port of Montreal and railway intermodal terminals, a backlog of containers has resulted in more work for trucking companies.

The port has been struggling all year with the containers – due both to increased traffic and ship schedule- fouling winter storms – and CN has had problems getting its hands on equipment and keeping its part of the intermodal chain taut.

Trucking companies have nimbly stepped in with promises of fast runs to Toronto and the United States.

“This [port congestion] is good for trucking. One customer said it might take eight days for a container to get to Toronto. Harlyn has more business than it can handle,” said Fabbro.

The unnamed executive said his company is also reaping the benefits of container backlog.

CN moved its intermodal operations to the huge Taschereau Yard last year and introduced Speed Gate, an automated biometrics (fingerprint-reading) system that has reduced the processing time at the gate to about three minutes from the six or seven minutes at the old Turcot Yard.

This is a good thing, but some suspect that the delays have simply been moved inside the yard.

Not surprisingly, there are truckers who have problems with Speed Gate, mainly because they do not bother reading the instructions CN handed out.

Drivers show up without current and accurate documentation, or stick the wrong thumb in the reader, says one CN insider.

Truckers in trouble belly up 15 deep at a help desk manned by only one or sometimes two poor souls, expecting some kind of full service that simply is not available, he said.

CPR has made some improvements of its own, and by about mid-June will have implemented a human-in-the-loop measure at its Lateen yard gates.

The new system is called GAIT (Gate Activity and Inspection Tracking).

“A person at the gate meets the truck, full or empty, takes the information from the driver; for example, the license plate and container numbers, and enters it into a hand-held unit.

“This information is fed into OASIS, an intermeddle handling program. A belt pack prints a receipt for the trucker to tell him where to drop off and pick up his container.

“This tells drivers and O/Os where to put things and where they are heading.

“GAIT could reduce waiting time from five minutes to two minutes,” said CPR public affairs officer Michel Spenard.

There is more of everything: more Internet tracking of cargo, more transparency, more professionalism, more pressure to get containers out of railheads to avoid storage fees, more security, higher insurance…

The bottom line is, truckers today are singing quite a different tune from the one-CB channel blues they were singing not so long ago.

Have your say

This is a moderated forum. Comments will no longer be published unless they are accompanied by a first and last name and a verifiable email address. (Today's Trucking will not publish or share the email address.) Profane language and content deemed to be libelous, racist, or threatening in nature will not be published under any circumstances.