Natural gas interest spreading to shunt trucks

by James Menzies

When it comes to shunt trucks, you don’t often get splashy new truck launches, complete with elaborate Formula 1-style curtain raisings. What you do get is continuous improvement of existing models.

Not a year goes by without some refinements to the functionality and comfort of today’s yard tractors, though the changes are often subtle, and are incorporated with little fanfare. Here’s a rundown of what shunt truck dealers are buzzing about this year.

Natural gas

The excitement about natural gas as an alternative to pricey and unpredictable diesel fuel has spread to the shunt truck applications – and why not? Yard tractors never stray far from home, and natural gas has become more widely available in both compressed and liquefied form.

Autocar, Capacity and Ottawa each have natural gas-powered shunt trucks available, and have seen increased interest in the alternative fuel. Capacity has about half a dozen CNG shunt trucks deployed in Canada, Autocar recently received its first order and Woodbine Truck Centre has customers in the process of running cost-benefit analyses involving natural gas-powered Ottawa tractors.

Michael Kirby, vice-president, sales and operations with Ontario Capacity dealer Altruck International, said customers with CNG shunt trucks have reduced their fuel spend by up to $35,000 per truck each year, running 16-18 hours a day. He said interest in natural gas is highest among private fleets.

George Cobham Jr. of Autocar dealer Glasvan Great Dane, said a large private fleet in Ontario has recently ordered its first CNG yard tractor. The company arranged with its natural gas supplier to install a filling station on-site, by adapting the existing gas line used to heat the facility. The obvious benefit of natural gas is the lower cost of the fuel, but private fleets and retailers are also looking to reduce their CO2 emissions. And then there’s the added benefit of eliminating troublesome emissions-related components – such as the diesel particulate filter and selective catalytic reduction systems – from on-road yard tractors.

“With a natural gas-powered truck, the fuel burns so clean, there’s no requirement for any of these emissions systems on the truck,” Cobham said. “You have what at least appears to be a more reliable engine.”

We’ve all heard the complaints about the reliability of the exhaust aftertreatment systems on Class highway 8 tractors; they appear to be even more pronounced on shunt trucks, which spend a lot of time at idle.

“The fact is, shunt trucks idle a lot,” Cobham said. “Even a busy shunt tractor can idle 20-30% of its run time and modern diesel engines were never designed to idle that much. All these aftertreatment systems were never designed for this much idling, and that can cause uptime issues.”

Selling and servicing natural gas-powered yard tractors brings some new challenges. Dealers are struggling to determine what the residual values will be at the conclusion of a five- or seven-year lease period and whoever is responsible for servicing the truck will have to train staff and retrofit maintenance facilities.

“We are still in the discussion stages with some customers,” said John Uppington of Ottawa dealer Woodbine Truck Centre. “We have made the commitment that if they move forward with it, we will have the mechanics that are licensed to do repairs and we will have the tooling and parts on-hand.”

Spec’ing a CNG or LNG shunt truck may require some compromises. Capacity requires a slightly longer wheelbase to accommodate the tank, while Autocar maintains its current 122-inch wheelbase at the expense of the curbside steps. All providers are relying on the Cummins ISL G engine, which comes with about 15% greater horsepower and torque than conventional diesels. Cobham said Autocar’s 30 DGE (diesel gallon equivalent) tank can be filled in seven to eight minutes and will provide 11-13 hours of operation.

“When you get to that 11 or 13 hours of run time, you will need to fill up again, so that can have an operational effect,” he said.

Beyond gas

A heightened interest in natural gas is among the most notable trends, but there have been other enhancements to shunt trucks as well.

Aidan S. Bolger, president of Tico of Canada, says his trucks are the first to be offered with an available driver-trainer seat.

“It’s a huge feature that people are asking for,” Bolger said. He has seen many makeshift training seats, and has even witnessed trainers giving instructions as they hang off the back of the cab. “From a liability perspective, this is huge,” he said.

Tico has also begun to galvanize more of its components, in an effort to extend tractor life. The company galvanizes the frame, deck and now, for the first time, even the rims. Bolger said it eliminates the need to sandblast and repaint the vehicle after several years’ use. Galvanizing the body has allowed Tico to extend the useful life of the vehicles from seven years out to 10, Bolger claimed, adding “We expect to take it out to maybe even further.”

Bright ideas

At Woodbine Truck Centre, LED lighting is becoming a common spec’ on Ottawa yard tractors. In addition to providing improved visibility at nighttime, Uppington also said the feature reduces service calls on its rental fleet.

“Because with our rental fleet we are doing all our service on-site, every time we have to change a headlight, we have a service call involved,” he said. “It’s one thing if the truck is on our own property, but if you have to send a truck out, it doesn’t take long to eat up the few hundred dollars in upfront costs.”

Uppington said the longer-lasting LED headlights and floodlights are proving to reduce costs over time compared to traditional incandescent bulbs.

High-tech cabs

Ottawa also has been updating its cab to provide mounting systems for the ever-widening array of yard management systems in use. Uppington said sophisticated fleets and distribution centres are increasingly relying on yard management computers and software. A yard tractor can be a harsh environment for on-board computers.

“We’re trying to make integration into the cab as simple as possible,” Uppington said, noting a well-designed installation system reduces the likelihood of damage and unintended shutdowns. Also new to Ottawa is the 72-inch SkyCab, which allows a six-foot driver to stand upright, making entry and egress easier.


Speaking of entry and egress, all the manufacturers have taken steps to improve operator ergonomics.

“The big trends we’re seeing are ergonomics,” said Altruck’s Kirby. “We’re proud to offer a Dura-Ride suspension and other safety measures have been put in place, including lower, wide steps.”

The importance of operator comfort should not be underestimated. Shut truck drivers tend to be entry-level drivers working towards an over-the-road career, or seasoned pros looking for more home time after decades on the road. In either instance, those drivers are invaluable and well worth retaining. Nobody can rate a shunt truck for comfort and ergonomics any better than a driver can, so involving them in your purchasing decision seems like a no-brainer.

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