Having been a professional truck driver and trainer for more than 30 years, I find that you never, ever know it all. There are always new things to learn. My primary goal with this blog is to help other drivers (especially newer ones) with pertinent information and tips to enable them to work happier and more safely.
After spending plenty of money on investment in the last 10-plus years, the nation's class 1 railroads are basically standing still.
That was the sobering view presented by John Schmitter, a former railroad executive who now heads his own consultancy, KEP LLC. Addressing the 2018 FTR Transportation Conference in Indiana, his subject's title--"How Technology will Change Rail Economics"--reviewed how technology has made those changes, and yet has provided little shift in overall network velocity and essentially no increase in capacity since 2005.
All of that came to a head last year, Schmitter noted, with the rapid deterioration of rail service, a downward shift severe enough to have the Surface Transportation Board put the class 1 railroads under review.
With the failure to invest in more capacity, Schmitter said, "there's not much system resiliency or flexibility on most railroads. Rapid unexpected volume increases have and will result in congestion and service deterioration that can last months." And that's what happened in 2017, running into 2018.
If there's a culprit in all this, Schmitter said, it's the investment community. "If the railroads invested in too much capacity, Wall Street would kill them," Schmitter said. The lack of resiliency in the system, Schmitter said, "is a management a decision."
"A few railroads invested more than half their operating cash flow back into the systems," according to Schmitter, "but if it gets out of line and Wall Street finds they overinvested in capacity, they'll find some new management."
And when spending is undertaken to make needed fixes, it's too late. "The investments that are being made now are being done to handle the volume that showed up in 2017," he said.
Citing the weather for the 2017-2018 is misplaced, Schmitter said. "The reason was rapid unexpected increases in volumes, because the system by design is capacity constrained."
Schmitter asked the meeting's attendees in the room how many of them were rail customers, and how many had suffered disruptions during the recent disturbance. Of the hands that went up the first time, most of them stayed up when the second question was asked. But when Schmitter asked how many had changed carriers or moved that business over to trucks, virtually all hands went down. "So there's no penalty," Schmitter said.
Schmitter noted that the class 1 railroad competitive market basically boiled down to--though he did not mention the companies by name--BNSF vs. Union Pacific (NYSE: UNP) in the West, CSX (NYSE: CSX) vs. Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC) in the east, with Canadian Pacific (NYSE: CP) and Canadian National (NYSE: CNI) in Canada with their systems extending into the U.S. (He did not mention Kansas City Southern (NYSE: KSC), but they view themselves as the "NAFTA railroad" into Mexico.) With that minimal level of rail competition, most locations have only one option on the rails, with a duopoly at best. Asked if that situation inspires companies to innovate, Schmitter said he questioned "that it's any one's goal to be better than the other guy. It's not really a competitive marketplace like you would experience in trucking."
The lack of capacity is stopping railroads from aggressively grabbing freight from a driver- and capacity-squeezed trucking market. "They haven't been able to take advantage of all the problems with trucking, and technology is not going to make it happen," Schmitter said. "This is a management issue, a strategic issue and a cultural issue." The goal, he said, needs to change company operations to ensure that "the shipments will be there when they are promised."
The reduction in capacity combined with the rise in demand for that capacity means that on multiple occasions in recent years, traffic on the rails has approached capacity. "Capacity on class 1 railroads is now closely matched to projected volume," Schmitter said. Echoing what he heard a rail CEO say about the capacity crunch, Schmitter exclaimed: "It's five minutes to midnight."
The lack of significant progress since 2005 is in stark contrast to the gains made between 1980 and that year. The start of that stretch, in 1980, is significant because it marks the year of the Staggers Act, which deregulated the U.S. rail industry. Not all of the gains in efficiency were because of technology, Schmitter said; some of it was just simply the abandonment of unnecessary capacity. But during that 25-year stretch, the productivity of employees and the network rose significantly, with volume up 84% while capacity has had no significant increase. The average freight per train is up 63%, according to Schmitter.
But now, Schmitter was mostly pessimistic: "I think things will get more efficient and safer, and there will be a good impact on the (operating ratio). But I don't see technology providing more capacity or to do much more for service."
Oct. 22, 2018 A federal court in Arkansas ruled that drivers are entitled to earn minimum wage for all hours worked – even during waiting periods officially entered as "off duty" in log books – in a case that could eventually have national implications.
According to various news sources, including Business Insider, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas, Fayetteville division, on Oct. 19 ruled again Tontitown, Arkansas-based PAM Transport, in a class action suit for alleged violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act.
The court denied PAM's motions to dismiss the claims of the three truck drivers who sued PAM in 2016 and the nearly 3,000 drivers who joined the class action suit. The decision means, in essence, that the court has decided that the time a driver spends waiting in his truck in the sleeper birth still constitutes work — even though the driver may log that time as "off-duty."
According to Justin Swindler, the attorney representing the drivers in the class action suit, the Arkansas decision suggests that drivers are entitled to minimum wage for 16 hours per workday — every hour spent in the truck save for eight hours of sleep time. Because the carrier has hired the employee with the knowledge that part of their job duties are waiting, the Supreme Court has argued that those employees should be paid even though they are not actively carrying out a work task.
As District Court Judge Timothy Brooks wrote in his Oct. 19 memorandum on the PAM case:
There is no ambiguity here, then, as to whether an employer must count as hours worked the time that an employee spends riding in a commercial truck while neither sleeping nor eating: time thus spent "is working" and "any work" performed "while traveling must... be counted as hours worked."
The judge also said that the DOT hours of service regulations "have little, if any, bearing on the matter at hand."
"It's worth noting the case only stands for the proposition that carriers must pay their drivers $7.25 per hour," Swidler told Business Insider. "Under the FLSA, hourly wages are considered over the course of a whole workweek. This means that while carriers nationwide should understand their minimum wage exposure, companies which pay reasonable wages to their drivers have no reason for concern."
The payout for this case hasn't been determined yet, Swidler added. In 2015, PAM paid truckers $3.45 million in a similar settlement concerning a class action suit by employees who alleged PAM didn't pay them minimum wage.
The Arkansas decision echoes other recent lawsuits around the country that have found in favor of drivers. Last year, a Nebraska court decided that Werner Enterprises must pay $780,000 to 52,000 student truck drivers for alleged pay practice violations. Another major carrier, C.R. England, paid $2.35 million in back wages to more than 6,000 drivers in 2016.
Citizens living off of these backroad highways have been noticing the traffic increase and are urging officials to do more than just post “no through trucks signs.”
Oct 18, 2018 The recent 35% increase in truck only tolls on roadways in Indiana has led to some unintended consequences – truckers are now avoiding the toll roads altogether and are instead using back roads not meant for large commercial vehicles.
The toll increase went into effect on October 5th of this year as part of a $1 billion infrastructure plan by Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb, who claims that the 35% truck-only toll increase is fair because of the damage large trucks do to roadways, despite the fact that much of the money raised by the tolls will be used for improving the state’s railroads, airports, ship ports, walking and biking trails, and even broadband internet – none of which have to do with the roadways truckers are now paying heavily to use.
Now that the increase has been in effect for several weeks, state officials who previously ignored naysayers who advised that the toll hike would deter truckers entirely are noticing a decrease in toll road users and an increase in commercial truck’s usage of back roads such as US Highway 30, US Highway 6, and US Highway 331, reported ABC 57.
“I think that with the regular increases that we’ve had here and then seeing a 35 percent increase again I think you’ll find a lot of traffic is going to leave those [toll] lanes,” explained Chief Strategy Officer of Holver Lines, Carl Svendsen.
“They may make the decision to go on a different highway and that highway may not be designed to handle truck traffic in significant volumes,” he continued – and that’s exactly what is happening.
Citizens living off of these backroad highways have been noticing the traffic increase and are urging officials to do more than just post “no through trucks signs.”
“This is a main through fair for the shortcut from Bremen down to US30 so everybody takes this versus 331 a lot to save them several miles,” said Patrick Walters, who has been living on Fir Road off of US 30 for 25 years.
“[No through trucks] is posted on both ends of Fir Road that we don’t allow trucks, but they’re still using them [the road],” Walters said.
“Have them [police] start issuing tickets to people that are speeding, also the truck traffic,” he suggested.
Because of all this, the state will vote on an ordinance that may allow for clearer enforcement regarding the use of county roads in November but until then, trucking companies warn that drivers will likely continue to avoid the toll roads and that the cost of shipping goods through Indiana may spike if drivers and their companies are forced into paying tolls.
Oct 16, 2018 On Oct. 3, the US Supreme Court heard oral arguments in New Prime v. Oliveira, No. 17-340.
New Prime, Inc. is a national trucking company that recruits and trains new drivers through an apprenticeship program. Student apprentices participating in this program are unpaid, except during one phase of the program when they receive 14 cents per mile driven. New Prime waives the tuition of student apprentices who agree to work for New Prime for one year after completing the program.
After Dominic Oliveira successfully completed the apprenticeship program, New Prime encouraged him to become an independent contractor and referred him to other entities with offices in the same building and owned by the same company as New Prime to help him form a limited liability company and to secure a truck. Oliveira then signed an Independent Contractor Agreement with New Prime. The contract specified that there was no employer-employee relationship between Oliveira and New Prime, and that Oliveira was an independent contractor. The contract also contained an arbitration clause.
Oliveira alleges New Prime underpaid him and exercised such control over him that he was unable to work for other companies. He stopped driving for New Prime as an independent contractor. He did, however, later rejoin New Prime as a company driver. Dissatisfied with the pay as a company driver as well, Oliveira sued New Prime in the US District Court for the District of Massachusetts in a putative class action proceeding. Oliveira alleged that New Prime had failed to pay minimum wages under the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Missouri minimum wage statute. He also claimed breach of contract or unjust enrichment. New Prime insisted that Oliveira arbitrate his claim.
Oliveira has mostly prevailed with his claims in the lower courts. When oral arguments were heard by the Supreme Court, only eight justices were sitting, and since Oliveira prevailed in the lower court, he only needs four votes to tip the scales of justice in his favor.
If the Supreme Court rules in Oliveira’s favor, trucking companies might have more difficulty labeling drivers as independent contractors. Companies might also be prohibited from requiring independent contractors to settle issues via arbitration. Those drivers could sue in court, and the cases could even involve class actions.
Aug 22, 2018 The plate in question is the mustard yellow one seen above. It looks nothing like the other license plates of Ohio, and that’s because it’s only available to a particular type of criminal offender. Introduced back in 1967, Ohio’s OVI (Operating a Vehicle Impaired) plates were designed as a scarlet letter for those convicted of OVI offenses.
Though they create a way to identify offenders in everyday traffic, use of the plates remained fairly limited for decades. Plates were assigned individually, and only at the discretion of a judge. The state of Ohio took notice, deciding it wanted to see expanded use of the special plates, and on January 1st, 2014, it altered the OVI legislation. Plates became mandatory for OVI offenders on their second occurrence, and also in instances where an offender’s BAC was over two times the legal driving limit.
After the OVI conviction, a driver can apply for a restricted driver’s license that requires use of the yellow OVI plate, commonly called “party plates,” within the state. The standard time requirement for carrying the plates is six months to a year. Ohio is unique in this special plate usage. While two other states (Georgia and Minnesota) can add an additional letter to an OVI offender’s plate, Ohio is the only one with an entirely different OVI plate design.
Those in favor of the special plate argue the pressure and embarrassment achieved by its usage is a good deterrent for OVI offenders, who are very inclined to become repeat offenders. The plates identify drivers who need to be watched in traffic by other motorists and police.
Those against the plate argue they unfairly shame offenders for past crimes, make them a target for police on the road, and an outcast in the employee parking lot. The plate punishes repeat offenders the same as severe first-time offenders. There’s also some collateral damage, in the shaming of passengers in a car wearing OVI plates.
As mentioned, Ohio is out there on their own on this one — no other states have followed Ohio’s example in over 50 years. As a resident of Ohio, I’ve seen these plates in use on many occasions. They’re pretty noticeable. Are these special OVI plates something other states would do well to mimic, or is Ohio off the rails on this one?
Aug 16, 2018 Finn Murphy has been around trucking and the moving van business since he was a teenager in Greenwich, Connecticut, in the 1970s. As soon as he was able, he was behind the wheel of a tractor-trailer relocating families all across the United States. He’s seen a lot of changes in his three decades behind the wheel. And a few years back, he decided to write a book about his experiences.
The Long Haul is the result of that decision, a gritty look at trucking and “bed bugging” that earned positive reviews from the New York Times and USA Today, among other publications. The book is partly a nostalgic memoir, partly a honest look at the hard lives truckers lead, and partly a commentary on a society and economy that either marginalize or ostracize the men and women that literally keep America rolling.
HDT recently caught up with Murphy in between trips to talk about his book, technology, and the state of trucking in the modern age.
HDT: What made you decide to write a book about your experiences as a trucker?
Murphy: It all started back in the 1980s. I carried this little cassette tape recorder around with me, and I started relaying interesting things that happened to me during the day as a kind of stress reliever. And then I started talking into it while I was driving. And eventually I was recording my interactions with shippers and my helpers. And one winter, I took a break and had all of these recordings transcribed. And I ended up with about 700 pages of stuff. And I started looking through it and realized I had a lot of good material for a book about life on the road. So I started writing.
HDT: When it was done and time to shop it around, was there interest in a mainstream book on trucking?
Murphy: I got an agent, and initially, he wasn’t interested. But after a lot of back and forth, I finally convinced him to shop it around. He pitched it to six different publishers – and they all wanted it! So that was nice. We finally went with Norton in New York. They put their top editor on the manuscript. Plus, they paid me in advance and set me up on a book tour. So it was nice.
HDT: What’s a book tour for a trucking book like?
Murphy: It was actually two book tours. We did the first one like you’d expect: Flying around the country, doing radio interviews and signing books. But then I had an idea: We covered my trailer with a vinyl wrap of my book cover and I went on a driving tour across the country for three months promoting the book in the usual way and at truck stops. And that was great because I got to talk to a lot of different people – but also more truck drivers.
HDT: After 30-plus years in this industry, what are your thoughts on where trucking has come from, and where it is today?
Murphy: Ah, man – that’s a huge question that we could talk about all day! But, the first thing I’d say is that trucking used to be a middle-class profession. That was the case when I started in 1980. And the industry was generally populated by men from the South and the Midwest who either grew up in towns with manufacturing jobs that didn’t pay very well, or on farms. In many cases, they grew up in trucking families. But they knew they didn’t want to work on a farm or in a factory and they saw trucking as a good way to support their families.
That’s one part of it. Then, things kind of get mythologized a bit. You had a two-tier industry in those days – regulated freight haulers, and unregulated ag haulers. And most of the ag haulers were owner-operators. So this trucking culture grew up based on those guys and the wildcat drivers in the 1940s and 1950s. They created this “Cowboy” myth of the American trucker. They hit the road, made decent money, supported their families and got to see the country.
Today, the average age of a long-haul driver is 55 years old. Very few young people want into trucking. To them, it just looks like a bad job. And the problem is, they’re right. Most truckers today make between $36,000 and $42,000 a year. Which is nothing. Moreover, most of them get paid by the mile. So they’re not getting paid waiting around truck stops for a load, waiting around a loading dock for freight, or when they’re sitting in traffic. All told, you’ve got drivers today who really work something like 3,000 to 4,000 hours a year. And when you break it down, that’s not even $15 an hour.
HDT: You’ve driven a lot of trucks in your career. What do you drive these days?
Murphy: I’m driving a new, 2018 Freightliner Cascadia Evolution with a 436-cubic-inch Detroit under the hood. I’ve got a double-loft sleeper, ‘fridge, microwave oven, Bluetooth – lots of little tweaks to make my life as comfortable as possible while I’m out. The Cascadia is a nice workhorse of a truck. If you’re a driver in business for yourself, it’s a great truck. Other companies build great trucks – they all do. But I’m not interested in paying for chrome and lights and things like that. I run household goods. So I’m usually running about 70,000 lbs. So I’m not super heavy. I do a lot of mountain driving, and that Detroit will take me right up those steep mountain grades at 55 mph without any trouble. I don’t speed. I don’t get paid by the mile, so I don’t need to. I haven’t had a ticket in 30 years.
HDT: What about fuel economy and safety features?
Murphy: I buy my own fuel. So fuel economy is important to me. My last truck got about 5.5 mpg. This Cascadia gets 7.7 mpg. So that’s a nice break. And I like all the safety features on the truck. Drivers don’t talk much about safety. But to tell the truth, I get scared out there a lot between sudden rainstorms, mountain grades, other cars and so forth. When I was on my book tour, I met this retired Walmart driver. He had 5 million accident-free miles. I asked him how he accomplished that. He said he always went slow and tried to anticipate what was going to happen around him, and what could go wrong if it did. I think that’s good advice for any driver.
HDT: What do you think about all the technology that’s coming into trucking now?
Murphy: I was talking to the safety director at the company I’m contracted to now, and he said that when the first GPS navigation systems came along, his drivers got lost three times more often than they did using a road atlas. And they got into more trouble too, going down one-way streets or getting caught in low overpasses – because they weren’t internalizing routes or really even paying attention. They were just following instructions. So technology can cut both ways, if you’re not careful. For me, those systems are incredibly valuable, because I go to private residences, and not just terminal to terminal.
HDT: What about autonomous vehicles – self-driving trucks?
Murphy: I talk to guys all the time who tell me it’ll never happen – or it’s 20 years down the way, or something. But I see Apple, Tesla, GM, Ford, Toyota and all these other companies spending billions of dollars and racing each other to be first with autonomous technology – there’s no it’s not going to happen. People don’t know it, but they’ve logged more than 22 million road miles on Class 8 trucks under autonomous control in this country already. So I think it’s imminent. I think we’ll start seeing the first models in under three years. I mean, we have 41,000 people killed in road accidents every year. And doesn’t include injuries and property damage. I think my grandkids will look back on us in amazement that we were allowed to drive automobiles and trucks. They will probably live in a world where it’s illegal to drive an automobile because they’re so dangerous. They’ll look at driving a car the way we look at driving a horse and buggy, or something.
HDT: What about electric trucks?
Murphy: I thought the Tesla Semi launch was pretty amusing. [Elon] Musk said he was directing that truck at owner-operators. And that’s hilarious: First, off they aren’t any owner-operators left. And among those that are still out there, who’s got $380,000 to buy a truck? And if you don’t have a fleet terminal to go to every night, where are you going to plug the thing in?
HDT: In your book I found your description of the little cliques and hierarchy that drivers have to be pretty interesting. For example, you’re a “bed bugger…”
Murphy: I was having a bit of fun with that. It’s not serious. But I get ribbed for being a “bed bugger,” and I’ll say that freight haulers just sit in truck stops and drink coffee all day. It’s fun. Humans in general have always sort of established hierarchies in groups. But if it’s 3 a.m. in the mountains and we’re on the side of the road thawing our brakes out with flares or trying to get chains on our tires, we’re all brothers.
HDT: Truck driver is the number one job in many states today. So many families depend on trucking for their livelihood, and the country depends on trucking to keep the economy going. And yet, truckers get no respect. Why do you think that is?
Murphy: Somebody said something the other day that really resonated with me: If you don’t like all these trucks crowding around you on the road, stop buying stuff! But you know, I wish people were more thoughtful about truck drivers. Every one of us represents the driving community out there. So if there’s a cowboy running loose out there, it reflects on all of us. But most of us aren’t like that. We’re just Americans with family lives, emotional lives and aspirations, just like anyone else. We want to be part of the economy. We’re not a bunch of crazy cowboys. We’re hard-working Americans doing a tough job – and many of us are making shit money for doing it.
HDT: What’s next for you?
Murphy: I’m writing another book. So that’s interesting. And I’m at home today in Colorado – but I’m out the door tomorrow; back out on the road on another trip.