One of the anomalies of the current freight transportation system in North America is that while we have standardized on certain lengths of trailers (e.g. 53 foot), containers (e.g. 20/40/53 feet) and rail cars (e.g. 50/60 foot), there are no North American standards for truck, train and ship lengths. The provincial, state and federal governments in Canada and the United States have an inconsistent set of rules and regulations that create a lack of uniformity. This results in inefficiencies and adversely affects the economies of the two countries.
Lobbying efforts have been made periodically to encourage governments to harmonize vehicle lengths and weights. As reported in the August 15th issue of the Wall Street Journal, a group of 19 Western governors in the U.S. are lobbying Congress to allow for more LCV’s (long combination vehicles) on western USA highways. These LCV’s consist of "doubles" (e.g. two trailers pulled by one tractor) and "triples" (e.g. three trailers pulled by one tractor) — that can span up to 120 feet. Currently, most interstates allow trucks no longer than 53 feet.
To make matters more complex, the term Long Combination Vehicles (LCVs) is not used in a consistent manner. In Canada, LCVs are defined in general as truck/trailer combinations consisting of a tractor and two or three semitrailers or trailers where the total length of the vehicle exceeds the normal limit of 25 metres (82 feet). In the United States, LCVs are usually considered to be multi-trailer combinations having any trailer longer than 28 feet, having more than two trailers, or weighing more than the Federal gross weight limit of 80,000 lbs.
There are Rocky Mountain Doubles, Turnpike Doubles and Triple Trailer Combinations. In the spring, there are restrictions on trailer weights in certain Canadian provinces. Some in the Canadian trucking industry would like the opportunity to extend the operation of LCVs into other areas of the country. But all provinces will be affected, even those that currently allow LCVs.
Because LCVs are allowed in less than one half of the U.S. States, north-south traffic to Canada often has to move in single semi-trailers. If longer trucks are allowed on north-south highways, the number of longer trucks in provinces that already allow them would increase.
When the trucking industry first proposed to operate longer trucks, it talked about using divided highways and the best drivers. Over time, however, shippers off the designated corridors lobby for extensions. Experience in the U.S., based on a report published in 2003, suggested that longer trucks eventually wind up off the main Interstates. At that time, Rocky Mountain doubles operated on 51,000 kilometres of non-Interstate highway, Turnpike doubles on 17,000 kilometres, and triples on 12,000 kilometres.
In general, states and provinces can individually set limits on truck size and weight on state and provincially roads, but not for federal highways. The Western Governors' Association says longer trucks would make it easier to haul goods across vast distances in the West, which could benefit the region economically. Doubles and triples typically have to bypass federal roads and stick to state roads, sometimes forcing them to take longer routes to their destination. The governors' group estimates that miles traveled by heavy trucks could be cut by 25% with the use of more combos.
As reported in the Wall Street Journal article, when Kraft Foods Inc. packs trucks with heavy items such as jars of Miracle Whip and fruit juice, 40% of the units must leave the loading dock partly empty to avoid exceeding federal truck weight limits. Kraft says those rules force it and others to make extra trips and spend more on fuel. Now, the Illinois food giant is part of a coalition of 150 companies lobbying Congress to allow trucks that are 20% heavier on U.S. highways. Supporters of the idea say truckers could pay an extra fee to offset road repairs.
The ongoing recession, the need to reduce carbon emissions and limit capital spending, are creating “an arms race” of sorts in the shipping industry. Efforts are under way to “supersize” trucks, trains, and cargo ships as freight haulers seek to move more goods in fewer trips.
Congress this fall may consider changing the law that since 1974 has limited trucks to 80,000 pounds on interstate highways. A bill proposed by Rep. Michael Michaud (D., Maine) would allow states to raise that limit to 97,000 pounds on interstates for trucks that have a sixth axle to compensate for the extra weight. The measure, which has an identical bill in the Senate, may be considered as part of Congress's reauthorization of the multiyear, $286.5 billion surface transportation law whose funding ends Dec. 31. Under the higher weight limits, Kraft could load trucks more fully, reducing trucks used by 6%, saving 6.6 million gallons of fuel and eliminating 73,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually, said Harry Haney, Kraft's associate director of transportation planning. Miller Coors says it could transport 1.31 million barrels of beer weekly on 7,420 trucks, a 25% reduction in rigs. Supporters say Canada, Mexico and countries in Europe adopted higher weight limits without ill effects.
Earlier this year, Union Pacific Corp. tested what witnesses dubbed "the monster train" --- a 3.4 mile train in southern California, — two to three times the length of a typical freight train. The U.P. increased the length of its intermodal trains 15% in the first quarter, and was experimenting with an even longer train. The company said the ultra-long train was a one-time test. But in an April earnings conference call, a company official said Union Pacific believes it can increase its average train length by another 10% to 15% in an effort to reduce fuel use and emissions as well as wear and tear on its tracks. Other railroads, including CSX Corp., and BNSF Railway Co., have also been running longer trains to improve efficiencies, these companies said.
Meanwhile, new cargo vessels as long as three football fields now ply the oceans and are expected to be frequent visitors to Eastern U.S. ports starting in 2014, with the completion of the widening of the Panama Canal, the primary shipping conduit between Asia and the East Coast. They are almost 25% longer and 35% wider than today's ships. In preparation, eastern ports from Savannah, Ga., to Norfolk, Va., are starting to deepen channels.
As always, these initiatives prompt a wave of pushback on multiple fronts. There are concerns about road safety, the damage these rigs will do to highways and bridges, who will bear the costs of the road/rail upgrades and repairs, the cost of fleet upgrades if longer and heavier vehicle specifications are approved and reservations about the potential for blocked rail crossing during emergencies. These are legitimate issues that warrant consideration.
On the other hand, there is a requirement for the governments of North America to craft a coherent and thoughtful blueprint that will help take our economies to a higher level of efficiency and a more cost effective carbon footprint. Back in 2003, in a report prepared by Consulting Economist Joseph F. Schulman, M.A., Ph.D., he recommended “that before permitting any further increase or liberalization in truck weight or size, governments must
• review and determine the full implications for safety and accident costs;
• review and determine the full implications for infrastructure costs and use;
• review and determine the implications for modal competition and alternative freight
options including intermodality;
• review and determine the implications for the environment, including greenhouse gas
and – . . .
• review and determine the full costs of the use of the different modes of transport and
develop user pricing that better reflects full costs.
Beyond this, federal, provincial and territorial governments must, under federal leadership, commence initiatives to standardize truck size and weights across Canada.” This should be a NAFTA initiative, fully endorsed by the state, provincial and federal leaders of the three countries and a priority project in each country.
As this study is being completed, it would be desirable to select certain highways and rail corridors (e.g. Trans-Canada Highway, the North American Super Corridor) and standardize on the “supersized” trailer/train lengths and weights. This would allow for the fluid and cost effective movement of goods between the three NAFTA countries on some key high traffic lanes and allow North America to move up to a new plateau in transportation efficiency.