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Freight Focus: Chip Hauling

by Jim Park

Wherever in Canada you live, forestry and chip hauling are probably a larger part of your local economy than automotive manufacturing. The exception is southern Ontario, Where the car biz seems to dominate the psyche. What's good for The General is good for the nation. That's a pity because there's a lot going on out in the bush that deserves our attention.

You'll find chip-hauling operations nearly everywhere in Canada. In Ontario, there are 'chipsters' located as close to Toronto as Bancroft and Muskoka, and all the way north and west to Hornepayne, Kapuskasing and Ft. Francis. Chip hauling is a staple of the Atlantic and Quebec trucking economies too. Northern Saskatchewan, Alberta and of course B.C. are all into chipping as well - right up to the handle. In short, you needn't travel too far in this land to find those distinctive low-belly trailers designed to haul big loads of bulk wood chips.

Wood chips are used primarily in paper making, but also find their way into a multitude of other wood products such as wafer board and chip board. It's worth mentioning that chip hauling isn't limited strictly to wood chips. These guys also fill their wagons with wood shavings and sawdust as well.

Lumber and sawmills produce that stuff as a byproduct of what they do, and the paper mills buy it up by the truck load. In areas where a paper mill is the main industry, they'll buy either raw pulp logs and chip them down on site or they'll bring in chips from anywhere they can get them.

That call is dependent on where the cutting happens. The timber leases are allocated by the government to encourage reforestation, so the distances to the mills vary with the cutting plans. Some mills will accept only chips, so portable chippers are brought out to the bush and the logs are chipped and piled as they're cut. Most of that work is done by contractors, which spares the mill the expense of operating its own chipping machines.

In and Out

Getting the maximum load onto the truck without going over weight is one of the biggest challenges for drivers. Different grades of wood are heavier than others, and wet wood is heavier than dry. The driver has nothing to go by but the level of the load or maybe an air-suspension pressure gauge on the trailer - and his sense of smell.

"You can smell the different types of wood, and you can smell if the chips are green [wet]," says Marvin Colbourne, a driver with Whitecourt Transport in Whitecourt, Alta. He learned that lesson the hard way after having to shovel off four tonnes of wet balsam.

The chips are usually stored in a raised hopper, with the driver positioning the truck beneath the bins and operating the gates under the hopper to fill the trailer. He opens the gates and the chips fall into the trailer. It's dusty work on a windy day, but it generally takes less than 15 minutes. With the trailer jammed full, he scales the load and heads off to the dumper.

The length of haul is generally fairly short but this past summer, the folks at Glen Transport in Cowley, Alta., found themselves hauling chips all the way from Meadow Lake, Sask., to Prince Rupert, B.C. That was unusual, admits Shane Stewart, Glen's operations manager.

"It depends on the price of pulp and the arrangements the different mills have," he explains. "But generally, we work in a 150-mile radius of the mill."

Unloading is a slightly more dramatic affair. The dumper is an underground storage bin located at the end of what looks like a truck launching pad. The truck is backed against a set of blocks, the back doors on the trailer are unlatched. The trucks are then tipped skyward, almost vertically, while the chips tumble dramatically out the back into the bin.

Some older mills still use ramps that are too short to accommodate the entire unit, so trailers often need to be dropped before unloading. Some of the newer facilities have drive-through ramps that will even accommodate B-Trains. In locations where the ramp is too short for the trains, they too have to be dropped and often separated before dumping.

It's rare, but occasionally a driver will forget to shut his engine down before tipping the truck to unload. It may not be running when it comes down again if the fuel tanks are low, or if the oil pump draws from the front of the sump. That's a mistake you only make once.

Goin' for Gross

Weight is a huge concern in the chip business. Contracts are generally bid on 'bone dry' tonnage, which is to say the weight of the chips less the moisture they contain. They're sampled for moisture content when delivered, and the percentage of moisture, which can be anywhere from 8% to 50%, is deducted from the waybill. It sounds brutal, but the rates are designed to compensate for the discrepancy in delivered weight and bone-dry weight.

In Ontario and the eastern provinces, straight five-axle chip vans are the norm. In the west, where multi-axle trailers are wisely frowned upon, the B-Train with its 42.5-tonne payload is the favorite. The trailers back east are a little heavier as well, with fiberglass-reinforced plastic (FRP) sides preferred over aluminum for extra strength. B-trains will likely remain unpopular in the east as long as the heavier weights are permitted on straight trailers.

Power units in the west tend not to be quite as brutish-looking. They're spec'd to pull the weight but drivers don't have to contend with off-road conditions as much as folks in the east. A typical western spec is a short, RTAC-spec tractor with an 18-speed gearbox and a 500- to 600-hp engine. In the east, where trailer configurations allow for higher weights on straight trailers, the wheelbases tend to be longer and the frames stiffer to deal with the additional stress. But engines are smaller, in the 475-to 550-hp range, coupled to 18-speed trannies and 46,000-lb rear ends. The 14,600-lb front axle is still the favorite.

Since the radius of most chip-hauling operations is fairly tight, it's common to rotate two drivers on a truck, in 12-hour shifts, to get the most out of the investment. Glen Transport has even found an interlining arrangement with a B.C.-based carrier, Excel Transport of Prince George, to be a profitable alternative to laying drivers over on the longer hauls.

Pay scales vary from company to company, with some paying by the hour, some by the mile, and some by the tonne. Some will pay bonuses on close-to-gross payloads and owner-operators usually work on percentage or weight.

According to Ted Bell of Ted Bell Trucking in Sudbury, Ont., chip hauling is still a good way to go, although it's become really competitive in recent years.

"We do well year round, but the biggest problems are weather and the never-ending strikes at the mills," he says. "If it's not the sawmill, it's the paper mill. That makes it hard on the guys who need a really steady income."

See, there are similarities between the automotive sector and chip haulers.

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