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Freight Focus: Steel Coil Hauling

by Jim Park

Anywhere in Canada you care to look, you'll find great chunks of steel chained to a flatdeck. Steel is an integral part of our lives. It's present in nearly every manufactured article you can imagine. So far, steel hasn't shown up in the food chain or the fashion runways of the world in any major way, but that could change any time.

Anyone who pulls a flatdeck knows that steel demands a level of care and attention far beyond most other commodities. It's hard, it's heavy, and it's slippery. And because of the odd shapes steel is sometimes hammered into, it's vulnerable to damage when incorrectly tied down.

We'll look further into the 'steel-hauling' business in future Freight Focus stories. This time out, we're focused on hauling steel coils.

Canada supports a robust steel industry with 17 plants conducting melting and pouring operations in six provinces: Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Qu├ębec, Ontario, and Nova Scotia. Ontario accounted for 70% of the 17.8 million metric tonnes of steel produced here in 1999.

Hamilton, Ont., is clearly Canada's leading steel-producing region, with Sault Ste Marie, Ont., and several other centers located along the St. Lawrence river near Montreal each contributing a major share of the total domestic output. A majority of Canada's steel processors and end users are also located within the Windsor-Quebec City corridor, making this region the most likely place to find work if steel is what you want to haul.

Steel coils are wound lengths of raw sheet steel that will eventually require slitting, cutting, coating, or some other form of processing before they find their way to market. In fact, a single steel coil may wind up on several different trucks during its journey to market: from mill to processor, to processor, to processor, then to a manufacturer and finally to market.

Day Trippers

Most of Canada's producing and processing activity takes place within 500 miles of Hamilton, making dedicated coil hauling truly a regional enterprise. The larger share of that pie can actually being considered local trucking, with many drivers working in shifts averaging three or four loads a day from the mills to the processor.

"The mills just keep sending trucks down the hill (into Hamilton from Stelco's nearby Nanticoke mill) one after the other," says Marvin Wade, an owner-operator with Laidlaw Carriers in Hagersville, Ont.

On a 15-hour shift, Wade usually does three loads from Nanticoke to Hamilton, or two loads per shift if he's running to Brampton or Mississauga, about 30 miles farther away. Wade says the waiting time at the processors can be a problem if the trucks start piling up, but when everything works the way it's supposed to, he can be in and out in 10 minutes: coils on, chains cinched tight, and bills signed.

Wade pulls a B-train specifically designed to haul steel coils. It's little more than two frame rails with fixed coil bunks and 'super-single' tires. They have a very low deck to improve stability. These trailers aren't much good for anything else, but backhauls aren't really a consideration, unless it's a coil being returned to the mill.

The next tier of dedicated steel-hauler pulls a flat deck, usually a five-axle or a B-train set up to haul coils, but with a backhaul in mind. A load into a processor might result in a load back out again, with another coil going to a customer, and since the processed coil may require some protection from the elements, these carriers usually run side kits with bows and tarps or the increasingly popular sliding tarp systems. These units make the driver's job considerably easier, and even allow him to work under the tarp, out of the rain, while he's chaining everything down.

Several carriers are now providing heated service to their customers to prevent the coils from frosting up (and rusting) when they're taken outside in the cold. There's a diesel-fired heater mounted in the front bulkhead of the trailer that can maintain 40 or 50 degrees F under the tarps even on the coldest nights.

Ron Moulton, an owner-op with Douma Transport in Burlington, Ont., runs such a unit. He says the heaters have almost eliminated claims for damage caused by rust. "I think we saved something like $1.2 million in claims in the first quarter of the first year we ran the heaters," he says. "But I like them for chaining down in the winter. It's a lot warmer under the tarp."

Long Haul?

From the dedicated steel-hauler's perspective, a trip to Montreal or Detroit, or perhaps The Sault, is considered a long haul. W. J. Deans Transport operates two terminals, one in Delson, Que., near Montreal, and the other in Stoney Creek, Ont., near Hamilton. Most of their equipment slides back and forth between the two steel-producing centers, with Deans drivers seldom turning more than 2000 miles in a week. But don't feel sorry for them.

"In the old days," says Moulton. "A driver could do a Montreal turn every night. But they've really stepped up the enforcement along the 401 and you just can't get away with that at all any more. The good carriers make it worthwhile to run two trips one week and three the next."

Percentage or ton/mile are the common pay methods in the steel business, so staying loaded is clearly more profitable. The margins remain stubbornly thin, but Moulton says he's doing reasonably well. He's been at it for 25 years, and with Douma for the past seven.

One of the challenges facing the folks who haul steel in this region are the different trailer configurations required to haul the heavy loads. Quebec and Ontario are pretty well harmonized now, but the configurations needed for that corridor aren't appropriate to haul into Michigan or Indiana. Consequently, drivers and owner-ops tend to run either east or west. Many stay married to a particular trailer, so they chose to run into either Quebec or into Michigan. Period.

It's a little different in western Canada.

Regina, home of the Inter-Provincial Steel Company, or IPSCO as it's known to the locals, has a fair concentration of steel haulers, but not to the same degree as southern Ontario. The folks who haul out of IPSCO, like Wayne Schneider, owner of Schneider's Trucking, always count on a backhaul.

Schneider's does a lot of inter-plant movements for IPSCO, hauling into Alberta and B.C. as well as the U.S. Schneider says those movements wouldn't be profitable without a backhaul. Frequently, he hauls material right back to IPSCO, but he's always on the phone looking for other possibilities, just in case.

According to Schneider, the coils shipped out of IPSCO are always loaded 'suicide', or with the eyes facing the sides of the trailer. Most of the receivers on his customer list don't have the overhead cranes that the folks in Ontario and Quebec are used to. They tend to use fork lifts, requiring access to the eye of the coil from the side.

The coils tend to be smaller as well. The west, bless their hearts, takes a dim view of the weights we haul around these parts. They limit the trailer configurations to tandems, tridems and Super-Bs, and the coils don't weigh much more than 45,000 lb.

"We've hauled a few fifty-thousand pounders," Schneider says. "But they bent the trailers up pretty badly. That's pushing the limit that the manufacturers will build to, and the extra strength would come with too high a weight penalty, ruining our chances of a decent backhaul."

Even the Super-Bs don't haul much more than a 90,000-lb payload. Compare that to Ontario/Quebec where, with careful spec'ing, one can drop a 50,000- and a 55,000-lb coil onto a B-train for a payload of 105,000.

Not all coils are that big, incidentally. There are plenty in the 20,000-lb range or even smaller.

The Equipment

A flatdeck is always a flatdeck, but several innovations have made the steel-hauler's life a little easier. Most trailers operating in the east are now fitted with side-kits and bows and tarps to eliminate the need for tarping. Others now use the sliding tarp that turns a deck into a van. In the west, where backhauls are more of a factor, people tend to stick with the small steel tarps for protection from the weather, and they keep their equipment more suited for general hauling rather than specifically for steel.

The full-time steel haulers all have permanent anchor points built into the deck of the trailer to reduce the strain on the stake pockets and rub rails. After all, a 50,000-lb coil isn't the easiest thing to keep in one place when it wants to roll away.

W.J. Deans uses a clever tiedown device. Their Temisko B-trains have a slot in the floor of the trailer close to and parallel with the edge of the deck. It's designed to accept a small aluminum plate with an aggressive lip machined into one side. There's a D-ring on the opposite side with a 3/8-in. chain permanently attached to it. The lip locks into the groove in the floor while the high-strength chain and ratchet binder eliminate the need for any more than two chains on a coil as heavy as 25,000 lb. A 5000-lb webbed strap is thrown over the coil to complete the scene.

There's a new and worrisome configuration making its way across the prairies, called the King-B. It's a B-train with a tridem under the pup instead of a tandem. Schneider says they'll gross up to 71,500 kg. Currently, the King-Bs are on trial runs in Saskatchewan only.

"The shippers are really pushing for them, but nobody I know really wants to see them become too popular," he says.

Like any other specialized hauling, steel coils have their advantages. The work involved isn't that difficult, once you've got the hang of it, though fleet managers are forever saying they have trouble finding people to do it. The pay is slightly better than non-specialized hauling and the distances involved aren't that great. Heck, there's even a pretty strong demand for local-oriented owner-ops. You don't find those opportunities around every corner. In fact, as opportunities go, this is one of the trucking industry's best job markets.

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