Freight Focus: Patience Required
by Rolf Lockwood
There's something special about the world of heavy hauling. A kind of prestige based on the tough loads, the big weights. There's certainly pride amongst the drivers, though not arrogance, as if they feel their brand of trucking demands a little more of them than pulling white boxes along the highway would. And it does demand more, sometimes lots more. In fact, for some, that's exactly why they're doing it. Take Calgary's Jason Levac, for example.
"I like it because it's a personal challenge," says the 25-year old lease-operator for Mullen Trucking's heavy-haul division. "Just using the multi-axle trailers, there's a lot of standing back and looking at it and then doing some figuring. Any time I do a regular load any more it's just a no-brain thing. You put it on the trailer and tie it down and away you go. With the oversize loads, you're always thinking, because so many things can go wrong. And you get to see a lot more country. You get different routes all the time, and you get to put up with construction and states that will route you into a bridge that you can't go across or get under. I like it because it's different, it's not something everybody does."
Levac is mighty young to be doing what he's doing. He's Mullen's youngest owner-operator, hauling mostly over-dimensional Caterpillar equipment out of central Illinois, plus oilfield skids and a lot of crane moves mixed in, all of it on-highway. He and his 1999 Kenworth W900 have been on multi-axle combinations - mostly nine-axle rigs (three-axle tractor with six-axle trailer) - for a year and a half now. Before that he was with another Mullen heavy-haul division but strictly on the oilpatch side of things, and almost all of it off-road. Even on-highway, he pulls some pretty mean loads.
"On our nine-axles we can scale here in Alberta up to 198,000 lb during normal road conditions, when there's no bans on," Levac explains. "In winter time you can go a little bit more. As for size, we hauled rock-truck boxes up to Fort McMurray out of Laredo, Texas, for example. They're 32 ft wide and the box weighs 110,000 lb, so that's kind of an ugly one. It takes about 14 days to get loaded and get up to Fort McMurray with one of them on."
That's pretty typical stuff in this world, but what exactly is heavy hauling? While anything that demands a lowboy trailer is considered part of this market, there are two main heavy-haul sectors: one is the earth-moving and construction equipment side of things, meaning big bulldozers and cranes and the like; and the other is referred to as 'industrial', which takes in freight such as tanks and buildings and transformers, among many other awkward loads.
At the extreme, very specialized and extremely capable fleets like Mullen's Premay Equipment subsidiary do some extraordinary things. For instance, Premay recently hauled something called a 'coker' from Edmonton up to a Suncor project near Fort McMurray. A coker, in simple terms, is the gizmo that turns sand into crude oil, but it sure wasn't a simple haul. The thing weighed 1,650,000 lb. You read it right - one million, six hundred and fifty thousand pounds! Now that's heavy hauling.
But it's not typical by any means, and it's not the market we're talking about here, which is both legal and over-dimensional on-highway work - local or long distance - with rigs ranging from fairly ordinary five-axle types to the nine-axle combination that Jason Levac pulls. Besides, from what we hear, it's almost impossible to get a job at Premay anyway. Elsewhere in the more ordinary heavy-haul world - or "light heavy", as the boys at Premay call it - there are driver shortages like everywhere else.
Paul Kingma, vice president and operations manager at Empire Transportation in Grimsby, Ont., sees no shortage of freight over the next six months, but drivers are a different matter.
"We've sometimes got trucks that we can't fill because we can't get the people," he says. "Some days you'll see six or eight trucks sitting here not moving just because I can't get people to drive them. We'll use driver services occasionally to fill in, but the driver services can't get people either."
As in other trucking sectors, but more so than in general freight, the average age of the heavy-haul driver is rising. Jason Levac isn't alone in being a young heavy-hauler, but Earle Rhind is increasingly the norm at the age of 53. One of the problems is that there's a certain expertise required, so it's tough for a rookie to break in.
"Most of the people we're getting in here right now are right out of school," says Kingma. "If we were just pulling vans, or all we hauled was steel bars, we could lower the bar a little bit. But our guys, one day they're hauling plate steel and the next day they're hauling a Cat D8. You have to have the experience to go with it.
"We look for drivers who have had U.S. experience, border-crossing experience. Mainly we're just looking for guys who have a few years under their belt, not just somebody green right off the tree. We prefer oversize experience, but a lot of the guys we've taken on lately haven't had that so we'll train them and work them in slowly. We really want that three or four years experience, which makes it tough for these young guys just coming out of school. If everybody wants experience, where are they supposed to get it?"
In a more general sense, what's required of a heavy hauler?
Patience, patience, and more patience. Everyone seems to agree, those are the three qualities you'll need most if you're going to be a heavy hauler pulling overweight, oversize loads. You'll need special permits for every jurisdiction you run through, and you'll be dealing with provincial, state, county, and city curfews wherever you go. You'll probably be limited to driving during daylight Monday to Friday, not welcome on the roads during rush hours. On a short winter's day, that could mean your working time's limited to between 9:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. After patience, and almost equal in importance, is the ability to manage time efficiently, to plan your attack on all those curfews.
"It's very time-consuming," says Bill Long, Levac's boss, a veteran ex-driver who co-ordinates Mullen's heavy-haul work. "You're waiting for permits, you've got curfews, travel restrictions, there's a laundry list. You've got certain curfews to go through certain cities. Minneapolis, for instance: you've got from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. to get through there in winter, so you have a six-hour window. If you hit outside that, you can lose a day's travel. Basically, if you hit the border at 3:00 p.m. you're done 'til 9:00 a.m. the next morning. And each state has different requirements for flags, beacons, pilot cars, and all that. You have to be a Philadelphia lawyer to keep up. So patience is the biggest thing."
Levac agrees, and remembers a time when he waited a full week for a permit to come 30 miles out of Maryland. He was holed up in a hotel while bridge and pavement engineers figured out how much weight they'd allow. That's not typical, thankfully, but it can happen, and it means that "...you get to know yourself really good. I have a fairly shiny truck because I spend a lot of time polishing it. I do a lot of sightseeing too. You learn to amuse yourself," Levac says.
And then come the more obvious skills in terms of driving and load securement, but you have to be just a little bit better in both those areas than the average flatdeck driver because you're dealing with awkward, heavy loads and sometimes you're doing it in odd places. Resourceful drivers are the ones who succeed here, but you could say that's true wherever you go. Heavy haulers just have to be a lot more so.
The Money Side
It's demanding work for sure, but we've heard of lease-operator teams pulling in as much as $35,000 gross in a month. That's nowhere near average, about double probably, and it's not to say that owner-operators don't go broke in this business. They do. Nonetheless, the income potential is pretty good, if a bit hard to pin down.
That's because there's a mix of pay by the hour, by the mile, or by percentage of revenue in the case of an owner-operator. Then there are premiums paid for all sorts of things like pulling oversize, overweight loads and for driving nine-axle rigs instead of six. If you're hauling steel coils and smaller front-end loaders and the like on basic six-axle rigs, not over-dimensional, as a company driver you'll be doing about 40 cents a mile. Some fleets will add a penny a mile for extra height, another for extra length, and yet another for extra width.
As an owner-operator with that kind of work, you might do as well as $1.05 a mile empty and $1.35 a mile loaded before any premiums are applied.
Things change quite a bit when you step up into oversize loads. That implies more experience, and certainly bigger challenges. Run that nine-axle rig and you could be at $1.50 a mile empty, $2.50 a mile loaded.
At Empire, both company drivers and owner-ops have both a per-mile and an hourly rate, because on some hauls you just can't make many miles. They'll pay drivers on the hourly rate if they have to be holed up for a couple of days waiting for a reluctant permit. And uniquely, a while back they started paying a premium of three cents a mile for U.S. miles, to account for the hit drivers suffer in the exchange rate on the Canadian dollar. That'll be music to a few ears.
As a prospective owner-operator, remember that your expenses will be considerably higher. Pull one of those 110,000-lb rock-truck boxes out of Texas to Alberta and you might get all of 3 mpg with your gross weight of maybe 195,000 lb. Your tires and brakes will wear out a lot sooner too, of course. There's more maintenance generally, even though you might run empty as much as half the time.
When you're looking at heavy-haul fleets to work for, be very careful to ask who pays for things like permits, police escorts, pilot cars, and any other extra costs. Permits can range from $10 in Iowa to $250 in Illinois. Pilot cars - and you might need as many as three - cost from 85 cents to $1.00 a mile, round trip, which can add up mighty fast. It seems extremely unfair, but there are fleets who don't pay for such extras, leaving that sizeable burden to the driver. Both Mullen and Empire, by the way, pay for all permits and pilots.
All of that having been said, it's worth noting that Jason Levac's Kenworth is about to go up for sale. It won't be two years old 'til August, and it's got just 200,000 miles on the clock, but he figures the latest W900 has a few improvements that will make his life easier. So he's trading up, which implies that if you're with the right fleet and have a good head for business, you can do just fine in the heavy-haul world.