Over 60 years ago, trains carried most of the long-distance freight across the nation. At that time, trucks mainly carried short-distance freight. Since then, ships that carry freight internationally have increased in size, with a steadily increasing volume of freight being carried inside shipping containers. Today, an almost seamless link connects ships, trains and trucks that carry shipping containers. There is scope along the nation’s roads and highways for safer, proven designs for trucks to carry container freight, but government regulations actually prevent the operation of such trucks.
People who regularly travel by road during the winter may on occasion see a tractor-trailer truck stopped in a jackknife position along a snow-covered highway. In many such situations, the truck driver may have been avoiding a collision with a car. Conversations with truck drivers reveal that on-road tractors with very short wheelbases are at high risk for jackknifing, while under identical conditions tractors with long wheelbases are quite stable.
On-road tractors with short wheelbases do have an advantage in negotiating tight turns on dry city streets, especially when the tractor is pulling a long semi-trailer. When city streets are covered with snow, tractors with two axles under the articulation coupling have difficulty making a turn. The front wheels will slide almost straight ahead and sometimes cause a delay in traffic as the truck driver tries to get the truck around a corner. Drivers say that on snow-covered roads, road tractors with long wheelbases may actually make the turn with less sliding of the front wheels.
A significant proportion of the truck fleet carries shipping containers that mostly measure 40 feet, or 12.2 metres. Transportation regulations across Canada restrict straight trucks to 12.5 metres or 41 feet, leaving truck companies with little choice other than to use tractor-semi-trailer combinations to carry containers. However, up to 20 states in the south-central USA allow 45-ft straight trucks, while states such as North and South Dakota allow 50- and 55-ft straight trucks. Straight trucks of those lengths can safely carry 40-ft shipping containers.
Across North America, most jurisdictions allow 53-ft semi-trailers as part of a combination that varies in length between 69 feet and 75 feet. The recent drop in oil prices has resulted in Alberta companies connected to the oil industry selling off some of their trucks. Some of the on-road straight trucks had wheelbases of 33 feet, or 160% to double the wheelbase of on-road tractors. Straight trucks with extreme wheelbases are already proven on Canadian highways. Trucks across Canada are also allowed 4-metre overhangs behind the midpoint of the rear axles.
Yet government regulators across Canada forbid the operation of straight trucks that combine a proven extended-length wheelbase with a proven 4-metre rear overhang. When built with a tilt-cab placed above the engine and a 1-metre front overhang, such a truck could carry a 40-ft shipping container. Government regulations and the bureaucrats who formulate such regulations forbid passage to the safest truck that could carry shipping containers on Canadian roads.
While various levels of governments control most of the roads across Canada, there are examples of private roads owned either by mining companies or by logging companies. The transportation technology that operates along these roads is outside the scope of government regulation and the technology design often reflects the absence of such regulation. When snow covers government roads and stops traffic, wheeled technology that developed free from government regulation comes to the rescue to clean the government roads.
The regulation-free sector also developed articulated trucks that are immune to jackknifing on slippery roads. During the early 1970s, a custom truck builder from Cambridge, Ontario adapted articulated steering technology to operate on public roads and highways, the result of a regulatory loophole. The Rubber Railway trucks had a hydraulic steering system built into the chassis articulation and have operated quite safely on roads and highways in Ontario, Quebec, and Alberta for over 20 years. While conventional multi-axle trucks slide the front wheels almost straight ahead when attempting a tight turn on snow-covered urban roads, Rubber Railway cement mixers and tanker trucks easily and uneventfully negotiate the same tight turns on slippery road surfaces.
Both extended wheelbase straight trucks and steer-articulated Rubber Railway trucks are proven technologies on Canadian roads, with scope to adapt both designs to carry 40-ft shipping containers. The combination of the extended wheelbase and steering control over the articulation assures safety and stability on snow-covered winter roads. With modern just-in-time schedules, many industries depend on prompt delivery of supplies, with delays sometimes costing over $1 million per minute. However, government bureaucrats forbid the operation of trucks that are immune to jackknifing on slippery roads and that could be built to carry shipping containers.
Today, the world’s trade moves mainly inside 40-ft shipping containers, with ships capable of carrying up to 10,000 such containers presently under construction in Asian shipyards. Trucks and trains carry these containers between point of origin and maritime terminals, and from point of destination maritime terminals to final destinations. A large segment of the nation’s economy depends on the quick, safe and efficient movement of containers. Shouldn’t our regulatory structures support rather than undermine this objective?
* Harry Valentine is a free-marketeer living in Eastern Ontario.