'Perfect storm' hammers B.C.'s trucking sector - The Orca

‘Perfect storm’ hammers B.C.’s trucking sector

Russell Hixson Headshot

Russell Hixson: Not only did the floods cause delays in supply chains, but hit the gas pedal on issues that were already starting to impact truckers.

B.C.’s trucking networks were hammered during recent storms.

This has not only caused delays in supply chains, but it has hit the gas pedal on issues that were already starting to impact truckers.

Dave Earle, president of the BC Trucking Association, explained how the province’s trucking sector has been working to keep supplies flowing and what it might looking like heading in to 2022.

“It is the perfect storm and it is going to be a really hard road ahead to dig out of it,” said Earle.

Since Highway 99 is too winding and steep for large commercial truck traffic, Highway 1, Highway 5 and Highway 3 bear the brunt of it. On average, the province sees about 6,000 east/west corridor commercial truck trips each day.

“When Highway 1 and 5 went down, we lost about 80 per cent of that capacity,” said Earle. “Highway 3 handles about 800 trips a day, about 1,200 on a peak day. It is just not equipped to handle this much traffic.”

Earle said the increased strain on routes like Highway 3 are causing major delays in truck traffic. To relieve some of this pressure, the U.S. has stepped in to facilitate traffic going through the border by removing much of the red tape involved.

“These are called in-transit moves,” said Earle. “You aren’t beginning or ending in the States, you are just driving through. We are seeing those moves climb to about 200 each day. Even with all that, we are still way, way down. Thousands of moves a day down.”

And the trips are taking much longer. Earle said typically a Langley to Kelowna trip would take about six hours. The driver would hitch to the next trailer in Kelowna and drive back in another six hours. That 12-hour day in trucking is called a “rounder.”

Currently, just to get to Kelowna is taking 12 hours, meaning drivers have to stay overnight.

“Any type of efficiency is obliterated,” said Earle. “The unpredictability has been the really big issue. We just never know when that truck is going to arrive. It has really hampered the chain.”

He added even if the 100 per cent to 300 per cent time delays get back to something more reasonable, like 50 per cent, there still isn’t anywhere near enough truck drivers.

“We don’t have them,” said Earle. “They don’t exist. And even if I could train the drivers, I can’t buy trucks. With the COVID-related supply chain issues and semi-conductor shortage, all our manufacturers aren’t going to hit their targets for 2022 and they are already behind in 2021.”

Earle explained he believes the storm has caused many B.C. residents to realize how interdependent and interconnected they are to transportation networks. As the province looks to build things back up, Earle said creating capacity also creates cost for consumers down the line.

“Everything that moves, we pay for,” said Earle. “So we have to rationalize what we are willing to pay to buttress our systems so this doesn’t happen again – both from an infrastructure standpoint and a supply chain standpoint.”

Like many other sectors, trucking is facing a shortage of workers and COVID has amplified this. During the pandemic roughly 10 per cent of Canadian truckers decided to retire as demand was coming back.

The association is currently working with the province on programs to fund training that could come to fruition as early as this month. But much like the construction sector, getting workers skilled doesn’t happen quickly.

“No commercial company of any kind of repute is going to hire somebody brand new, stuff them in a truck and send them down Highway 3 today,” said Earle. “It takes time. We’ve got a lot of work to do to really attract workers.”

This means educating people that the vast majority of the industry values safety and even rewards safe driving, and the majority of work isn’t long haul trucking. Earle explained trucking’s salaries, range of work and perception issues run very parallel with the construction sector.

“Long haul is the minority,” said Earle. “Most drivers are home every night. We just have a long way to go to help people understand that.”

The Canadian Trucking Alliance, the industry’s national group, was all set to implement its image and recruitment campaign in March 2020 when COVID hit. However, Earle said that strategy is set to go ahead this month.

Earle said the biggest and best companies in the industry not only mandate safety by putting speed-limiting technology on their trucks, they reward drivers who obey safety laws.

However, Earle said like construction, the industry is not a monolith, and some do not put safety first. He is urging government to mandate things like speed-limiters.

“We look to government, we are saying that we as an industry need to do a better job on a whole bunch of things, but we need their help so that the highways are safe and these individuals can’t make bad decisions,” Earle said.

Russell Hixson is the staff writer for the Journal of Commerce where he covers the construction industry.  Before that, he spent years in the U.S. as an investigative crime reporter. He lives in East Vancouver. Follow him on Twitter: @RussellReports.