Teams of truckers to the rescue of online shipping


Truck crews are becoming the heroes of vacation shipping.

Retailers and parcel carriers are turning more than ever this season to teams, in which drivers team up to run trucks hundreds of miles for 20 hours or more per day. They are trying to meet the demands of holiday shopping that have turned to online sales, urging retailers and their delivery companies to move goods quickly and inexpensively over long distances.

This raised the profile of the small subset of truck drivers who spend weeks or even months away from home, crisscrossing the country, taking turns sleeping in cramped compartments in the back of the truck cab, then getting behind the wheel and only stopping to take a shower. or short breaks. The drivers are brought together by companies looking to get the most out of every truck, and some are even married couples putting their livelihoods and marriage on the road.

By changing drivers at the end of each shift, crews can transport goods more than double the distance traveled by their solo counterparts in a day.

“The goal would be for this truck to never stop,” said Gary Helms, a 57-year-old driver, who spoke while his partner was behind the wheel. Mr. Helms, who hauled freight for companies such as Inc., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and FedEx Corp., was en route to New York from South Carolina with his current partner, after having initially picked up a shipment. from California. “Other than to make fuel, to take a shower and to go to the toilet, we want the truck to move,” he said.

Analysts say companies that lead teams of drivers outperformed the rest of the transportation industry this year in an otherwise lackluster season. “If you look at the whole, freight transportation is down,” said Jason Seidl, analyst at Cowen and Co., he said. Expedited carriers have been “the only real bright spot.”

This came as estimates point to much faster growth in web orders than sales in physical stores this year. This put pressure on the operations of United Parcel Service Inc. and FedEx, and carriers put in additional staff to handle the push.

Highway regulators are cracking down on daily driving limits, capping truck drivers at 11 hours per shift, meaning lone drivers can travel around 500 to 600 miles a day. In contrast, teams can travel 1,000 miles per day.

With retailers offering fast deliveries and free shipping, team carriers who normally order fares of around $ 2 per mile can earn up to $ 6 per mile during the holidays, said Donald Broughton, analyst at Avondale. Partners LLC. He said trucking companies that paid a 10 to 15% premium for crews a few years ago are now paying two to three times the regular rate.

Even at such premiums, these crews are essentially duplicating air freight speeds for a fraction of the cost, Mr Broughton said.

The e-commerce and organic grocery industry has accelerated demand for expedited shipping, said Richard Cribbs, chief financial officer of Covenant Transportation Group Inc., based in Chattanooga, Tenn., America’s largest listed trucking company. stock exchange which mainly operates team trucks. .

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Demand raised the profile of its niche business. “There is more of a bounty on a consumer who receives something in two days, like from Amazon,” Cribbs said. “And if I don’t have it, I can just go to the store and buy it.”

Drivers find themselves comparing the economic benefits of working to the reality of near constant movement and the challenge of seemingly endless days next to the same person. Spending 24 hours side-by-side in a taxi can strain even strong friendships, with conflicts over issues such as personal hygiene and musical tastes spanning days and weeks.

“The last thing I want on my ten hour break is to hear gangster rap, it’s a chord breakup,” said Mr. Helms, who enjoys country music.

Companies generally pay team drivers more than solo drivers, but recruiting remains difficult. Mark Rourke, COO of Schneider National Inc., said he offered extra cash to the company’s solo drivers to get them to work as a team during the holidays. He had enough orders to put 300 more shifts to work on top of the 600 shifts that regularly ride for the company, but Schneider ultimately only added 100 shifts.

Husband-wife teams are becoming more and more common, but this too presents its share of challenges. Kim Pagh, 45, who has driven with her husband Jay for eight years, said they have spent many Christmases and birthdays on the road. On several occasions they got stuck dealing with loads in empty lots on Christmas Day with no access to running water because the receivers weren’t there to let them unload.

Ms Pagh said most of the couples she has met on the road no longer drive together. “If you can imagine being mad at your boyfriend or husband, and only 6 feet away and you can’t go out because you’re constantly moving… it’s kind of like being an astronaut. “

Write to Loretta Chao at [email protected]

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