Prime Mover Magazine

US to combat driver shortage with Australian roadtrains

South Dakota is the home of Mount Rushmore and the historical town of Deadwood. North Dakota, long considered the American food basket, could soon be home to Australian roadtrains.

A bill introduced by the North Dakota Senate Agriculture Committee earlier in the year to provide a roadtrain pilot program has since passed both houses.

It was officially signed by the governor on 11 April.

Proposed by Republican Senator Larry Luick, the bill in part will look at the viability of using high mass Class 8 truck and multi-trailer combinations as a countermeasure to tackle increased freight demand, decreasing rail availability and the truck driver shortage across the Great Plains region.

The American Trucking Associations (ATA) reported in July the current driver shortage was a continuing problem for the entire supply chain as 71.4 per cent of all freight tonnage is moved on American highways.

Last year's driver shortage was estimated at 60,800, a record high and a 20 per cent increase on the year prior.

Should the current trend hold, the shortage, according to the ATA report, was forecast to swell to over 160,000 drivers by 2028.

The wheat belt in North Dakota is the nation's number one producer of spring wheat and sunflower, barley, oats, lentils, honey, beans, canola and flaxseed.

Disruptions to this supply chain would have immediate and long term consequences.

"The combination of a surging freight economy and carriers' need for qualified drivers could severely disrupt the supply chain. The increase in the driver shortage should be a warning to carriers, shippers and policymakers because if conditions don't change substantively, our industry could be short just over 100,000 drivers in five years and 160,000 drivers in 2028," ATA Chief Economist Bob Costello said in the report.

A safety study would be conducted to assess the impact on public safety including roadway and bridge infrastructure, assembly areas and economics.

If solutions to these issues are found, the pilot roadtrain project  in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota would have provision to expand it into other states and Canada where it faces similar challenges to the supply chain by driver shortages.

In his presentation, Luick listed increased freight demand, high driver turnover rates and hours-of-service regulations as key factors behind the necessity of a roadtrain pilot program.

The Australian market, however, poses a unique set of driving conditions for road transport fleets whose operations endure the daily challenges of inhospitable terrain and extreme, often sweltering weather.

As roadtrain combinations locally are approved for loads that dwarf those in North America, the average fuel burn across Australian fleets is, according to Castrol field trials, 50 per cent higher than the US market and as high as 90 per cent more than in Europe.

In winter North Dakota can reach temperatures of 50 below celsius making road conditions very different to the Australian outback where high gross combination mining vehicles, haul over 200 tonnes, fitted with road friendly suspensions on permit roads.

North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring is in favour of examining the feasibility of road trains in the state.

“If you have the ability in a roadtrain to have six containers transported at the same time, you would have a little extra cost associated with the extra weight, but you wouldn’t have six drivers and six rigs, so you wouldn’t incur all these extraordinary costs,” he said.

“You’d now have the ability to break that price down to reflect something that helps you be more competitive in the global market,” said Goehring.

Nonprofit organisation Coalition Against Bigger Trucks (CABT) has opposed the proposal, calling it "dangerous".

"This is outrageous -- a new proposal in North Dakota would lead to opening up our roads to "truck road trains" -- with no regard for the safety risks or for other drivers on the road, turning North Dakota motorists into guinea pigs," the organisation claimed on its website.

In 2013, an oil train explosion in Lac-Megantic in Canada from North Dakota, which was in the midst of a resource boom, killed 47 people.

Ageing, defective railcars were blamed for the tragedy. Since then there has been three similar, incidents involving railcars inside the United States.

Roadtrains may yet be a safer alternative if infrastructure for trailer interchanges and limited access routes can be agreed upon.

The origins of the Australian roadtrain have some ties to the United States.

Kurt Johannson in Alice Springs, using a Diamond T980, a tank retrieval tractor left behind by the US military in the 1940s, built what is considered one of the first examples of the modern roadtrains to cart cattle by building three trailers using ex-US Army bren gun carriers.

The findings of the roadtrain study in North Dakota would be reported to the 67th General Assembly.

No date has been announced for when this will take place.

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