Coronavirus Upends Trucking Networks, With Heavy One-Way Flows

Date: Thursday, March 26, 2020
Source: The Wall Street Journal

Drivers worry about lack of hand sanitizer while some shippers and customers refuse to let them in

The coronavirus pandemic is whipsawing the trucking industry, as retailers clamor for delivery of food and household staples while lockdowns aimed at curbing contagion shut other businesses, leaving rigs empty on the return trip.

Drivers as well are facing new difficulties, including closed roadside eateries, customers wary of letting them in and a general lack of sanitizer and hand wipes.

Trucking shipments to grocery and discount stores are soaring, growing more than 50% last week from the same week last year as retailers rush to restock depleted shelves, said freight-tracking technology provider project44 Inc.

Other shipping customers, especially retailers and restaurants, “are essentially shut down nationwide”, said Eric Fuller, chief executive of U.S. Xpress Inc., a large trucking company based in Chattanooga, Tenn.

The sudden spikes and dips in demand are throwing freight networks off kilter. Trucks moving stepped-up shipments of perishables, cleaning products and paper goods are having trouble finding cargo to fill trailers on the return, leaving carriers to run more trucks empty.

“Let’s say you’re hauling paper products and hand sanitizer out of the Southeast and you now need to do three times the volumes of those types of goods,” said Derek Leathers, chief executive of Omaha, Neb.-based trucker Werner Enterprises Inc. “Your inbound apparel and nonstaple consumer goods have dried up. You are no longer landing your baseline of trucks into that market, and yet you need to support demand outbound that has increased.”

“We’re having to redesign the network in real time,” Mr. Leathers said.

Brokers who arrange transportation are bringing in drivers who may be 50 miles away from a pickup instead of 5 miles, said Mac Pinkerton, president of freight broker C.H. Robinson Worldwide Inc.’s North American Surface Transportation division.

Some truckers, he said, want to avoid areas with shelter-in-place orders “based on a lack of confidence in finding outbound freight.”

That is helping drive up prices on the spot market for trucking, where shippers book last-minute transportation. The average price per mile to hire a big rig has shot up 12% since March 1, according to online freight marketplace DAT Solutions LLC.

Meanwhile, restrictions aimed at controlling the spread of coronavirus are making life on the road harder for truck drivers.

Some shippers and receivers are refusing to let them enter their premises for fear they could bring the virus. Bathrooms at some rest areas have been closed, with Porta Potties now set up alongside some parking lots for truckers. Drivers, like everyone else, are having a hard time finding hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes and protective gear.

Many truck stops have closed their dining rooms, so drivers getting takeout may end up eating in the same cramped cabs where they work and sleep.

“We need rubber gloves for this virus,” one driver commented on WorkHound, an online platform where truckers and front-line workers in other industries can vent anonymously. About 22% of comments earlier this week from truckers cited sanitation as a concern, WorkHound said.

Mr. Leathers said Werner sent a large quantity of hand sanitizers, wipes and other supplies, including medical kits, to the company’s terminals for distribution to its roughly 9,000 drivers. Mechanics are being spaced one per bay, he said. The company has set up a Covid-19 hotline and is telling drivers to call the company if they feel ill so Werner can help find medical assistance “rather than have them drive a tractor-trailer through the streets and look,” he said.

U.S. Xpress is having trouble getting sanitary supplies and protective gear from its usual vendors amid the nationwide run on cleaning products, so the company has budgeted for on-site personnel to buy products in stores where they are still available, Mr. Fuller said. U.S. Xpress has also stepped up efforts to identify truck parking spots through its driver app.

Both trucking companies are encouraging their drivers to comply with shipper requests, like temperature checks or signing health affidavits, when possible, given the nationwide pandemic, but to flag locations or customers where actions appear to be impeding the flow of goods. “Those health checks are more the normal course of business today,” Mr. Fuller said.

J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc., one of the largest U.S. freight carriers, is giving its drivers a $500 bonus. The Lowell, Ark.-based trucker said this week it is also providing employees with hand sanitizer and gloves, and has set up an emergency Covid-19 paid-time off policy for its staff.

There is at least one thing drivers don’t have to contend with these days: traffic.

At the junction of Interstate 85 and I-285 in Atlanta, a notorious bottleneck where the afternoon rush hour typically slows to less than 15 miles an hour, last week saw traffic moving at 53 miles an hour, according to GPS data analyzed by the American Transportation Research Institute, an industry group.

In Los Angeles, a city infamous for its traffic, trucks averaged 53 miles an hour at the intersection of I-710 and I-105 during the morning rush hour, over twice the usual speed.

 

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