Some federal regulations just make sense. Take the new rules governing the maintenance of intermodal chassis, passed as part of the Federal Highway Reauthorization bill and signed into law by the President in August, 2005. It's only reasonable to set standards and assign responsibility for the maintenance of the estimated 750,000 to 1,000,000 intermodal chassis that haul cargo containers up and down America's highways. But up until now, no one has been responsible... and the trucking industry has been paying a heavy price for it.
Historically, if one of your drivers picked up an intermodal cargo container at a port or a railroad terminal, he or she would first need to pick up a chassis. But until the driver conducted a pre-trip inspection, he or she would have no idea what they were getting.
"You could have good ones one week and then the next week you'll get ten bad ones right in a row," says Randy Guillot, president of New Orleans, LA-based Southeastern Motor Freight. "The lights are out, the air lines are broken, the brakes are out of adjustment. That's what we've been living with as an industry.
"The big issue for me was that we don't own the chassis, we only operate them. Yet we were the ones responsible on the roadside inspections when DOT would pull you over," Guillot says. "We were the ones whose safety records were being dinged because of chassis issues. We had the opportunity to inspect, but we didn't have the opportunity to maintain these units. Nor did we see maintenance records. So we were being blamed for everything on those chassis and we didn't own them or maintain them. That's a big sore spot on our side."
"A lot of the chassis are older than hell," says Curtis Whelan, executive director of the Intermodal Motor Carriers' Conference of the American Trucking Associations (ATA). "When you go to the area where the trucker picks up the chassis before he picks up the container, a lot of them, even to the untrained eye, look like pieces of junk. They're rusty, there might be a light hanging off, or not there at all, you don't know if the attachment mechanisms are working properly.
"This was not a deal where there's a nice brand-new, clean chassis waiting for you," he says. "You were sent to a chassis area and it was up to you to find a good one, and there were days when the ones that were out there were not necessarily up to anyone's standards. But if you're a trucker and you're supposed to pick up the container, what are you going to do? Do you wait for a better one to be dropped off, or do you say, ‘I'll take this one. This is the best I can get.' It's deferred maintenance. These things were looked at once a year and they had a stamp put on them. There isn't a lot to them, but they are a very safety-critical portion of moving a very heavy container somewhere."
How did this sad state of affairs come about? According to Whelan, it all happened because of a marketing strategy.
"In the rest of the world, the trucker generally owns his chassis, and what was done (in the U.S.) was the ocean carriers wanted to keep their chassis as part of their marketing," he explains. "So, when they would go out and get business, part of the deal was that they had chassis available."
As the intermodal industry grew in North America, ocean carriers, railroads and trucking companies all agreed to adhere to the Uniform Intermodal Interchange and Facilities Access Agreement. The agreement spelled out which of the three stakeholders was responsible for which aspects of the intermodal shipping system, yet, strangely, it left the matters of chassis maintenance and inspection up in the air.
"Under the agreement, if I pick up a chassis and I'm moving a container around and some damage occurs, the issue becomes, who has to pay for that?" Whelan says. "And the agreement was not particularly specific. So there was always a battle, for instance, with tires, as to whether or not tire damage that occurred while the chassis was in the possession of the motor carrier or the trucker was because the driver hit a curb, or didn't have it inflated correctly, or was the result of normal wear and tear on the tire itself."