The Trucking Business: Then and Now

John Tait2John Tait knows the trucking business.

His career in trucking started in 1978 in Vancouver. At that time, he was owner-operator of a five-ton truck purchased with money made in the Powell River mill. He obtained his Class I licence the next year and purchased a tractor-trailer. Tait returned to Powell River in 1984, driving his own truck for City Transfer then moving on to drive the company’s trucks. He also spent a long stint as the office dispatcher:

“It’s very high-wired. You’re pretty stressed trying to keep everybody happy and juggling balls. We were under the gun to keep everyone happy:  the customers, the drivers, the shippers and receivers. We did everything needed to make it work.”

He returned to driving in 2006, working for Texada Transfer.

Tait has seen a lot of changes over the years. “When I drove my own tractor, I made about $25 an hour.  In 1979, that was quite a lot of money. In the early 1980s, I used to go back and forth to Seattle all the time with containers, making between $300 to $400 per day. That’s back when diesel was 33 cents a litre and trucks cost a quarter of what they cost now. Even then, I could see the writing on the wall.  I doubt they’re making that much money now.”

As he explains, much of the long-haul trucking of general freight has been replaced by the piggyback train service.

“The Asian market comes into Vancouver or Seattle and unloads. The trailers are then loaded on short-haul trucks and brought to a rail head such as CN Rail in Surrey, where they’re loaded onto flat cars and sent east. On the return trip, the trains are loaded with manufactured goods, food products, cigarettes.  That all used to be hauled by trucks on the road.”

What caused the change from truck to train? “It’s cheaper. There’s one big train with a few engines and one small train crew hauling 500 trailers on their flat decks, plus the train cars and containers.”

For Tait, the future lies more in short-haul trucking. “They’ve got to take those trailers off the flat cars and start delivering all over town.  After reloading, it’s back to the trains again.”

Even in Powell River, change is afoot. City Transfer and Texada Transfer remain as key players, hauling everything from nuts and bolts to household appliances and food items; from shakes and lumber to core samples from the mines. Other companies are taking a different approach. “The mill used to be a big shipper of paper but now everything goes on the barge.”  There is also a larger influx of trucks from Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland.  “You’ll notice that when the ferry arrives in the morning a lot of trucks come off. They’re not Powell-River based: they come, unload, and go back.

Goat Lake Forest Products and other local outfits continue to run logging trucks. “Drivers who work directly for one of them seem to do pretty well. Or you can be a subcontractor if you own your own truck.”

Tait says there are plenty of jobs in Vancouver for anyone with a Class I licence. “You’re going to get a job eventually.  My daughter does that in Vancouver right now. She had another job for years, making pretty good money, but she got tired of it. She knew there was bigger money in hauling. Now she’s making $27 an hour as a company driver, driving around town. And it’s not hard work.”

What does Tait advise a newly graduated Class I driver, with no significant road experience?  “Some companies insist on three years of experience, but you’ve got to start someplace. Start off with a little ma-and-pa trucking outfit and move on from there.”

He adds that there is also good money to be made in hauling furniture. “You have to start from the ground up. It’s black art and one you have to learn the hard way: you need to know how to blanket wrap so as not to damage people’s pianos or very expensive furniture. And if a piece of furniture has a scratch on it, you need to know that before you take possession of it.” In the end, however, all that effort can really pay off.

The big money however is in hauling fuel up north. “You can make up to $250 an hour as an owner operator. Even the drivers are making $32-36 an hour, plus overtime. You need a Class 1 Licence with air, plus H2S Alive. And, of course, you have to be willing to live in Fort St. John or Fort Mac or Fort Nelson,  because that’s where the money is. Fuel drivers, he cautions, need a spotless record: no impaired charges, no infractions on a licence. Drivers are also regularly tested for drugs and alcohol.

What would John Tait do if he were starting out as a 20 year old today?  “I’d get my Class 1 and go straight up north. That’s the quickest way to get ahead, financially and experience wise. Then six, eight, 10 years from now, you can move back to the coast. You’d still be under 30 and light years ahead.”

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