The Agent Says to the Trucker

Big Timber, Montana

Now you’re telling trucker jokes, MacGyver said, as I slapped the cellphone closed.

The recorded message left by an agent looking for a truck to pull her load left me snickering. “It’s a great load,” she said, “paying $2,000. Kitty litter!”

Like that would make the trip more palatable. Not to an owner operator who wants to keep as much money as possible in her pocket. Let’s dissect the business end of a load.

The kitty litter, picking up in Seattle, Washington, dropping in Salt Lake City, Utah paid 818 miles, never mind that the actual distance is 841 miles. Landstar pays owner operators, like us, pulling company-owned, 53 foot, dry van trailers, an empty box on wheels, 65 percent of the linehaul, also known as the rate per mile, and 100 percent of the fuel surcharge, which fluctuates with the price fuel.

The most important piece of information on this load was the weight, 44,155 pounds.  First, we can’t take this load. Our gross vehicle weight is 80,000 pounds, Volvos with Cummins engines, ours is a 500 HP ISX, are notoriously heavy on the steer axle. Add our 450 pound Auxillary Power Unit, which brings us heat, air conditioning and electricity, and our new automatic tire chains on both drive axles and fully loaded with fuel we are grazing 12,500 pounds, the maximum allowable on our front axle. Our tractor with an empty trailer is 37,100 pounds.

Our old stripped down, fleet model Schneider Freightliner Century Class, empty, tractor and trailer was just under 35,000 pounds, leaving us about 1,000 pounds under gross weight on the kitty litter load.

Even if we could take the load, we wouldn’t. Simple mathematics. Hinging on the price of fuel.

In Landstar’s freight world, all deadhead is FREE. Any travel to pick up a load is paid for by the driver, so when we are calculating the rate per mile we must add deadhead to pickup and deadhead to layover, the location where we wait for another load. We are interested in the ALL miles rate.

If we were in Seattle, and we have only once been less than 50 miles from pickup, the kitty litter load would have paid us $1.75 for 818 miles, but since the actual mileage was 841, it really pays $1.70 a mile, again if we were in Seattle.

If we were in Blaine, 130 miles away, which we were, it paid $1.48 a mile, add 20 miles on the delivery side to get to a truck stop to wait for another load and the cost of scaling — weighing the loaded truck at the CAT scale — we’re down to $1.44 a mile, all miles, which is not a horrible rate for a dry van load, depending of course, on the owner’s cost per mile. (We scale all loads over 30,000 pounds to make sure we are under 80,000 pounds gross weight and legal on all axles, 12,000 pounds on the steers, and 34,000 pounds maximum of the tractor drive axles and the trailer tandems. Fines for overweight loads are steep. It cost one driver $156 in California to be 200 pounds over on the trailer axles. It costs $9.50 to scale.)

The reason we have all these numbers at a keyboard stroke is that MacGyver is a genius. He built a FileMaker Pro database for every eventuality on a load, revenue and cost. Plug in the numbers and ipso presto, it tells us if the load is profitable or not.

If we filled up in Seattle, which we did, we paid $4.229 for a gallon of diesel. We drive 58 mph, most drivers do not, preferring to believe that it takes money to make money — drive fast, make more miles make more money they think — trust us, it’s not true. We want light loads, less than 25,000 pounds and terrain that is easy on fuel or a rate to compensate. The kitty litter is heavy and the terrain is mountainous. It should pay more to pull heavy, I think, because it costs more in fuel and wear and tear on the tractor.

Truckers know the only way to Salt Lake City from Seattle is to go east on I-84 and pull up “The Cabbage” in Oregon, just east of Pendleton, windy and steep, virtually straight up for six miles. Treacherous in rain, snow and ice.

But on a beautiful day, heading west it is glorious. It feels like flying, to crest the top of I-84 and greet the open arms of the wide, deep valley below, crisscrossed by green grass and fertile brown soil, a valley which seems blessed with a perpetual rainbow before the very slow descent.

“Pull 44,155 pounds of kitty litter up the “The Cabbage”? Not me.”

We’re on our way to Pennsylvania pulling 15,000 pounds.

4 thoughts on “The Agent Says to the Trucker

  1. I love the way agents always think their loads are "great". And how they conveniently leave out the per mile price when they're telling you about it. They spit out the total line haul and expect you to answer immediately, likely hoping that you won't take a minute to do the calculations, which they know will result in a resounding "NO" to their question of whether or not you'll pull their load. Ugh.

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  2. I've learned the hard way in business, to never spit out a price without checking some numbers and to avoid agreeing to something until I check, but still it happens. I miss that one question, forget to ask again, or clarify the answer and SNAP, OUCH, it comes back to bite. And it seems to be a small business rule of thumb, the cheaper you do something, or if you think for a minute that you shouldn't do something, the nastier the blow back. Ugh is right. What do people say? Live and learn, hopefully before I die!

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  3. I am finding your blog posts a fascinating read. The topics you ponder, digest, and share are new and interesting to those of us who only see big trucks as something to pass on the highway. I love reading and giving new light to something I see every day.

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  4. Sarah – Thanks for dropping by. I never thought much about the big trucks or drivers either, in fact, I was mostly scared driving by them. It's a complicated industry, essential to life in the city, but many parties, agents, regulators, politicians are divorced from the reality of life on the road.

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