Forest Baker, the acerbic guru of the truckstop industry, was coaxed out of retirement long enough to address the recent annual NATSO convention and share his views on the industry's future.
He spared neither the truckstop operators, the fleets nor the American Trucking Assns. from caustic criticism as he gazed into his crystal ball -- all the while offering constructive suggestions for improvement.
Baker, who recently stepped down as president of Transportation Research & Marketing, took the fleets to task on two fronts for using non-compliant fuel and for trying to squeeze the last penny of profit from truckstops on fuel purchases.
"I used to think we were in a three-legged race with the fleets with our middle legs strapped together," Baker said. "If we didn't run together, we would fall and become bruised and muddy. But from what I'm hearing recently, the fleets think we're in a wheelbarrow race and they're trying to pull us over the line backwards with our noses in the mud. That isn't fair!"
Non-compliance is becoming an increasingly serious problem. Baker said the Internal Revenue Service has told him we are approaching 20% non-tax compliant on diesel fuel. That gives a non-complying fleet a 7-cent a mile advantage over legitimate fleets.
"I think fleets should be more worried about non-compliance than about pulling the last penny out of the truckstop," he said.
Baker is convinced that the railroads pose one of the biggest threats to truckstop operators today. He said there is a steam locomotive on the drawing boards that will burn $15-a-ton coal in slurry - and continuing rail mergers will result in creation of two super transcontinental lines within the next decade.
Already, much freight is being piggybacked. The major LTL carriers -- Roadway, Yellow, Overnite. CF and UPS, and truckload carriers Hunt and Schneider - are using piggyback so efficiently that many shippers are unaware their goods are moving mostly by rail. Between the seven of them, Baker said, they own more than 200,000 trailers, and if the railroads start burning coal, those carriers are going to be "awesome competition" to traditional over-the-road fleets. Net result, reduced truckstop patronage.
Baker took the ATA to task for underreporting truck accident fatalities to "make us (and the general public) believe we're better than we are."
"Transport Topics claims we are now down in fatalities," he said, "but the figures I'm getting show that only six out of ten fatalities are actually being reported. We need to worry about that."
Hinting that truckstops may share the blame in truck fatalities caused by tired drivers, Baker said, "You have been quick to purge from your records the time of day that a fuel transaction was completed, so that DOT enforcement could not use the fuel ticket to audit a driver's hours of service."
Unethical carriers will let their drivers run 15 hours a day and ignore the 70 hour rule, Baker noted. Some fleet safety programs actually reward drivers handsomely for running 150,000 miles a year without an accident. But if you take loading time into consideration, it's almost impossible for a driver to legally run more than 100,000 miles a year. Thus by omitting time
of day from fuel tickets, the truckstops are abetting illegal operation.
Citing parking as one of trucking's thorniest current problems, Baker encouraged fleets and truckstops to work together to find a solution.
"It's a terrible problem for the fleets. I can think of no reason I would sleep well at night with my tractor pulled off at a diamond interchange in Wyoming where any Mongoloid with a shotgun could come shopping.
"I don't even get enthused about the rest area being a secure place to park. And yet in November, Transport Topics suggested that the federal government should furnish parking in rest areas. That's the last place we want them to be."
Baker drew enthusiastic applause when he told the operators of an experience he had recently while driving through Missouri. "Outside the Moon's Oak Grove truckstop at 7 a.m., we watched a line of trucks leave the parking lot and head straight across the road to fuel at a pumper station. There's no way that truckstop can support that parking lot for drivers to cross the street to buy fuel that's cheaper because those people don't have 30 acres of parking."
As a step toward solving the problem, Baker suggested that fleets might consider reserving a block of parking spaces every night at a given truckstop in exchange for a commitment to buy a specified amount of fuel at a reasonable margin, or by paying a flat fee whether or not the space was used.
"But under no circumstances should anyone else's trailer go into that space," he added. "With that kind of arrangement, I think truckstops would even be willing to expand parking lots, and increase lighting and security."
Baker said the truckstop industry has done a poor job of communicating with the fleets. "And if we don't change our ways, I'll be surprised in 20 years if any of you are here to figure it out.
"We need legislation and we need the 'black box' that Freightliner is proposing to put in every tractor it manufactures. It will tell us how many miles a truck has run and what kind of compliance has been practiced. It can even be programmed to tell us if the fuel that went into the tank was legal.
"If fleets and truckstops cooperate, if we figure out how to input data, and if we work with the regulatory agencies, we'll be here for another quarter century - and we'll all be eating pretty well."