June 27, 2018
Column | outbound

The long and the short of it at the AAR

The rail trade group has gone from agnostic to adversarial on the issue of nationwide use of twin-33 truck trailers. Its rationale is puzzling.

By Mitch Mac Donald

A "non sequitur" is defined by Merriam-Webster's dictionary as a "conclusion that does not follow from the statements that lead to it." Which brings us to the Association of American Railroads' (AAR) recent about-face on the issue of allowing trucks with 33-foot twin-trailers to operate in all 50 states.

In an op-ed appearing at the end of May in the political outlet "The Hill," AAR CEO Edward R. Hamberger wrote that adding 10 feet of trailer length to the current maximum size of 28 feet apiece would result in more trucks on the highways and would increase the physical stress on an already-overburdened infrastructure. Congressional action allowing the use of such vehicles on the entire National Highway System (20 states allow them now) should be conditioned on requiring truckers to cover the true cost of fixing the roads they use and wear out, rather than having taxpayers continue to subsidize the work through billions of dollars in transfers from the general fund to the Highway Trust Fund, Hamberger wrote.

Yet the AAR's concerns about damage caused by longer trucks don't seem to square with the logic. Five more feet of capacity per trailer could actually eliminate millions of trips and billions of miles by allowing shippers to load goods for more deliveries that could be made on single runs. Road damage is caused by heavier trucks, not by vehicles whose trailer lengths would be extended. The extra capacity would likely be filled with e-commerce shipments that still consist mostly of high-cube, lighter-weight packages. What's more, the longer combo vehicles would be equipped with a sixth axle that improves the vehicle's stability and allows for a more even ride on the roads.

Given all that, Hamberger's quid pro quo seems disingenuous. Longer trucks are not the road infrastructure's bogeyman; heavier trucks are. The AAR would have been on firmer ground had it argued that highway on- and off-ramps were not designed to accommodate vehicles with twin-trailers longer than 28 feet each. Or that drivers would need more room in order to make right-hand turns. Connecting 10 more feet of length to the potential for road damage is a dog that doesn't hunt.

Ironically, the Class I railroads that have long made up the core of AAR's membership have little skin in the longer-truck game. Because they mostly haul heavy bulk commodities, the railroads understandably perceive that their greatest competitive threat comes in the form of efforts to raise the ceiling on trucks' gross vehicle weight limits to 91,000 pounds from 80,000. AAR has reserved its formidable lobbying firepower for the truck weight issue, and it has stayed out of the truck size debate. Until now.

Why did the association change its tune? The answer may be found in the nation's shortline railroads, which have aggressively opposed any change in the truck size and weight limits last modified in 1982. A number of short lines or regional railroads have joined the ranks of AAR's "full" members, a far cry from days past when six Class Is called the shots. The shortline/regional faction may have done some internal lobbying to convince AAR leadership to publicly oppose truck size increases. The leadership, which had nothing to lose by changing its stance, did just that. According to an AAR spokeswoman, the group only takes a position when there is "consensus amongst our members."

As it happens, there doesn't appear to be much chance of enacting the first change in truck-trailer sizes since 1982. The House Appropriations Committee effectively kicked the can down the road when it told the Department of Transportation to "promptly report to the committees of jurisdiction any updated findings on the impact" of raising the twin-trailer limits. The Senate Appropriations Committee had yet to act at this writing.

About the Author

Mitch Mac Donald
Group Editorial Director
Mitch Mac Donald has more than 30 years of experience in both the newspaper and magazine businesses. He has covered the logistics and supply chain fields since 1988. Twice named one of the Top 10 Business Journalists in the U.S., he has served in a multitude of editorial and publishing roles. The leading force behind the launch of Supply Chain Management Review, he was that brand's founding publisher and editorial director from 1997 to 2000. Additionally, he has served as news editor, chief editor, publisher and editorial director of Logistics Management, as well as publisher of Modern Materials Handling. Mitch is also the president and CEO of Agile Business Media, LLC, the parent company of DC VELOCITY and CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly.

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