February 12, 2016 4:00 PM, EST
Trailer Makers Finding Ways to Stretch 28-Footers
Strick Trailers
This story appears in the Feb. 8 print edition of Equipment & Maintenance Update, a supplement to Transport Topics.

While politicians, Hill aides and lobbyists worked on or against legislation that would have allowed twin 33-foot trailers on the national highway system, manufacturers and their fleet customers took note, and the trailer makers busied themselves with improving techniques for stretching 28-foot pup trailers into 33-footers.

The trailer provision, much desired by less-than-truckload and parcel carriers, was ultimately not included in year-end budget legislation, but the experience on how to do the work remains, in case it is ever needed in the future. Trailer makers were preparing because the 33-footers’ chances seemed greater in late 2015 compared with attempts in previous years, observers said. That anticipation also led to lighter sales of 28-foot pups.

Glenn Harney, chief sales officer of Hyundai Translead, told Equipment & Maintenance Update that his manufacturing company has stretched some 28-foot pups already for several customers in “anticipation of the law eventually getting passed.” He said the purpose was to determine beforehand which method each customer preferred.

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“Some were stretched by splicing top and bottom rails as well as the floor and roof. Some preferred new extrusions and roof but spliced the floor. Of course, there are longer electrical cords and air hoses required and those are mostly replaced with new, longer pieces,” Harney said.

“Is [greater use of twin 33s] dead forever? Who knows?” said David Gilliland, vice president of national accounts at Great Dane Trailers. “Obviously, the less-than-truckload guys would love to have it happen, and most of the truckload guys are the opposite.”

U.S. registrations of new 28-foot trailers plummeted through the first three quarters of last year to 8,345 units, down 57% from 19,398 in 2014, said IHS Automotive, which tracks truck and trailer registrations.

“Less-than-truckload carriers were delaying purchases of 28-foot pups, waiting for the 33s to get approved in 2015. It did not happen, and the LTL carriers placed their 48-foot and 53-foot needs,” Gilliland said.

Robert Lane, director of business development at Wabash National Corp., said his company also has stretched 28-foot trailers to 33 feet for select customers since 2014. Retrofit demand — if the law changes — would be difficult to predict, he said, “but we have done all the engineering legwork and exhibited a 33-foot pup trailer at [American Trucking Associations’ Technology & Maintenance Council] in 2014. So we are ready to meet market demand.”

Frederick Smith, chairman and CEO of FedEx Corp., said during a December conference call to discuss earnings that he was extremely disappointed that Congress had blocked greater use of the trailers, which are already permitted in portions of 18 states.

FedEx ranks No. 2 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest U.S. and Canadian for-hire carriers. The company uses pup trailers for both its LTL and parcel operations.

Smith said his company has “safely driven [twin 33-foot trailers] almost 1.5 million miles in Florida alone. . . . With e-commerce exploding and U.S. automobile miles driven reaching a record high this year, 33-foot trailers would be an enormous benefit to our economy and significantly improve road safety.”

Sean McNally, a spokesman for ATA, which in 2015 advocated for wider use of 33s, said Jan. 7, “ATA is currently evaluating its advocacy priorities for 2016. We expect to have clearer direction on those priorities following our executive committee’s meeting,” scheduled for late January and early February.

Charles Willmott, chief sales officer at the Strick Group, said the real question is how federal approval for wider use of 33s would affect new manufacturing. He estimated the average age of a 28-foot trailer is in the range of 12-15 years. So fleets could be expected to accelerate their replacement schedule compared with their current one.

“I don’t think it will have the critical mass effect that people are forecasting,” Willmott said. “I don’t think it will be anything that the industry can’t handle with its available capacity.”

Lane also said Wabash would be able to serve the expected market.

“When considering both the economic and environmental benefits, along with road congestion reduction, we would expect that most, if not all, LTL fleets would want to take advantage of this opportunity, where it makes sense, as soon as made available. So, we would expect strong demand from the outset,” Lane said.

FedEx’s Smith said during the call that the longer trailers would be especially useful in handling the larger and more unusual-shaped items shipped through e-commerce.

Before Congress ended the issue, Harney said, Hyundai Translead assumed many 28-foot trailers in the backlog would be converted to 33s “and that would cause very little disruption, other than it might create a temporary gap while we wait on longer extrusions.”

Strick’s Willmott said he expected most fleets using smaller trailers initially would reach into their past five years of trailers and stretch those, “but simultaneously, they are going to want to order a lot more trailers to replace” 28-footers older than five years, he said.

David Giesen, vice president of sales at Stoughton Trailers, also said the pool of 28-foot pup trailers is very big and “also not young. Many customers will choose to not spend money extending an older trailer but will run to replacement.”

Giesen said he expected, if and when new legislation passes allowing wider use of twin 33s, that there will be a “likely three-year growth in demand as customers pull forward purchases to take advantage of the 17.9% productivity gains.”

Stoughton would have no issue building 33s and has built trailers of various lengths on many occasions. “We are prepared to build these, should they become allowed by law,” Giesen said.

Stoughton has not stretched any trailers to that size yet, but he said that would not be difficult for the company’s dealer network or other outside trailer repair facilities.

Craig Bennett, senior vice president of sales for Utility Trailer Manufacturing Co., said his family-owned business — the largest manufacturer of refrigerated trailers — has had few inquiries about 33-footers.

“The economics of twin 33-foot reefer doubles versus a 53-foot fleet is not nearly as good, due to the need to add a second reefer unit as well as the [connector] dolly,” Bennett said. “For 28-foot reefer fleets, there would be a benefit possibly if the train length works with their tractors, but still [there is] a sizable conversion cost.”

But having said that, Bennett pointed out that “the trucking goal has to be to haul more freight per truck driver, which can be accomplished with 33s, or longer combinations like is currently done in Canada, Mexico and on designated U.S. interstates.”

“The [fleets] with the ability would probably want to do it as quickly as they could because they would feel they have a competitive advantage with more 33s,” said Great Dane’s Gilliland.