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February 27, 2012 8:00 AM, EST

Letter: Once, It Was Fun

This Letter to the Editor appears in the Feb. 27 print edition of Transport Topics. Click here to subscribe today.

Once, It Was Fun

We are near the end of many years and 150 million miles of trucking in the northeastern United States.

I remember 1979, when I was 10 years old, sweeping the shop floors with my grandfather, Joseph B. Atkinson Sr., who had started working for my great-grandfather, Harry F. Atkinson, around 1935. He was always on his forklift, smoking a cigar and hollering in a joking fashion for everyone to keep working. He loved working on the dock and in the shop, as did I. Trucking was fun.

I remember when I was 16 and learning to run the road. It was hard work, delivering toilet paper into New York City, unloading floor loads and dealing with traffic. There was no air conditioning in the cab aside from a cold wet rag hanging from the roof inside. We had a cold water jug we would lift up to dip the towel in.

One day when we stopped for lunch, I sat down at the table, and my trainer, Kenny, said, “What are you doing?” I said, “Getting ready to eat.” Kenny laughingly said, “We don’t have time to sit; we have an appointment to meet. We eat in the truck.” My father’s rule was safety and on time, all the time.

I could share hundreds of priceless stories about our drivers. I remember them complaining about the color of their trucks and not having air conditioning or power steering and about everything else under the sun — and yes, sometimes about their paychecks. But they got home every night and were able to attend Little League games, father-and-daughter dances, plays and so forth.

I remember talking to our drivers every day on the phone, listening and learning. We didn’t have wireless communication until 1989.

I remember talking shop with my dad, Joseph B. Atkinson Jr., every night at the dinner table.

Yes, I remember when trucking was fun.

Over time, things have changed, in a bad way. During the late 1990s, costs started rising and competition from deregulation started showing. Rates began dropping. Operational pressures grew steadily, but we continued to fight and held on strong.

It was still kind of fun.

In 2000, my dad passed away. He made sure his funeral was held on a Saturday afternoon because he wanted his freight delivered on time and wanted his drivers and staff to be able to attend the funeral without business interruption. He had fun for 40-plus years at Atkinson Freight Lines.

During that same year and beyond, things got really tough. Customers were under extreme pressure to cut costs, and that really started to hurt trucking. It was not fun.

Federal regulations only will get worse, and fuel prices will continue to rise along with every other area. Rates are beginning to rise, but not enough for a regional carrier operating in the hardest region in the United States — the New Jersey and New York metro area.

We are compared with national averages and regional average market pricing, but our competition won’t service that area like we do, so is there really a market price? Every day, we are threatened with the loss of our lanes if we don’t lower prices because someone has underbid us. But the competition won’t provide the service we do, so does service really matter anymore?

Over the past five years, things really have changed. Drivers now are forced to sleep in their trucks or quit. They are forced to miss their children growing up. I get yelled at by drivers for these things, and it hurts.

At $4 a gallon for fuel, insane toll-bridge costs and low rates, the market is forcing these actions. I had to cut office support staff and cut salaries. It’s killing trucking, and it’s killing me.

It hurts to see a driver fighting with a dispatcher because of Little League games and other personal family needs. The American truck driver no longer has the market’s respect. How nice is it to make a driver sleep 50 miles away from his family because of tolls and fuel costs?

In the long run, I no longer can “disrespect” a truck driver because of market pricing. Pricing is killing our truck driver families, and I cannot be part of that any longer. It’s no longer fun — but I will continue to remember when it was.

This letter is dedicated to my great-grandfather, my grandfather, my father, the Atkinson Freight family and my own family: Susan, Erin, Joe IV and Christopher.

Joseph B. (Duke) Atkinson III

Atkinson Freight Lines

Bensalem, Pa.