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Salem Trucking builds on straight line hauls

With no doubt about it, the shortest distance to a successful company is a straight line, says Dick Salem, president of Salem Trucking in Lincoln, Nebraska. The plan is a direct route from here to there and from there back to here — in Salem Trucking's case from the Midwest meat patch to the Great Lakes states and back with no detours or side trips, he says.

In fact, the real key to making Salem Trucking work is the inbound lane to the meat plants in the communities surrounding Lincoln. “To succeed, we have to have empty trailers available to the meat packers, so we essentially built the business backward, filling the inbound lane first and hauling meat outbound to reach those shippers,” Salem says.

While that description may be a little oversimplified, it comes close enough to reality, he says. The business started, because, basically, Salem wanted to drive a truck. “With my father's oil distributorship in Lincoln, I had a built-in customer in Nebraska,” Salem says. “Starting with a single truck in 1983, I would trip lease on the outbound leg to Pennsylvania and come back to Lincoln with loads of packaged petroleum products.”

Monfort fleet lessor

That early experience led to a lease as an independent contractor with Monfort Transportation providing tractors and pulling Monfort's trailers. At first, Salem provided three tractors and six drivers. Although each tractor had two drivers assigned, it was a slip-seat operation, not teams. Eventually, Salem had 49 tractors leased to Monfort.

Now a privately held for-hire carrier, Salem Trucking runs 42 tractors and 69 trailers in a fleet of 55 reefers and 14 dry vans. The refrigerated trailers haul fresh beef and pork eastbound and packaged petroleum westbound, along the same routing the company used when it started. The dry vans make weekly trips with electrical components to manufacturing plants just across the border between Arizona and Mexico and return with finished goods. Because the manufacturing plants depend on timely delivery, loads in the dry vans are just as time sensitive as refrigerated loads and run whether or not the trailer is full, Salem says.

“This is a trucking company run by a driver,” Salem says, “so the goal never has been large market share. We run on a predictable schedule for a few customers to a small number of receivers. Drivers almost always are home on the same days every week. The longest eastbound haul is about 750 miles with full loads for receivers in Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. When we ran for Monfort, we went all the way to the East Coast. Now, Pittsburgh is about as far east as we go. Most drivers make two runs a week — one that takes three to four days and one that takes two days. One driver makes three trips a week to Chicago.”

Same vendor for 27 years

The stability Salem Trucking drivers experience in routing applies to their equipment as well. For the first 27 years of operation, the company bought nothing but Freightliner tractors. The standard tractor at Salem Trucking remains the Columbia from Freightliner; although, the most recent group of Freightliners were the Classic. In addition, the company recently took delivery of five 9400 series tractors from International.

Basic practice has been to purchase conventional cab tractors with high horsepower engines, 10-speed overdrive transmissions, and premium interiors, Salem says. Over the years, this has resulted in a succession of engine purchases starting with the Series 60 from Detroit Diesel, some of the first ISX engines from Cummins, and most recently the MBE 4000 from Mercedes-Benz. “We got some of the first Mercedes engines that Freightliner offered, and until we bought these last five Internationals, Mercedes had become our standard engine,” he says.

The Mercedes engines are lighter and slightly smaller than Detroit Diesel or Cummins engines with the same horsepower rating. The fleet standard has been the 12.8-liter MBE 4000 rated at 450 hp since 2004. Tractors equipped with those engines average between 6.1 and 6.2 miles per gallon.

Searching for economy

Switching engines from time to time has been the result of a constant search for vehicle reliability and higher fuel economy. For instance, Salem says he began asking for engines with multiple torque ratings in the late 1990s. “We wanted engines that could communicate with the transmissions and produce lower torque in the lower gears,” he says. “In the 2000 model year, Cummins produced an engine that offered a torque rating of 1,650 lb-ft in the lower gears and increased peak torque to 1,850 lb-ft in the top two gears. We had a number of those engines installed in an order of Freightliner Classics.”

The five new tractors are 9400 models from International. Since the Mercedes-Benz engine is not available from International, the new tractors use Cummins ISX engines rated at 450 hp. Transmissions are the same 10-speed overdrive Eaton Roadrangers specified for the rest of the fleet.

In the current fleet, the Mercedes engines are performing well and should run at least 800,000 miles before overhaul, Salem says. In recent years, the company trade cycle has ranged from as short as two years to as long as four years. “The engines are performing so well that we will probably keep the newest group of Freightliners for four to four and a half years,” he says.

The changing trade cycle reflects the long view of truck use. “We look at our truck orders carefully and watch how they are maintained,” Salem says. “As a result, we try hard not to have problems with the fleet. In general, we run a maintenance program that takes care of potential problems before they can become real.”

No early 2007 purchases

All engines in the fleet are from the 2004 model year or newer. Plans are to keep everything now in service for at least another 18 months. “We are not particularly afraid of the 2007 engines, because it seems as though the manufacturers are further along in the development cycle than they were at this same point with the October 2002 engines,” he says. “Still we don't plan to buy engines through at least the first half — and probably all — of 2007. We will stick with that plan, if for no other reason, because of the increased price of the new engines. Price increases of about $8,500 per truck are the lowest estimates we have heard.”

Engines and other large components get plenty of attention when Salem Trucking sets its specifications; however, little convenience items are considered as well. For instance, tractors are equipped with an air-actuated fifthwheel latch with the control mounted on the dashboard. It is a relatively inexpensive option that can play a big role in keeping drivers safe. “I don't like pulling a fifthwheel latch by hand, and I don't want my drivers doing that either,” Salem says. “Not having to stand on an icy surface pulling on a balky latch is a good way to protect drivers from falling down.”

Trailer specifications that protect drivers also are important. Salem Trucking runs 53-ft Great Dane Super Seal reefers with Thermo King refrigeration. In general, trailers are built to conventional truckload carrier specifications. One small change will be put in place with the next trailer order; the vans will be equipped with air-powered landing gear legs. “Standing on an icy surface trying to crank the landing gear up or down is a good way for a driver to get hurt,” Salem says. “Air-powered landing gear can prevent those potential injuries.”

High tire mileage

Tires get plenty of attention as well. The company has run on Goodyear rubber from the beginning, he says. He is particularly pleased with the performance of the G395 steering axle tires. The latest model Goodyear steer tire, the G395 LHS, is averaging 195,000 miles before being recapped and moved to trailers.

Prior to the G395 LHS, steering axle tire mileage was nearer to 100,000 miles before moving to trailers, says Gary Stepanek, maintenance shop supervisor at Salem Trucking. In addition to higher mileage, the new model tires wear more evenly. Average life for drive tires — Goodyear G372 LHDs — is 315,000 miles. In the case of both steer and drive tires, carcasses are recapped once for use on trailers with Goodyear UniCircle 314 treads.

Stepanek credits careful tire monitoring by Salem Trucking technicians as well as original tire quality for the long tread life. The shop technicians, who mount and change tires, pull the steer tires with 5/32 nds of tread remaining. Drive tires move with between 8/32 nds and 9/32 nds of tread left. Tire pressure is carefully maintained at 105 psi in steer tires and 100 psi for drive axle tires and trailer tires.

Salem Trucking does most of its own tire work but no longer keeps tires in stock. “We used to keep an inventory, but not anymore,” Stepanek says. “Now we rely on Graham Tire in Lincoln to deliver tires when we need them, even after hours.”

70 mph company limit

Although Salem Trucking provides plenty of horsepower in its tractors, speed is not the reason. “We have the power to move with the other truck traffic,” Salem says, “but we don't allow our trucks to go faster than 70 mph. Putting that limit in place was fairly controversial at first with our drivers, but it makes sense, because we don't operate in any state other than Nebraska that has a truck speed limit higher than 70.

“It also makes sense, because we have a responsibility to other traffic on the highways. We have to operate safely. The public expects us to pay attention, not to hit them, and, just as importantly, not to scare them.”

While Salem insists on operating his fleet no faster than 70, he does not support the recent American Trucking Associations proposal to limit commercial traffic to 68 mph. “We run 70 along with all the other traffic, primarily for fuel economy,” he says. “At 70, our engines are running at about 1,475 rpm — close to peak efficiency. If trucks were limited to 68 mph, the differential in speed between trucks and cars would probably contribute to increased highway congestion. Just think of the time it would take for a truck running 68 to pass a vehicle running a couple of miles per hour slower.”

Limited speed certainly doesn't limit the effectiveness of the Salem Trucking operation. The company delivers about 150 loads weekly to about 40 different receivers with an on-time record well in excess of 99%. Trucks average about 12,000 miles monthly, which puts them on a pace to exceed annual mileage for many truckload carriers with longer lengths of haul.

Those miles are run safely as well. In its history, Salem Trucking has run almost 200 million miles without being involved in a single at-fault injury accident.

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