AS THE “Elite” fleet, National Carriers is driven to be number one in refrigerated transportation. That includes building a strong driver team of skilled professionals dedicated to providing the best service in the safest manner.

Further, management has made sure the drivers have the tools they need to do the job, and that includes premium late model sleeper tractors and refrigerated trailers with leading edge technology for monitoring cargo conditions in-transit. Tractors and trailers have some of the latest aerodynamic treatments.

The carrier’s 680 drivers operate 550 tractors and just over 1,000 refrigerated trailers in the refrigerated division. On the livestock fleet side, the carrier runs 150 tractors and 170 trailers.

“Over the past year, we made major investment in state-of-the-art tractors for our refrigerated fleet,” says Jim Franck, president of National Carriers. “The trucks were spec’d with driver comfort and efficiency at the forefront. “We’re also continuing to update our trailer fleet.

“We installed new maintenance software to give us usable real-time data to keep our fleet in top running order. This is giving us the ability to perform predictive maintenance so we can maximize uptime.

“All of these factors help us deliver consistently outstanding service to our customers. Our on-time delivery rate is exceptionally high, a testament to the reliability of our equipment and the diligence of our drivers.”

Refrigerated focus

The focus on fleet reliability is understandable since refrigerated cargoes account for 70% of the freight hauled by National Carriers. Thirty percent to 35% of the refrigerated cargo comes from parent company National Beef Packing Company LLC.

For many years, National Carriers had its main office at the National Beef plant in Liberal, Kansas. The carrier still lists the Liberal office as a headquarters, but most of the management team is now based at an additional headquarters location in Irving, Texas.

“We had a presence in Irving since the 1980s, and we opened the terminal in 2010,” Franck says. “This is the first free-standing terminal National Carriers has owned. With 30% of our fleet now based in north Texas, the Dallas (Texas) area has become a critical hub. This is the crossroads for our east/west and north/south traffic. It truly has become the center of our operation.”

Well over half of the National Carriers refrigerated fleet is in longhaul operation. Overall length of haul is 700 miles, and longhaul drivers typically stay on the road three to four weeks at a stretch.

Six to seven years ago, owner-operators made up most of the driver force in the refrigerated fleet operation. Today, company drivers are the overwhelming majority in the refrigerated fleet.

Driver supply

Even though the truck driver supply has tightened, National Carriers still finds enough qualified candidates to meet its needs. In addition, the refrigerated fleet has begun hiring student drivers with little or no truck driving experience.

Factors that attract experienced drivers, along with newcomers, include steady freight on regional or over-the-road routes and a recent 14.1% pay increase that will keep drivers moving and making a good living. In addition, drivers can earn more through fuel conservation and driver referral bonuses. National Carriers also has a relatively liberal policy for riders and pets.

The carrier takes pride in its driver team, and outstanding performance is rewarded. Recognition programs include Driver of the Month and Driver of the Year. Qualifications for these honors include always being safe and always being on time for a pick up or delivery.

National Carriers also has a Million Mile Club. Ed Kentner, National Carriers director of social media, says it takes at least seven straight years of accident- and incident-free driving to reach that first million-mile mark.

Driver retention

The various programs are critical to driver retention. Fleet specifications are just as important.

When it comes to selecting the best truck for the National Carriers fleet, Franck quickly says: “Reliability and cost of ownership are key factors. The key is to find a truck that gives you uptime and a truck that drivers like to drive. And, that truck has to have a low cost of ownership, otherwise it won’t make you money.”

Franck says National Carriers found the right balance with the Kenworth T680 with 76-inch sleeper, which has become the “standard” for the reefer division’s fleet. “The T680’s aerodynamics, reliability—and that of the PACCAR MX-13 engine—coupled with driver acceptance, is what sold us,” he says. “From a dollars and cents standpoint, we’re seeing a one mile per gallon improvement in fuel economy over the performance of our previous standard truck. Our fleet also is now equipped with APUs and idle time has been reduced to less than 10%. That reduction represents about half of our savings—so all told we have a fleet average of 7.5 mpg, with our best drivers getting around 8.”

For auxiliary power units, the refrigerated carrier has standardized on the Thermo King TriPac Evolution. Other special equipment includes Blue Tree Systems technology that is used on both tractors and trailers in the National Carriers fleet.

“We use the Blue Tree technology for electronic driver logs and to monitor truck systems,” says Darrel Crabtree, National Carriers assistant maintenance director. “On the refrigerated trailers, we monitor trailer temperature, refrigeration unit setpoint, and fuel supply. The system is doing a great job for us.”

Tractor specs

National Carriers began transitioning into the Kenworth T680 two years ago, purchasing the driver-friendly, aerodynamic trucks through MHC Kenworth-Dallas. The company’s latest Kenworth T680s are specified with the 455-hp PACCAR MX-13 engine and driven through the Eaton Fuller Advantage 10-speed automated transmission.

“We really spec’d these trucks with driver comfort in mind,” Franck says. “And we feel they contribute in part to our low driver turnover, which is well below the industry average.”

According to Franck, the T680s feature rotating tables so they can be used as desk top, or dining table. The trucks also feature a drawer style refrigerator/freezer, TV installation package, and inverter for converting DC power to AC power for use with microwaves and other appliances.

One of the first drivers to operate the Kenworth T680 was Goldie Seymour, who has driven trucks for more than 40 years. Seymour was National Carriers’ 2014 Driver of the Year.

“You couldn’t get me out of this truck with a crowbar,” Seymour says. She originally began driving the T680 as a company driver, but then converted the truck into National’s lease operator program.

“That’s been a great decision,” she says. “National wants me to be successful and they work with all their lease operator drivers closely to help ensure that happens. If I’m successful, they’re successful.”

Quiet truck

According to Seymour, “Baby Blue,” as she calls her T680, is the quietest truck she has ever driven and it’s very smooth.

“The truck was also designed with women in mind; you can tell by the dash layout and seat travel,” she says.  “I’m 5’4” and can easily reach all the controls and pedals. That can’t be said about all trucks out there.”

Seymour said she was a little hesitant about the truck at the start since it was spec’d with an automated transmission. “I’m old school and had never driven an automated—not even in my car,” she says. “I’ve just always wanted full control of my vehicle. But I’ll tell you what—you can teach an old dog a new trick. I wouldn’t want to go back to a manual.”

The Eaton Fuller Advantage transmission improves Seymour’s fuel economy by automatically choosing ideal shift points appropriate for every condition of load and speed.

“I was worried about how it would perform in the mountains of Pennsylvania and Tennessee, but it shifts on its own,” she says. “The integrated electronics provide variable torque levels and proper skip shifting, so there’s no guesswork.”

Reefer trailers

Utility Trailers supplied the newest 53-ft refrigerated trailers in the fleet, and more are coming. Crabtree says the carrier ordered more than 200 new trailers last year and another 200 for this year.

“We want to drop our fleet’s average trailer age below four years,” he says. “We’re making progress, but it’s going to take a while.”

The trailers are designed to hold -20°F and are spec’d with three to four inches of foamed in place insulation, US Liner’s Versitex sidewall liners, and corrugated aluminum floors. Included on the new trailers are Thermo King’s leading edge Precedent refrigeration units with SR4 digital controls.

Outside, the trailers are equipped with SmartTruck UT6 aerodynamics. Trailer running gear includes Hendrickson’s Vantraax air suspension system and Tiremaax tire inflation.

With all of the steps that have been taken to ensure that drivers have the best equipment to meet customer needs, National Carriers is showing that it truly is the “Elite” fleet in refrigerated trucking.  ♦