Railroad readiness

April 1, 2007
IN DALTON, Georgia, about 70 freight trains pass through town daily, many of them bringing products to serve the carpet industry that dominates the area's economy.

IN DALTON, Georgia, about 70 freight trains pass through town daily, many of them bringing products to serve the carpet industry that dominates the area's economy.

“It's a busy place,” says Jimmy Brown, president of Dixie Transport Inc. “We realized in 1981 that hauling plastics would be a benefit for us because of the railroad availability. TRANSFLO Terminal Services provides excellent service at their transloading facility here, and we have a good working relationship with them.”

The carrier operates a dry bulk fleet with about 10 pneumatic trailers, and keeps about 25 customers supplied with the plastics used at carpet mills. Typical cargoes include polyethylene, polypropylene, polyester, and nylon.

Having a small non-hazardous materials fleet has its advantages, mainly in making it easier to recruit and hold drivers, Brown says. The other side of the coin is meeting the local carpet mill demands.

“We manage their silo inventory and keep up with the railcars that are storing product at the transloading sites,” says Brown. “And, we have to be sure they have the just-in-time service that they need for their operations.”

Another requirement is avoiding cross-contamination (based on plastics color). “We have one trailer that we use for colored plastics and the rest are dedicated to white,” he notes.

Flour hauling

In addition to the carpet mill service, Dixie Transport hauls flour to a food processor that requires the product to be blown off at five psi to satisfy the operation of plant sifters. The carrier loads the flour at transloading facilities and then drops the trailer at the processor location.

“Most food manufacturers don't have enough space on site for the number of silos they need, so by dropping off the trailer, they have product available on demand,” Brown says. “That is a good niche for us and gives us the diversification we need for when the carpet mills slow production.”

About four trailer loads are contained in one railcar, and the cars are brought in daily to the TRANSFLO transloading facility, which has about 115 railcar spots.

Another service diversification involves offloading product from railcars enabling them to meet railroad weight requirements. Corn and soybeans are the typical products Dixie Transport offloads from railcars in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Atlanta, Georgia, and then delivers to processors.

“Of course the trailers have to be washed and sanitized for all these products,” Brown points out. “That includes the plastics, too. For instance, if we switch, say from polyethylene to polypropylene, the trailer must be cleaned.”

About 50% of Dixie Transport's service area lies within a 200-mile range of the company's headquarters in Dalton. Most of the rest of the service covers other areas in Georgia and Tennessee, as well as in Kentucky, Alabama, and North and South Carolina.

Six-acre facility

To accommodate the business, Brown recently acquired a six-acre facility with 40,000 square feet for offices, vehicle maintenance, and warehousing. In addition to handling plastics in bulk trailers, Dixie Transport transloads products to be put in boxes and sacks, a service that is expanding.

Brown gradually grew the company after founding it in 1981. Previously, he was a plant manager at a carpet mill in the city.

“The carpet industry started when women here in Dalton began making and selling bedspreads along the road,” he says.

Gradually the bedspread cottage industry grew and morphed into the carpet industry. With the introduction of machinery, carpet industry production soared, resulting in Dalton today producing 70% of the total output of the world-wide industry of over $9 billion, according to the Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI).

Polyester was first used in the carpet industry in 1965 and soon was followed by polypropylene. Most manufacturers will agree that the single most important development in the industry was the introduction of bulk continuous filament nylon yarns, according to CRI.

When the mill operation where Brown was the manager moved to California, he decided to remain in Dalton. Soon afterward, the mills remaining in Dalton began using bulk trucking companies to haul plastics for their manufacturing operations.

“I plunged in,” he recalls. “I got one customer and bought an International tractor and one Heil bulk trailer. I was doing everything then, including driving. But the plant got bigger and bigger, so we had to get bigger.”

In 1984 he bought a second unit and hired a driver. Today, he has 10 drivers and is pleased with retention. Prospective drivers must be at least 25 years old with three years of driving experience.

“We just don't have a big turnover,” he says. “Some are over the road, but the majority of them are home at night.”

Brown's brother, John, has joined the company and handles driver training as well as maintenance. He retired recently from the US Army as a brigadier general with a background in vehicle maintenance.

Dixie Transport's new hires are trained with a J J Keller program that includes instruction in Department of Transportation regulations and defensive driving.

After classroom instruction, they begin on-the-job training under the eye of a veteran driver. A third step involves the new driver in one unit and a veteran driver following along in another unit.

“Once they are out on their own, we vary their assignments to help them avoid getting burned out,” says Brown. “We pay them by a percentage of each load.”

Tammy Stanley handles driver coordination. Stanley uses an Excel spreadsheet for documenting the activity and enters each load as it goes out. Drivers communicate with the dispatchers with cells phones, most of them getting assignments the afternoon before they begin the following day. They call in after each delivery to see if there are adjustments in their schedules.

Fleet vehicles

As for vehicles, Brown specifies Heil Trailer International 1,625-cubic-foot bulk trailers and uses Kenworth and Freightliner tractors with Caterpillar and Detroit Diesel engines and Eaton Fuller 10-speed transmissions.

“I like a 475-horsepower engine for the power we need to haul the trailers,” Brown says.

The bulk trailers are equipped with Sure Seal Inc valves and aeration systems. Brown specifies Gardner Denver blowers and Chelsea PTOs. Virtually all vehicle maintenance is handled at the terminal in Dalton.

Looking to the future, Brown says he anticipates slow growth in order to remain competitive and to continue to meet the demands of current customers by having a stable driver force. He points out that the carpet industry in Dalton remains strong, and the continued rail traffic bodes well for transloading the products it requires.

About the Author

Mary Davis