Rocky Road

Dec. 1, 2000
Through hard work, TDM Transportes builds success under demanding operating conditions in ColombiaTDM Transportes SA stands out as one of a handful of

Through hard work, TDM Transportes builds success under demanding operating conditions in Colombia

TDM Transportes SA stands out as one of a handful of Colombian trucking companies that ITT recommends to its customers for drayage and other transportation services. The carrier has worked hard to earn that distinction.

With operations in Colombia and Venezuela, the Medellin-based trucking company has developed a broad range of services and has specifically targeted chemical shippers. The carrier handles box and tank containers, runs tank trailers and flatbeds, and has expanded into warehousing of dry bulk chemical products.

"We are overhauling the way we operate this business to ensure that we are in step with our customers' needs," says Bernardo Gaviria, TDM's northern zone director. "This includes automating our operations to a much greater level and putting more emphasis on dedicated service.

"We want to expand dedicated partnerships so we can optimize equipment use. Fleet equipment loses money if it isn't running constantly. Better revenue flow means we can do a better job for our customers."

In addition to the Medellin headquarters terminal, TDM Transportes serves customers from facilities in Bogota, Baranquilla, Buenaventura, Cali, and Cartagena. The carrier's first warehouse was built at the terminal in Cartagena. Products handled in the warehouse include paint and coatings materials shipped in super sacks.

Interline Agreements To facilitate shipments between Colombia and Venezuela, the carrier has an agent based in Maracaibo, Venezuela. TDM Transportes also has interline agreements with Venezuelan carriers, because Colombian trucking companies aren't allowed to operate in Venezuela. "We just hand off our trailer to the Venezuelan trucking company," Gaviria says.

Operating out of the terminals is a diverse fleet of 60 trailers that includes three dry bulkers used to haul flour for a large international bakery company and eight tank trailers for chemicals, including glycol, caprolactam, and toluene diisocyanate (TDI).

For containerized cargoes, a steadily growing part of the business, TDM Transportes has 18 chassis and nine lowboy units that are used to transport tank containers. "The lowboy trailers provide a greater level of safety for dangerous cargoes because they lower the overall center of gravity," Gaviria says.

The carrier runs 35 tractors of its own. Additional tractors are provided by around 50 subcontractors. Essentially, these are owner-operators, but some of the subcontractors are small fleet operators in their own right.

All of the vehicles in the fleet are designed for high gross weights and extremely challenging operating conditions. Six-axle rigs can carry a maximum gross combination weight of 52 tonnes (114,600 pounds) in Colombia. Five-axle rigs are allowed a 48-tonne (105,800-lb) GCWR.

International tractors predominate in the company-owned fleet. Engines are from Cummins, Caterpillar, and Detroit Diesel, with ratings from 400 to 500 horsepower. Fuller transmissions are standard for the fleet, and 20-speed gear boxes are the norm. The newest tractors have air suspensions.

"We buy new trucks, which are imported from the United States and Canada," Gaviria says. "We prefer International because it meets our needs for a rugged truck. Operating conditions in Colombia are tough, and rough roads are found in many areas."

A majority of the tractors in the company fleet have satellite tracking systems, and the rest of the fleet will be outfitted with it in the near future. "We use the satellite system for security," Gaviria says. "We monitor the route taken by each rig. An alarm sounds if the truck moves more than 70 centimeters (slightly over two feet) off the road, and we can shut down the engine."

Local Trailers Romarco Ltda, a trailer builder in Cali, supplies the tank trailers and the lowboys that are used with tank containers. The carrier has begun putting Hendrickson air suspensions on the trailers in an effort to reduce maintenance and extend life.

In addition to improving trailer life and reducing maintenance, air suspensions lower tare weight. "We can gain up to two tonnes (4,400 pounds) in payload," Gaviria says.

TDM Transportes runs single- and three-compartment tanks in insulated and uninsulated versions. Constructed of stainless steel, the tanks have an average capacity of 34,000 liters (8,900 gallons). Hardware includes a pressure-relief vent and three-inch gate valve for product unloading.

A comprehensive preventive maintenance program is designed to keep vehicles in top shape. TDM Transportes employs 17 mechanics and has repair capabilities at each terminal.

Vehicles are inspected each time they stop at a terminal, and engine oil and filter are changed at 20,000-kilometer (12,400-mile) intervals. The fleet uses Exxon Mobil synthetic oil.

Mountainous Country The value of the preventive maintenance program is proven repeatedly because the tractor-trailer rigs must negotiate some of the most challenging terrain in South America. Three mountain ranges (Cordillera Occidental, Cordillera Central, and Cordillera Oriental) are part of the Andes Mountains and extend the full length of the western half of the country.

That also happens to be where 90% of the population and virtually all of the industry are located. Highways follow the valleys and twist through the mountains and over some extremely high passes.

The few main highways are paved, but secondary roads are dirt or gravel. Road maintenance can be spotty, and problems include flooding during the rainy season and rock slides. City traffic is extremely congested. Speed limits are 80 kph (50 mph) on the highway and 60 kph (37 mph) in cities.

Civil Strife Rough roads and rugged terrain can be the least of the concerns for TDM Transportes drivers, though. The biggest difficulties come from civil strife, including a guerrilla conflict that has simmered for decades.

Blockades and police checkpoints cause delays in just about every shipment. Colombian transportation officials report that there were 40 days of road blockades just through July 2000. Around three million tonnes (3.3 million tons) of cargo was affected.

While guerrillas put up some of the road blocks, others are initiated by villages as acts of protest against government policies and frustration with lack of progress in talks intended to end the civil war. Truck fleets sometimes receive advance warning about road blocks, but not always.

Guerrillas and thieves rarely target chemicals and other bulk cargoes for theft, but there are other problems. Vehicles have been shot at and damaged or destroyed. Drivers have been injured and killed.

With all of the challenges, it's not surprising that drivers need eight days for the roundtrip run between Cartagena and Bogota. It is 1,127 kilometers (700 miles) each way on the route that runs southwest to Medellin and then east over the mountains to Bogota.

Longhaul drivers at TDM Transportes typically are out eight to 15 days at a time, and the carrier keeps a close watch over them. The satellite tracking system in fleet tractors is just part of the effort. Tractors also carry cellular phones, and drivers are required to call in at least once a day.

In addition, TDM Transportes rigs only run during the day. "Our insurance company does not allow night operations," Gaviria says.

In everything it does, TDM Transportes is focused on providing customers with the safest and most efficient transportation service. This focus has helped make the company one of the premier chemical haulers in Colombia.

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