Colombia’s trailer market

News coverage about Colombia is typically biased toward drug trafficking and a civil war that has killed at least 260,000 people and displaced seven million since it started in 1964. But with the signing of a new peace accord between Colombia’s government and the opposing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in late November, the half-century-old issue may now finally come to an end – paving the way for a long-awaited economic upswing that could also benefit the transport equipment industry.

Already, Colombia is one of the top 30 investment-attracting countries in the world, mainly due to the domestic economy having remained relatively stable amid decades of political turmoil, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos pointed out during a December visit to the UK.

He said key geographic areas and sectors of the economy that have been affected by conflict are now opening up not only to peace, justice and social inclusion again, but also to the kind of investment that is driving Colombia’s emergence as a “vibrant, high-income developing country”.

To accentuate the point, Santos said recent statistics would set Colombia apart from any other Latin American investment destination: Despite the global downturn, Colombia has grown at an average annual rate of 4.3 per cent over the past 15 years or so, making it the Latin American market with the second best outlook for GDP growth in 2016 and 2017, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). “It is an attractive marketplace, where the spending power of an increasingly well-educated population is growing rapidly.”

On the ground in Colombia, the mood is not quite as enthusiastic, though – arguably due to the devastating socio-economic impact decades of conflict and failed deal making had on the Colombian people. The half-naked man washing trucks on the side of the Autopista 25, for example, doesn’t believe in Santos’ turnaround story just yet. Working and living right beside the main highway, the lavadora (washer, ed.) has lost hope in the system and focuses on his job instead, a physically demanding activity with little pay and even less hope for improvement. 

At least the trucks passing through every day provide a faint prospect of hope. Truck driving is seen as a profession with growth opportunities, even though the equipment used may not reflect the sector’s mounting confidence. “A couple of years ago business was bad, but now it’s splendid again,” says the owner-driver of a black Mack built in 1978. He explains that despite the age, his truck is in the best possible shape and the perfect tool for a single person to make a decent living.

A couple of hundred kilometres away the scenery is much the same. Juan, another driver with a weathered veteran truck, explains that equipment age is not a problem in Colombia: “At least the truck is paid off,” he says, glancing at the heavy load of corn pushing down the seemingly overloaded platform at the back. “No wonder it asks for a sip of water every time we stop.”

Unwilling to share his last name, Juan claims his truck was built in the early 1950s and had an engine rebuild 20 years ago. The bonnet was taken from a younger model Chevy – after all, a truck has to work and not look beautiful, as he puts it. With economic prosperity looming in what may be a permanently appeased Colombia, being ready to take on more work is his prime objective.

While President Santos is in Europe promoting a new era of Colombian prosperity, Juan and his friend Darwin – who helped over-load the flatbed semi – signify both how much catching up Colombia has to do and how much potential there is for trucking to drive the nation’s future growth. With only 900km of railway network, road transport will continue to be the nation’s main mode of freight transport, they point out – at least as long the equipment can keep up.

With view to the high average age of transport equipment, service intervals in Colombia are so short that most drivers lubricate the whole unit every weekend, they explain, and hardly any of them get through a week without a technical problem.

It’s a Sunday afternoon on the outskirts of Bogotá when José Florez and his son prepare the old Cat-engine in his 1984 Kenworth for next week’s work. José-Jeffrey is 10 years old and loves the job of his papá. Whenever possible, they team up for a day tour, which is typically around 350km long. Florez’ salary is made up of a base payment and a bonus for each trip completed, so the signing of the peace accord is promising less obstruction and more pay, he explains.

Attached to the Kenworth is a special tipper trailer in a configuration typical for Colombia: The actual tray is split into two, with the front section tipping sideways and the rear tipping backwards.

The same kind of trailer is coming through on the back of beat up Fiat that looks tiny in comparison to the huge loading space in the back. It has just overtaken an old, patched up Dodge with a young driver and his pregnant wife on board that doesn’t look like will make it back home to Bogotá tonight.

Then again, most truck drivers know exactly how to make it all work – be it with view to equipment, load restraint or navigating the dangerously narrow road network. They drive with surprising precision and keep their calm even when mountain roads don’t allow going faster than 30km/h for hours on end.

Cesar Correa, who has been working as a truck driver for more than 27 years and gets his white International washed by a lavadora once a week, says it’s that resilience that has helped the country’s economy thrive even during half a century of conflict – and it’s the same attitude that will see it prosper in peace.

Correa, married and a father of two children, says he can average up to 2,000km a week, as there is no legal limitation of driving times. “We drive until the job is done or until we are too tired to continue,” he explains. “Then we have a rest.”

Even with enough sleep, though, the job is dangerous. Statistics say there are close to 17 traffic fatalities per 100,000 people every year – approximately four times the amount as in central Europe. One reason, Correa says, is his peers’ somewhat “anarchistic driving style”, but also the poor technical condition of many heavy vehicles.

A jacked up Ford truck parked outside a nearby tollbooth is a case in point. With the front left wheel taken off, a look at the brake pad reveals that half of it is missing, with the other half worn down to the base plate. “The bearings are broken,” says a man claiming to be minding the vehicle while the driver is sourcing a spare part. “The brake pads are okay and will last for many more kilometres.”

What is happening here on the side of the road may stand in stark contrast to President Santos’ ambitious future outlook, but the transport community’s can-do attitude doesn’t leave the impression that it won’t be able to cope. The learning curve will be a steep one, though: To enable progress and increase competitiveness, the Santos government is now overseeing the region’s most ambitious infrastructure development program to date, with projects such as new toll roads, rail, ports and airport construction already underway.

The resulting step change within the country’s logistics industry is likely to place significant innovation pressure on the road transport community and may force many an owner-driver to upgrade. Until then, however, they will get the most out of what they have – just like they always did.

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