Manitoba truckers call for better snow and ice removal on highways

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Truck drivers call for better snow and ice removal on highways
WATCH: Truck drivers are speaking out about what they describe as inadequate snow and ice removal on Manitoba's highways. As Will Reimer reports, it's impacting not only their pocketbooks, but their sense of safety – Feb 25, 2022

Truckers are speaking out about what they describe as inadequate snow and ice removal on Manitoba’s highways, saying it’s affecting not only their pocketbooks, but their sense of safety.

On Thursday, there were 20 semis smashed end-to-end with their loads littering Highway 1 between Virden and Brandon.

Miraculously, only three people were sent to hospital, and RCMP say all had non-life-threatening injuries.

But it wasn’t unexpected for two Manitoba truckers.

“That’s been a ticking time bomb for years,” said David Phillips, a driver for Bison Transport, who has been using that highway to cross the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border almost daily for 17 years.

It’s a journey he says has become more risky in recent winter seasons.

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“Years ago, you would see a salt truck plowing the snow off the road if there was any, salting the road every two to three hours tops, and they would continuously keep working at this,” Phillips said.

“That eliminated the ice from building up in the first place … but they don’t do that anymore. The last five years, they don’t do that.”

Lately, Phillips said he’s finding himself needing to stop more often between the border and Winnipeg to wait for roads to be cleared, often late at night or early in the morning.

“I’ve seen in Saskatchewan a lot of times, at eight, nine o’clock at night, in the middle of nowhere, they’ve got a salt truck … putting salt down, or blowing sand out, and they’re staying on top of the system,” Phillips said.

“You get to the Manitoba border, you don’t see anything during the night time at all.”

It’s all a familiar tune for 40-year trucking veteran Jeff Figler, who says he spent two days waiting first in Brandon and then in Virden, because the Trans-Canada was shut down twice following the latest storm.

“The last couple of years, Manitoba itself has actually gotten what I would classify as sloppier at their job,” Figler said.

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“There is no preemptive strike before the storm. It’s like all the other provinces are putting down liquid salt and calcium on the asphalt or the cement prior to a storm coming … it’s easier to clean and it starts melting right away. Manitoba does none of that.”

Figler, too, describes “night and day” road conditions when crossing the border either to the east or west.

“The company itself, it puts them behind because the truck is sitting for two days, so they’re losing money obviously,” Figler said.

“For myself, I lost two days’ mileage. Now I missed my dock time for Thursday night, so now I can’t unload until Sunday night. I’m not going to get a load home before pay cut-off on Saturday, so I’ve lost half a week’s pay right there.”

In Phillips’ case, he says there’s a domino effect that happens each time drivers need to stop and wait.

“When you lose a certain amount of time, you run out of hours. So you’re stuck there for eight to 10 hours before you’re legally allowed to drive again,” Phillips said.

“And now when we’re stopped, we lose the next day’s salary because we just go home. We ain’t turning around and going right back out again.”

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Tara Liske with Manitoba Infrastructure told 680 CJOB recent rain mixed with freezing temperatures is making it difficult for crews to scrape the highways bare.

“Our salt alone isn’t working, it’s not able to drive off the ice because the temperatures are so low, so we have been trying to tackle the roads with the use of sand,” Liske said.

“Unfortunately, using sand and high volume of traffic, it tends to wear the sand off fairly quickly, thus reducing the traction again.”

In an email response to questions from Global News, a spokesperson for Manitoba Infrastructure provided the following breakdown of the province’s snow clearing response.

  • Level 1 – Travel lanes on major routes cleared within four hours after the end of a weather event.
  • Level 2 – Surfaced travel lanes on regional highway network roads cleared within eight hours after the end of a weather event.
  • Level 3 – Gravel, access and service roads cleared after higher priority roads are completed, typically within 48 hours after the end of a weather event, and during working hours.

They added staff usually start “as early as 3 or 4 a.m. and work into the night if conditions allow (them) to do so safely.”

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As required, crews also respond to emergency calls.

For comparison, the Ministry of Highways in Saskatchewan uses the following schedule:

  • Level 1 – Snow removal begins as soon as practical or after three centimeters of snow accumulates. Snow plowed and ice treated within six hours after end of storm.
  • Level 2 – Snow plowed and ice treated within 12 hours after end of storm.
  • Level 3 – Begins as soon a resources allow. Snow plowed and ice treated within 24 hours after end of storm.

A spokesperson added they also have equipment operators available 24 hours a day “if weather conditions warrant.”

Ontario is a bit trickier to compare, since it has five “levels” to its schedule, two of which accommodate, on average, six times as much traffic as Saskatchewan’s “level 1.”

“At the start of a winter storm, maintenance contractors are required to deploy their equipment within 30 minutes to plow, salt and sand highways. They are active 24/7 to clear highways,” wrote a spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Transportation in an email.

“After a storm, we commit to fully clearing snow from highways. We call this the bare pavement standard.”

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Details on the bare pavement standard, and Ontario’s timeline for highway clearing, can be found on the ministry’s website.

Manitoba’s spokesperson wouldn’t say how much of the province’s snow clearing is taken care of by government workers compared to the private sector, and how that compares to five years ago, but “the use of private contractors increases with the increase of snow events.”

The added the department is actively hiring maintenance workers, but didn’t say whether or not staffing is an issue.

They also sidestepped a question on how many pieces of equipment — if any — are currently broken.

All this is little solace for Phillips, however, who worries what may happen when spring arrives.

“We’re going to get black ice scenarios constantly, unless the province gets their stuff together,” Phillips said.

Click to play video: 'Manitoba’s Highway 3 to undergo major improvements this spring'
Manitoba’s Highway 3 to undergo major improvements this spring

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