Saturday, June 15, 2024

Santa’s Helper With The Big Brown Trucks


Talking Transportation

By Jim Cameron

Did Santa make it on time this year?  Well, thanks should also go to United Parcel Service, or UPS.

As I wrote a few years ago… When UPS was founded as the American Messenger Company in Seattle in 1907, most deliveries back then were to stores, not customers, and were done on foot or by bicycle.  Adding a Model T to their fleet in 1913, the company started serving neighborhoods.  By 1930 the company expanded to most cities in the East and Midwest, adding delivery by cargo-airline partnerships to their modes of transportation.

From 1975 to 1982 UPS was headquartered in Greenwich CT and was serving all 48 contiguous states and Puerto Rico.  In 1988 UPS launched its own airline fleet, now the 10th largest in the US and serving 815 destinations worldwide.  In 1991 UPS acquired Mailboxes Etc and re-branded its 5000 independently owned stores as UPS Stores.

But how do they do it?

When a package enters the UPS system it goes first to the closest hub by truck, train (if less than 200 miles) or by air (if farther).  After an initial sort it then goes to the hub nearest the final destination.  UPS operates airport sorting hubs in Philadelphia, Dallas, Ontario CA, Rockford IL and its largest in Louisville KY, known as Worldport.

Worldport is a five million square foot complex the size of 90 football fields with 300 plane loads of packages arriving 24 hours a day.  The facility can sort 416,000 packages an hour.  Processing time is about ten minutes per package.  It is heavily automated, boasting 33,000 conveyors covering 55 miles in length.

The packages are then shipped again to the hub nearest the destination and trucked to local warehouses.  Here’s where more serious technology comes into play with a system called ORION, On-Road Integrated Optimization and Navigation.  The software has 80 pages of algorithms combining maps, customer information, traffic conditions, pick-up requests and package priorities to give each driver the fastest route to complete deliveries.

One of ORION’s time savings tricks is avoiding left hand turns for drivers.  Not only are right hand turns faster but they’re safer.  UPS says that saves their drivers 20 million miles of driving, 98 million minutes of idling and 9 million gallons of fuel a year.

UPS vehicles even have their own GPS system giving its drivers detailed information about each destination.  As the driver gets close to the drop-off location the system beeps, telling him (or her) to slow down.

When the big brown truck pulls up in front of your house to make a delivery you’ll notice the driver usually stops the engine.  He doesn’t stroll to your door, he jogs!  With hundreds of deliveries per day per driver, it all adds up.

Sometimes the driver needs you to sign to accept the delivery.  Even that involves some amazing tech… DIAD, the Delivery Information Acquisition Device, a 1.3 pound handheld computer that scans barcodes, collects signatures and stores information about each package.

So hopefully Santa’s helpers in the brown uniforms have delivered your gifts on time, making for the merriest of Christmases.

Jim Cameron is founder of the Commuter Action Group and advocates for Connecticut rail riders. His weekly column “Talking Transportation” is archived here.  You can contact Jim at


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