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Column - May 2011

Longer Lorries would cause more road congestion, more pollution and more road accidents

The government has announced plans to allow longer lorries, but there are real concerns that this will hit hauliers, lead to more accidents and undermine rail freight. While road and rail complement each other, larger trunk movements of long distance freight can be more sustainably and more safely carried by rail than in even larger lorries.  

The proponents of longer trailers, which could be 17% longer than existing ones, are using the same arguments that were made to justify previous increases in lorry dimensions which sound fine in theory. However, in practice since the last increase in dimensions there is no direct evidence of heavier lorries leading to improvements in average payloads or a reduction in empty running which still means  one in four HGVs is driving around empty 1. The claimed environmental benefits of longer trailers would rely on very high levels of load utilisation – in excess of that routinely achieved within the haulage sector. Therefore at lower levels of utilisation the environmental performance of longer trailers could be worse as the vehicles will not only be heavier, and will therefore be able to carry less weight, but will use more fuel.

In fact, statistics show that hauliers tend to buy the largest vehicle permitted 2, with 70% of UK registered HGVs at the top limit and use it for large and small loads, irrespective of the impact on efficiency and consolidation; The new longer HGV will become the default vehicle which will result in the premature loss of value of existing models undermining the second hand market. This could be damaging to medium and smaller operators who will find it even harder to compete with the big operators and that is why the road haulage industry remains divided on the merits of longer trailers.

The Government should look at incentives to improve efficiency of existing sized HGVs, instead of increasing lorry lengths; In a five year period up to 2009, the German Maut lorry road user charging system has resulted in empty running being reduced by 11% to below 20% and an increase in loaded runs of 2.1% and in rail freight of 7%. 

If the key justification used for this length increase is that some loads are volume constrained why is the FTA already asking for 46 tonnes? The case for longer trailers sounds fine in theory but the claimed environmental benefits of longer trailers would rely on very high levels of load utilisation – in excess of that routinely achieved within the haulage sector. If the sector is unable to consistently fill smaller vehicles, why would it fill longer ones? The current argument for this length increase is that some loads are volume constrained but the reason is that weight limits were increased from 40 to 44 tonnes in 2001. If you increase the volume you will hit new weight limits, so you have a see-saw between length and weight increases as it is difficult to optimize for both weight and volume.

The Freight Transport Association lobbying for a weight increase to 46 tonnes both undermines the volume constrained argument for the longer trailer and demonstrates that the industry goes on asking for bigger heavier HGVs.  The DfT research shows almost half cargos are neither weight or volume limited (ie only partially loaded ) and this proposed longer and thus heavier trailer, will be able to carry even less weight than an existing HGV.

The Government report down-plays safety implications of the 7 foot longer trailer lorry which include more susceptibility to crosswinds & greater tail swings. It admits that it would be  individually less safe than the existing 44 tonne vehicle without new active steering technology due out in 18th months time but surprisingly states that it does not favour mandating this safer technology. Meanwhile, the Mayor of London is phasing out the bendy bus, (which at 18 metres is shorter than the proposed 2 metre longer HGV would be), as they caused more than twice as many injuries as other buses. The consistent lack of compliance with existing road regulations by some operators which puts other road users at extra risk needs to be factored into any decision; over 83 per cent of HGVs exceeded the 50 mph speed limit on dual carriageway non-built-up roads and 75 per cent exceeded the 40 mph limit on single carriageway non-built-up roads 3.

It is surprisingly that the Government is considering the 2 metre increase which it admits will undermine rail freight growth by a factor of 3, given its stated commitment to reducing road congestion and carbon dioxide emissions. It needs to recognise that modal shift to rail freight, which produces 70% less carbon dioxide emissions than the equivalent road journey, is the only practicable means of achieving the massive reductions required in carbon dioxide emissions from long distance freight,( other than coastal shipping), if transport is to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions which represent 21% of UK emissions by 80% by 2050. In the foreseeable future, electric technology offers little scope for lorries, unlike cars, as the batteries alone would weigh in excess of the full payload capacity of an HGV.    

The Government’s proposal to consider increasing lorry lengths, which will undermine rail freight and lead to more road congestion and pollution, is in stark contrast to the European Commission acknowledgement 4 that 50 per cent of long distance road freight needs to be transferred to rail and water by 2050, if climate change is to be controlled.

Philippa Edmunds, is manager of Freight on Rail, an industry and trade union partnership working to promote the economic, social and environmental benefits of rail freight.


1. (DfT figures CSRGT MTRU report P8 Figure 1C)
2. (MTRU report Nov 2010 Figure 3 P6 Source TSGB 2009)
3. (DfT, Road traffic speed congestion, June 2010)
4. EU Transport White Paper Monday 28th March

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