Road Trains derailed?

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18 January 2008

Since 1930, government has required railways to increase bridge strength to benefit competitors – a hidden subsidy. Even now, railways, with some local authority help, have to rebuild bridges to cater for heavier axle loads, creating huge delays for up to a year for other users for whom current bridge strengths are adequate. It cannot be pleaded that this cost is covered by road tax, since lorries do not pay their full share of road costs.[1]

In 2003, the Freight Transport Association (FTA) urged government to authorise road trials of ‘road trains’, which would “probably have to be restricted to motorways and roads close to motorways”. That embraces thousands of miles of single carriageway roads. The Minister refused Denby’s application for an experimental permit to operate a 25.25m prototype, and Robinson’s for his 31m/84t lorry.[2] The DfT is again considering plans to allow Denby’s vehicle to operate. Maximum weight would rise from 44t to 60t, and length from 18.75m to 25.25m.


The propaganda campaign

A campaign has begun to soften up the public to accept double juggernauts - aka ‘road trains’ - and to prove that they will be beneficial in cost, road-space and environment. They are designated Long Heavy Goods Vehicles, (LHVs). A consultant warns that “demand for road freight is expected to grow by 50% over 15 years, increasing vehicle mileage, unless ‘road trains’ are introduced”.[3] Growth should first be mopped up by utilising an estimated 30% spare vehicle capacity.

The Road Haulage Association (RHA) said: “the lorry would only travel on motorways between regional distribution centres. There are 428,000 trucks registered and if we could reduce that to one truck for every two – we’re all for it”.[4] At most, it could cut a third of 103,000 artics. Because speeds would fall due to delays in attaching and detaching and at junctions, and as many hauliers would not invest in such vehicles, the cut would be much less. With 33.4m vehicles on the roads, the effect on congestion would not be noticed. 

I was invited to a display (see photo) on a disused airfield near Newark, where ‘trials’ had taken place, and detected dangers and problems overlooked by its advocates, including inevitable equipment failure. The trailing wheels of the leading trailer are steered by computer, and to avoid them ‘waggling’ at speed, they are locked at speeds over 40 kph (25mph). Computer failure could create a serious hazard. The vehicle’s ability to ‘snake’ through a series of cones at walking speed was demonstrated. Inadvertently, it indicated the slow speed wide turns needed at right-angled junctions. A simulated ‘roundabout’ was negotiated below walking speed – in an anti-clockwise direction!  With the tractor’s off-side front wheel tight inside the ‘roundabout’, trailer wheels were just clear of the inner circle. This did not prove its ability to do so clockwise, and trailer overhang may also damage street furniture. As the LHV turned, control cables between the two trailers stretched, detaching a black cable. Movement stopped and a conference ensued. It was said not to be required, but its non-essential function was not defined. The projection by 1m of the leading trailer undercarriage outside the line of travel, when turning, was down-played on the grounds that this should be less than the projection of the tail of an existing trailer. Nevertheless, an overtaking driver seeing this ahead would be alarmed, and may brake too quickly with fatal consequences. Reversing was so slow, traffic delays are inevitable.

“There is concern that on single carriage-way roads, motorists might try to overtake the vehicle and then discover they had misjudged the length”.[5] They are not likely to live to tell the tale.

Instead of concrete slabs to simulate roundabouts, pavements and verges, painted lines are used. There is no road furniture – bollards, signs and lights - to avoid. There was no simulated ‘T’ junction, which would have highlighted serious delays. Trials with improved simulation – using a ‘roundabout’ in a clockwise direction, and oil spillages or ice - should be conducted in the presence of police, motoring & motor-cycling organisations and highway authorities – armed with stop watches - before any trials on public roads.

It is claimed that improved suspension, braking, retarders, stability and steering will ensure vehicle safety. However, John Wardroper revealed in his book Juggernaut that many hauliers are reluctant to spend to improve safety.[6] The Economist also drew attention to a neglected means of cutting lorry fuel fires.[7]

Dick Denby, a haulier advocating changes said that “25.25m lorries can negotiate every UK road junction as freely as 16.5m lorries, and go where most standard drawbar combinations go.[8] That implies vehicles continuing to crush pavements, plough up verges, damage walls and buildings, block junctions in all directions and being led by navigation systems into narrow lanes. Another campaigning haulier [9] admits it is unrealistic to expect all roundabouts and corners to be modified!  Reference to it is a clear marker of potential problems.

Mr. Denby said: “the prototype will cause slightly more road wear with 60t, but if restricted to 58t, there would be no more road wear”. How would that limit be ensured? He said we send “three lorries – occupying 170m of road space - when two – occupying 130m - would do”. This assumes full payloads. It is stated that the road wear index of the ‘Eco-Link’ was 11.6% worse than a six-axle 44-tonner, but could change to being 3.8% superior with a different bogie configuration. Whether this is a desk-top assessment or scientifically measured is not mentioned. This improvement is conditional on further technical change and full loads. It is admitted that “in practice, full payload capacity - in terms of weight - is frequently not obtained”. If conclusions are based on maximum loads – as figures suggest – the forecast of lower costs and fuel consumption is questionable on their own figures.

“Tests were carried out on this rig on the MIRA proving ground.”[10] The MIRA web-site includes a video taken from a lorry cab on a test track, with no other vehicles in sight and the lorry swinging from lane to lane through reverse curves. On a single carriageway that would not be permitted, as there would be a continuous white line, which the test track should have. On dual carriageways it would seriously delay and endanger following traffic.

It is said that fuel consumed per tonne moved gave a 3%-8% improvement compared to a conventional artic operating at 44t. These are small margins when account is taken of the probability of less-than full loads, road congestion, accidents and waits for varying periods at junctions, which would waste fuel.

Alternatives to Road Trains

Other measures to improve the capacity of roads should be exploited:-

Fewer accidents would increase road capacity and vehicle productivity. Accidents caused by tired haulage drivers, vehicles shedding loads and overturning, jack-knifing, disintegrating tyres, tailgating, pulling out to overtake with little warning, cause delays which could be cut by pro-active action. Inadequate HGV maintenance has been exposed as a cause of serious accidents on TV and elsewhere. Dangerous practices exposed by a truck driver,[11] include tampering with tachographs, ignoring working hours regulations, etc. In a TV re-construction of the Selby road/rail crash, haulage drivers openly admitted driving excessive hours when tired. Problems caused by ‘cowboys’ and untaxed cars, whose maintenance is sure to be poor, should be vigorously tackled.

Unproductive vehicles: Transport 2000 reported that “30% of lorries run empty”.[12] There is no evidence of action to improve productivity, which is worsened by products moved around the world, ostensibly to benefit consumers. This mileage increases oil demand which increases consumers’ petrol prices. Retail industries have much to answer and should show evidence that they are taking significant corrective action. Waxing English apples in South Africa helps to increase motoring costs through rising fuel consumption.

Mergers: An option of merging smaller haulage businesses, 90% of which have less than 10 vehicles, into larger units to cut empty mileage is not aired. Some 84 years ago, government forcibly merged 123 privately owned railway companies into The Big Four. None - before or after merger - were subsidised by the State – overtly or covertly. On the contrary, in addition to corporate taxes, privately owned railways were subject to a unique tax - Railway Passenger Duty - not imposed on any other transport.[13] In contrast, road haulage is subsidised by government funded driver training to cut hauliers’ costs, and by motorists and taxpayers subsidising hauliers’ use of roads and the cost of accidents.

Dedicated lorry roads: Motorways and major roads are constructed to HGV standards, but most users are motorists who pay a disproportionate share of taxes. Lorry motorways, funded by tolls, with reduced road tax to reflect reduced use of other roads would cut accident costs. Car-only motorways would cost less to build and maintain. Four car-width lanes in the space of three on existing motorways would increase capacity.

Transfer to rail: The powerful road haulage lobby argues that this is not practical. Transport 2000 stated that “heavy lorry mileage on journeys over 150 km represents 50% of all mileage and 20% of all goods. Transferring this to rail would cut total lorry mileage by a half.”[14]  Transfer to rail would reduce cross empty mileage through unified control. Some transfers have been implemented, including recently, by haulier Eddie Stobart, with huge savings, including fuel, vehicle mileage, emissions. Road freight costs are kept artificially low by low wages, long driving hours and other bad practices. This enables hauliers to compete unfairly with rail, whose staff hours and safety standards are closely monitored and controlled. Should a situation ever arise where rail ceases to provide freight services, road wages and costs will soar and working hours will plummet.

Forming up road trains

Joining together, involves one trailer being reversed towards another. Cab located cameras are provided, but may break down. Someone to help with reversing seems prudent. Advocates of road trains discreetly avoid reference as to where detaching and attaching second trailers would take place. There are three options.

Motorway service areas are the safest option. Service area franchisees may oppose longer vehicles which may cause disruption in parking areas and at fuel pumps. In this scenario, a second tractor would travel on a motorway, to a junction in rear of the service area, and back on the other carriageway to the service area to attach a detached trailer. Likewise, a second tractor hauling a trailer to form part of an LHV would have to continue on a motorway, cross and return to base. Such journeys were not included in calculations that claim to show reduced road occupation.[15] Occupation of some sections of road would increase. Each LHV journey would involve another tractor passing on both sides of a motorway.  That means two LHVs would incur six vehicle journeys on a given section of motorway, where now there are three by artics. 

Wide lay-bys on motorways in advance of and beyond each junction to detach or attach a trailer - funded by hauliers - would be the next option. Construction would cause traffic delays for months.

The third option would be off-motorway lay-bys. As hauliers use lay-bys as a rent-free premises, they may envisage doing so for these operations. This would inconvenience others. Should an LHV arrive at a lay-by to attach an extra trailer before going on to the motorway or to detach one after leaving the motorway, and find insufficient space, what would be Plan B? Many lay-bys are not straight, as they correspond to the curves of roads that are rarely straight, which may pose difficulties. The task of backing onto a second trailer at Newark was in a straight line, said to be the preferred manoeuvre. Using existing off-motorway lay-bys is likely to be vigorously opposed by motoring organisations.

Risk areas

Wherever detachment takes place, an unattended trailer will be a target for professional thieves, to whom electronic locks are merely a minor hindrance.

When an LHV turns onto a motorway from a service area, its initial speed and length would be a hazard to traffic. It would delay traffic behind it, as it waited for a safe gap. If LHVs were formed-up off-motorway, their extra length would pose a new hazard as they joined the motorway.

A serious problem would arise when a motorway accident occurs. If there is no service area in advance of the next exit, at which traffic is diverted (frequently via roads unsuited to existing large vehicles), LHVs would have to wait on the hard shoulder until the motorway was cleared. Alternatively, lay-bys, funded by hauliers, would be needed in advance of every motorway junction to detach a trailer in an emergency. Trailers detached at unplanned locations would stand for hours to await a second tractive unit, which was waiting many miles away.

If LHVs were allowed to split after leaving a motorway, following traffic will suffer longer delays at the slip road exit, whilst the LHV driver waits for a longer gap in traffic to exit safely. Very severe delays will occur at motorway exits to ‘'T’ junctions on single as it moves at walking pace! Trying to negotiate roundabouts alongside one would not be safe. As the LHV tractor turns right, the rear trailer unexpectedly swings left. “Set out” – the distance by which a trailer’s rear end juts out of line when turning - is said to be about 1.6m, whereas the distance that the leading trailer of the Denby unit juts out is about 1m. It would be an alarming sight to an overtaking driver. Spray may be seriously worse.

When the two trailers were separated in the demonstration at Newark, a gap of 20m was left between the two trailers to enable the tractor to reverse into that gap to attach to the second trailer. Thus, the initial overall space required to park if the second trailer was to be delivered first, would be about 45m. If this task was performed at a lay-by, the tractor would have to reverse – on the road - against traffic, which would be dangerous.

It would be madness to introduce new designs such as these LHVs, given the evidence by David Strahan in ‘The last oil shock’,[16] that there will be insufficient oil to meet growing demand within our lifetime. He also mentions that the DoT and RHA called for non-transport businesses to cut oil use to prolong the life of the haulage industry! Expansion of electrified railways offers the best prospect to ease the impending oil shortage, which will precipitate unimaginable rises in fuel costs. Current prices are the tip of an iceberg.

Dissenting voices

On a phone-in [17], a lady said “her son drives one in Australia and they take miles to stop”. Mr. Denby replied that he was “not qualified to confirm or deny what Aussie trucks do, but ours was tested by the British Transport Advisory Council and was better than the legal requirement”. Another caller believed that these trucks will cause chaos in towns, and was told: “the tractor can pull each part into town or industrial estate separately, reconsolidating later for the return journey”. He didn’t say ‘would pull each part’ nor where ‘separation’ and ‘reconsolidation’ would take place. A third asked: “If these trucks are allowed on limited routes, how will we prevent abuse on non-authorised roads”. The response was that “this is a point for the experiment to address; we cannot know all the answers in advance”. An analogous response from railways would be savaged by media and hauliers.

Richard Turner, Chief Executive, FTA said: "there is plenty of road capacity if we better organise the way we live, work and distribute goods to maximise its use. An example from my industry would be to change the law so that more lorries deliver at night, rather than being forced into peak-hour traffic".[18] Road space is also wasted during the daytime. Road transport has 22 times as much route mileage - and even more lane-mileage - as railways for a claimed 8-10 times as much traffic.[19]  

In 1979, Peter Thompson, Chief Executive of UK haulier NFC said that a proposed increase in axle loads would not produce forecast benefits, as only 20% of their customers would benefit, and that it is “less easy to match larger vehicles to loads available”.[20] The Road Research Laboratory agreed.[21] The same problems remain. 

An Early Day Motion was tabled in Parliament [22] opposing the introduction of longer and heavier lorries, and supporting the transfer of freight from road to rail.

A National Opinion Poll shows that 75% of the general public opposes the introduction of ‘road trains’ onto UK roads. [23] The survey further revealed that 80% of the public favoured government encouraging more freight to go by rail instead of by road. Given the healthy respect that politicians have for the electorate on motoring issues, that should ensure that road trains never operate on UK roads.


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[1] Railway Conversion – the impractical dream by E.A. Gibbins, pages 79, 84, 93-94, 170, 182, 200.

[2] Viewpoint by Dick Denby, Local Transport Today, 12th January 2006

[3] David Basey, “Will Britain catch the road train”, Logistics &Transport Focus, November 2006

[4] BBC News 24, 11th September 2005

[5] Editorial, Local Transport Today, 7th July 2003

[6] Wardroper, John, Juggernaut, Temple Smith 1981

[7] “Safety Lessons from the Track”, Economist 21st July 1973

[8] David Basey, “Will Britain catch the road train”, Logistics &Transport Focus, November 2006

[9] David Basey, “Will Britain catch the road train”, Logistics &Transport Focus, November 2006

[10] David Basey, “Will Britain catch the road train”, Logistics &Transport Focus, November 2006

[11] Rachael Webb, Transport-International, January-March 2007

[12] Goods without the Bads, Transport 2000

[13] Britain’s Railways – the Reality, E.A.Gibbins, pages 6,11,166

[14] Goods without the Bads, Transport 2000

[15] David Basey, “Will Britain catch the road train”, Logistics &Transport Focus, November 2006

[16] Strahan, David, The Last Oil Shock

[17] Viewpoint by Dick Denby, Local Transport Today, 12th January 2006

[18] Reader’s letter, Daily Telegraph 14th February 2007

[19] Britain’s Railways – the Reality, E.A. Gibbins, pages 88,153, 173-174

[20] Peter Thompson, quoted by John Wardroper, Juggernaut

[21] Wardroper, John, Juggernaut

[22] EDM 730, 24th January 2007

[23] News report Daily Telegraph 23rd September 2007


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