Double trouble?

Author : Mark Adams, Managing Director, Transdek UK Limited

Date : Tuesday, 20 September 2011

The EU’s proposal to restrict UK trailer heights to 4m has been met with widespread condemnation from all quarters of the UK haulage industry, from the FTA and RHA, to the industry’s current media darling, Hilary Devey, who recently started a Twitter campaign against the proposal.

For those of us who have spent the last 30 years persuading some of the UK’s biggest fleet operators of the benefits of operating double-deck trailers, which take full advantage of the UK’s current 4.95m height allowance, to say it’s hardly welcome would be an understatement.

The simple mathematics underlying the concept of double-deck trailers is hard to ignore – the additional load footprint on the second deck typically allows from 67-100% more goods per vehicle. This means that every three double-deckers in operation can replace at least five single deck vehicles. And whilst double-deck vehicles currently in operation in the UK represent just 3.5% of the total number of 44 tonne vehicles on the road, according to the DfT, removing these vehicles would increase the distance travelled by UK-registered articulated lorries by around 260 million miles per annum. Annual road haulage costs would increase by roughly £203 million and carbon emissions by 222,000 tonnes.

All of which begs the question, why aren’t there more of them? If taking just 7,000 double-deck vehicles off the roads can be shown to have such a major negative impact, imagine the positive effect of adding more of these vehicles. Forgetting the 4m height restriction for now, we estimate that around 30% of the UK’s road freight is suitable for double-deck distribution – an almost tenfold increase on the current situation. Based on the RHA’s figures, you do the math.

In an industry which is being squeezed from all sides by the green lobby and spiralling fuel costs, any opportunity to improve efficiency must be grabbed with both hands. Major fleet operators are investing significant sums in both training and technology in order to reduce fuel consumption.

However, the opportunity to increase efficiency by 40% through double-decking - as compared to around half of that from hybrid engine technology for example – has been either overlooked or discounted by many major LSPs. One of the issues is that, whilst double-decking delivers massive savings to the customer, unless the delivery vehicle can also be used to backhaul a load, there is no benefit to the service provider.

A major food manufacturer recently told me that they’d spoken to their LSP regarding the possibility of double-decking product from Europe to the UK, however, the LSP had said they couldn’t pass on any cost benefit because they couldn’t find back-loads.

In an industry where the word collaboration is freely bandied about, this seems to signal a serious lack of commitment.

Of course, double-deck distribution is not for everyone – many loads will clearly weigh out way before they cube out, especially in a powered-double deck vehicle due to the weight of the hydraulics used to power the second deck.

Recently however, the development of hydraulic loading bay systems have given retailers and manufacturers the ability to introduce lighter, lower-cost, fixed double-deck trailers. Unsurprisingly at the vanguard of this movement is Tesco which, in addition to using fixed double-deck vehicles to trunk product between distribution centres, is in the process of installing double-deck lifts at 100 stores to allow double-deck vehicles to be used for store deliveries. To date, this has saved 12.5 million road miles and nearly 17,000 tonnes of CO2. Assuming a cost of £1.50 per mile, the cost benefits are obvious.

Whilst I really couldn’t be more against the introduction of a 4m height limit in the UK, the EU’s proposal should serve as a wake-up call. By forcing the industry to assess what it stands to lose, it also uncovers a massive opportunity to make more of what we have.

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Mark Adams
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