The Best of CM Investigates: Three years of longer semi-trailers

Worth its weight? As the longer semi-trailer trial rolls towards its third anniversary, CM examines why it got stuck in the slow lane

In September the Department for Transport (DfT) caused more than a few raised eyebrows when it revealed that there were 400 trailers still up for grabs (CM 4 September) despite announcing in January that all 1,800 longer semi-trailer trial allocations had at last been awarded.

The DfT said the 400 were trailers that had been returned. It is unclear if they were part of the original allocation to 180 operators, or generated under the rebooted rules that went live a year ago in recognition that the trial had stalled.

Given trailer build times, it seems unlikely that the full complement of trial trailers will be on UK roads generating data before the end of this year (at the end of year two of the trial the total number of trailers on the road stood at 613). That is a lengthy time to get up to speed and generate enough meaningful data to make the case for adding longer semi-trailers to the road transport armoury on a permanent basis beyond the seven years remaining in the trial. 

When the trial was launched in 2012, the decision to open it up to all operators big and small was applauded. However, in its two-year report on the trial published in June, Risk Solutions concluded that many smaller operators had applied for permits in the first wave, only to struggle to integrate the longer trailers into their operation. Crucially, there was no requirement as there is now to show proof of a trailer order.

A Freedom of Information (FoI) request by CM earlier this year revealed just 81 of the 180 operators awarded longer semi-trailers in wave one had put units on the road before the allocation expiry date of December 2013.

Stephen Dole, director of MJD Group, successfully applied to be part of that first wave, but didn’t ultimately use his allocation. “We just didn’t have any use for them. With the product we carry – Coca-Cola – we couldn’t use the extra four pallets you can get on [longer semi-trailers], and keep it within the weight limit [which remained at  GCW of 44 tonnes],” he says.

James Anderson, traffic assistant at E Nicholls, another haulier that signed up but let its allocation expire unused, agreed. “What you can carry on [the 15.65m] trailer, you can carry on any other trailer,” he says. “If the load is big enough to fill one of them, you should be going on special haulage anyway. You’re only going to carry a maximum of 28.3 tonnes – if you can’t get that on a standard trailer then you’re not going to carry it at all.”

For others, the 15.65m trailer is simply too big. Multiple operators have told CM that as most yards and depots are designed for 13.5m trailers, the extra 2m causes difficulties when entering and parking in the areas.

Colin Broster, director of FTS Hatswell, which is running two 15.65m trailers, says: “There’s only specific jobs you can put them on. A lot of the DCs are settled around standard trailers, and they don’t have any extra room. The longer trailer will be over the walkway and you don’t want that. I think the government got it wrong.”

Problem to manoeuvre
Andy Boyle, MD at ABE Ledbury, says that while he’s thrilled with his two 14.6m trailers, he wouldn’t dare go any longer: “I am 100% eyes open to the fact that I could have more space if I wanted, but I think the 14.6m is optimum – they’re not a problem to manoeuvre and get in and out of places. They are only an over-length 13.6m. With the 15.65m, there’s much more space for things to go wrong.”

Customer expectations, too, have proved troublesome, with some expecting a cheaper service as a result of reduced transportation costs for those that can fill the longer trailers to capacity.

Tony Christie, owner of Tony Christie Transport, says his customers’ demands for a cheaper service prevented him buying the 15.65m trailer he had a permit for.

“If my customers had paid a bit more for the trailer, then it would have paid itself back. They thought they’d get more stuff and it wouldn’t come to anything extra, but there’s the cost of the trailer to cover so I said they can’t have it!”

Last year’s revision cut allocation validity to six months and opened it up again to new and existing participants. Before this many larger operators found themselves unable to increase their allocation of longer trailers at the same time that others were effectively sitting on theirs.

Andy Mair, head of engineering at the Freight Transport Association (FTA), says: “It has been frustrating that operators took up valuable allocations but were not able to use them. The new allocation process and short timeframe of having to have proof of purchase is likely to stop this happening again.”

Longest variants
The other striking thing about the trial is that operators have by and large gone for the longest variant. This was a problem, since rectified, as the first wave dictated a non-negotiable split of 900 14.6m trailers and 900 15.65m trailers. That wasn’t what operators wanted. Our FoI request revealed there were 791 15.65m longer semi-trailers on a vehicle special order, compared with just 253 of the 14.6m version.

Jack Semple, director of policy at the Road Haulage Association (RHA), says of last year’s revisions allowing operators to opt for whatever length they want to reach the 1,800 trial trailer limit: “There’s an argument to say that the market is deciding the value of these trailers, including the number that are required.”

Semple believes that now operators and clients have a better understanding of the longer trailers, the trial will go from strength to strength. “In some cases, customers have been reluctant to commit to any changes in the operation that would be required. In the early days they were looking at the specifications of price and what length to go for, but I think people have reached a point where they understand it.”

The FTA’s Mair is positive too. “The surplus 400 allocations with a shorter timeframe should ensure the full quota of 1,800 is [now] reached fairly quickly,” he says. “And the trial will continue to be a success with regard to efficiency and CO2 improvements.”

By Emma Shone