The Best of CM Investigates: Why is empty running on the rise?


CM takes a look back at the issues we investigated in 2014.

A new study has shown that instances of empty running have increased – but what are hauliers doing to combat this?

Last month the Centre for Sustainable Road Freight, a joint collaboration between Heriot-Watt and Cambridge Universities, said the proportion of empty kilometres run by operators had risen by 3% since 2001.

This is a sad statistic for an industry that has given birth to online freight exchanges, longer semi-trailers, double-deck
trailers, intelligent route planning software, and more measures than we could list here to get rid of wastage.
It is worth putting this figure into context. The Department for Transport has kept statistics for the percentage of trucks running empty every year since 1984. Between then and 2001, the percentage of the UK’s truck fleet running without a load fell consistently from 31% to 26%. Since that time average levels of empty running have climbed (with the obligatory dip in 2008/09 for the recession) and now stand just shy of 29%.

471 million km could have been avoided

The impact of this increase is staggering: had the empty running remained at the lowest recorded levels (27.2% for rigids and 25.2% for artics), 471 million km could have been avoided in 2010 alone, saving 164 million litres of diesel, 426,000 tonnes of CO2, and £160m in fuel costs.

Maja Piecyk, principal investigator at Heriot-Watt and co-author of the study, told CM she was “quite surprised” to see such a result as the industry continues to make claims that it is reducing instances of empty running.
However, she points to several other parameters that show the industry is moving in a more efficient direction. Fleet utilisation has continued to improve over time.

The report shows that the proportion of HGV traffic running between 8pm and 6am has increased from 8.5% in 1985 to 20% in 2007, showing better use of the vehicle as an asset.

The total volume of goods moved in the UK by truck in 2007 stood at 215 billion tonnes. In 2010 it rose to 222 billion. At the same time the number of trucks registered in the UK continued to fall, showing that operators are doing more with less.

“Everything seems to be going in the right direction, except for the empty running figures,” says Piecyk. “I’m not sure how to explain the trend, but the follow-up to the report will be to collect more data. You have an increase in the number of multi-drop deliveries, through the home delivery networks. The other thing that could have an impact is regional imbalances in traffic.”

This is one factor that backload specialists see as a reason for the apparent climb in empty running. Lyall Cresswell, director at the Transport Exchange Group, says: “Look at London, it has the biggest imbalance. It sucks in cargo, but what does it push out? Sometimes a haulier just cannot fill the truck. But where there are elements of better utilisation, that is where people are upping their game with the technology.”

Finding solutions to the problem

The online load exchange group saw a 20% increase in annual transactions last year. It handled more than 462,000 backload transactions and, compared with 2012, it also saw a 12% rise in the number of active users to over 5,000 across its Haulage Exchange and Courier Exchange sites. Operators are clearly making moves to mitigate the losses of empty running, but Cresswell believes they should do more.

“Part loads come when you are on a contract,” he says. “The load is not a full load, so how do you utilise your wagon if part of it is empty? And for some you cannot officially co-load. This is where better utilisation could come in.”

Regional imbalances are also cited by South Wales haulier Owens Road Services as a reason why backloads are hard to obtain, but the use of specialist equipment for some customers (in this case Slidaflex coil carriers) can preclude general haulage from a return leg.

“The company policy is to establish long-term partnerships to ensure a consistent volume of return work to the South Wales area,” a spokesman for the Owens fuel team tells CM. “These have been successful in maintaining steady growth that has enabled the company to refurbish the vehicle fleet and expand its operational base.”

The spokesman adds: “Empty running is at present declining due to the company’s efforts and an increase in the volume of work. Whether this is due to a sustained upturn in the economy remains to be seen, obviously at the height of the recession empty running increased due to a fall in output and demand.”

Late last year, Abbey Logistics said it was seeking backload partners for its general palletised freight division, as it had a lot of volume going out of its base in the North West across the whole of the UK, and it was struggling to get quality backloads from areas such as London, the South West and Scotland. It now employs two full-time staff finding backloads for its palletised fleet of 84 trucks.

MD Steve Granite says progress is being made: “The backloads are a moving target as we keep growing. When we win a new contract of substance it takes us a good 12 months to build up regular backloads, but as we are growing regularly this is a
continuous battle. It’s a case of building up contacts and being reliable when you are given loads. The imbalances exist and
they won’t be going away any time soon unfortunately.”

  • This article was published in the 27 February issue of Commercial MotorWhy not susbcribe?

2014: Top 10 vehicle acquisition stories from the Commercial Motor website

Here are some of the popular vehicle purchase stories that appeared on the website during 2014.

1 Gwynedd Shipping takes on 23 new Volvos

Anglesey-based Gwynedd Shipping, celebrating its 30th anniversary, acquired 23 new Volvo FH tractor units.

2 Iveco Stralis Hi-Way tractor units for Ferrari F1 team

The Ferrari F1 team took delivery of three Iveco Stralis Hi-Way tractor units.

3 New Euro-6 Volvo FH for Davidson Brothers

Scottish animal feed supplier Davidson Brothers (Shotts) took delivery of a new flagship Volvo FH Euro-6 tractor.

4 Denby goes for six Daf XFs

Lincoln-based haulier Denby Transport took delivery of six Euro-6 Daf XF tractor units.

5 Renault Range T trucks for bulk haulier John Beaty

Penrith-based bulk haulier John Beaty Transport took delivery of its first Renault Range T460 mid-lift 6x2s.

6 Graham Poole acquires MAN TGX with special livery in memory of late niece

The MD of Rochdale-based haulage firm Graham Poole Road Transport took delivery of a new MAN TGX 26.440BLS tractor unit with a special livery in memory of his late niece.

7 James Nuttall buys two 26-tonne Actros rigids

Rochdale-based James Nuttall (Transport) purchased a pair of 26-tonne Euro-6 Mercedes-Benz Actros rigids from dealer Enza.

8 New heavy hitter for Denby

Denby Transport took delivery of a new Volvo FH heavy haulage 6x4 double-drive tractor unit powered by Volvo’s 13-litre D13C540 engine.

9 Euro-6 Dafs for Wreford's Transport

Northampton haulier Wreford's Transport took delivery of the first Euro-6 trucks to join its fleet.

10 IAE in pole position with new Ivecos

Livestock equipment manufacturer IAE ordered three Euro-6 Iveco Stralis Hi-Way tractors from Sherwood Truck & Van.