When your cargo is too large, too heavy or too nasty, call in a specialist. By Jack Semple.
Most freight is simple to carry. It sits on standard pallets or inside containers which are simple enough to load and to carry. But where the cargo is outside the mainstream - because it is too large, too heavy or too nasty for most transport operators to handle - you have to send for a specialist.
That means firms like the haulier, Econofreight Heavy Transport, whose managing director, Tom Llewellyn, makes the proud boast; "We have got some of the best transport brains in the world, here. If you have got enough money, we can move anything, anywhere."
Econofreight holds the record for the heaviest load in Britain, a 10,760-tonne oil industry module carried for Press Offshore; it also lifted a bridge over the M4 this year, the heaviest load on a British road at 2,054 tonnes. By comparison, the 1,288-tonne haul of the nose section of a Trident submarine for Vickers, 18 months ago was small beer.
The firm is Britain's leading specialist in really heavy hauls and is recognised worldwide as one of the top operators in its field. It is a reputation which Llewellyn has worked hard to build up, over most of his working life, from the days when Econofreight developed out of general haulage, which it dropped out of completely in the 1980s. At times abrasive, he argues passionately for recognition of those companies which deliver quality and expertise in his industry.
His business can be split into two categories: heavy hauls up to 150 tonnes gross weight - for which there is at times cut-throat competition - and the major project hauls at extreme weights. The hauls are branded, according to weight and governed by special regulations, called the Special Types General Order. The lighter loads are carried throughout the UK and into Europe, for operating centres in Middlesborough - where the company is based - and Stoke. With loads up to 110 tonnes - heavy plant, for example - the market is cut-throat, and customers, especially in plant hire, expect ridiculous levels of price and performance: "There are still people around who believe 100 tonnes should be moved at high speeds."
They deliver say, from Scotland to Southampton in under a day: "That is the road to hell. There's no money in it, and customers expect a performance which demands an illegal - let's say near-illegal - operation." Anyone can hire a trailer from TIP and call themselves a heavy haulier, Llewellyn complains. These hauliers have no idea of the value of their service. "There is not a lot of science in the art of the sellers," he adds. Only at the cross-Channel work pays. It is more complicated, due to variations in regulations governing heavy haulage on the Continent, and foreign customers who accept a higher rate.
The job starts to get interesting with the real big movements, such as the removal of the M4 bridge in the spring of this year. It required trucks and trailers which, to buy new, would cost £4-£5 million - not the sort of equipment one wants to have standing idle for long periods.
Increasingly, Llewellyn is integrating his range of services, to provide project management, often involving the transport across a wide range of weights. This helps to keep the lighter end of the business profitable, where the competition comes from hauliers with lower overheads. It also makes forward planning far more reliable, which is important in a business where expensive equipment is written down over many years.
"We run a rolling utilisation plan, so that we know what we're doing. I've already sold 68% of my axle capacity for 1993," he says. Having reached what is arguably a unique position at the top of the UK market, Econofreight, owned by Australian giant Brambles Industries, is now targeting world jobs. A recent project involved shipping a series of heavy processing columns for the petrochemicals industry from the Netherlands to Norway, and handing the final lift and installation.
North America is a target area, although winning orders is tough for a foreign firm: "The Europeans are light years ahead in terms of technology and capabilities," says Llewellyn. Major plant tends to be brought to the site in pieces, but he aims to save customers time and money by delivering built-up units.
Llewellyn says the firm can help companies to get supply contracts, by advising on transport method, timing and price. One of the biggest breakthroughs came recently, when his firm was brought in, on a contractual basis, to the planning and design stage of a major refinery expansion. This doesn't mean the tail, in the form of the transport company, will be wagging the proverbial dog, but substantial savings will nonetheless be made by involving Econofreight in the fundamental design stage, Llewellyn says.
More mundanely, Econofreight specialises in dealing with local authorities, concerned about the impact of heavy loads on the roads, bridges and sewers. It also handles the public relations aspects of heavy hauls. Forward planning can even cover aspects such as lopping branches off tress: "It may not sound much, but the issue can become very important to those who live near the trees."
Customers want a quality service, without hassle. Major oil companies, for example, certainly don't want protesters lying down in front of lorries protesting about their activities, Llewellyn adds.
Of 160 employees at Econofreight, 50 are management or supervisory. Most of the others are workshop trained so that they can recognise problems. "We believe that every job should be supervised, in one form or another. That helps to make sure the job is done correctly at the time and provides a lot of on-the-job training. I regret to say that my competitors live off my training."
Most staff stay with the company because they get a very high degree of job satisfaction. "No two weeks' work is the same and they are given responsibility and authority, within controlled conditions, to get on with the job." The nastier and more difficult the haul is, the more Llewellyn likes it: "Those jobs will always stand a better price than the ones which are easier to do," he says.
If Econofreight rules on land, Heavy Lift Cargo Airlines, owned by Trafalgar House, is one of very few companies doing the same in the air. The firm, based at Stanstead Airport, was a pioneer in air cargo when it was formed in 1978 to develop the 35-tonne payload Belfast.
Now the shake-up in what was the Soviet Union has enabled the company to operate five Antonov 124s, the world's greatest airfreighter with a payload of 120 tonnes. The planes are rented from Volga Dnepr, a Russian joint venture company formed two years ago.
Though Boeing's 747 can carry 100 tonnes of freight, the loading bay is narrow, and the load has to be evenly distributed across the floor. It has nothing like the strength and size of the military-designed Antonov. The arrival of the Antonov in the West will allow companies to airfreight products, such as power generators, for which air freight was inconceivable, until recently. In the past, machinery has been air freighted if at all, in smaller units and built up at the delivery end. That can be expensive and time-consuming, but the alternative is usually a potentially corrosive sea voyage which will take a long time and time, when a piece of expensive machinery essential to a high cost project is concerned, is money.
"The Antonov is a completely new product in air freight, which has moved people's horizons," says Mike Hayles, managing director of Heavylift. He expects to re-start a contract with Rolls Royce to carry aero engines to Boeing at Seattle this year. This traffic was done in the 1980s by Belfasts, but the engines outgrew the aircraft. Hayles adds: "We will have some operating in Europe, doing component supply for the aero industry, before long," he predicts.
Hiring an Antonov, for example to Australia, will set you back around $400,000. But he forecasts a long term growth in demand, and the aircraft could prove a vital hard currency earner for the Russians. Unlike the passenger sector, there is no customer resistance to Russian planes carrying airfreight, he says. The existing Antonovs, having been paid for in roubles have cost next-to-nothing to build, and can be rented reasonably cheaply - in dollars - in the West.
The market is still very young, and potential customers have still to get used to the idea of what the aircraft can do for them. It is unlikely that the plane will be used within western Europe, however, even though the payload is five times that of general haulage vehicles. The distances are simply too short, as passenger operators found when they tried putting 747s on busy routes to Spain.
Deals like Rolls Royce trunk haul to Seattle illustrate the uses of aircraft within the production process. But Hayles sees his firm as primarily an ad hoc operator. Heavy Lift carried the tail fins and rudders from Europe to Seattle for Boeing's 19 prototype 767s, for example, savings six weeks sailing time and keeping the project on schedule. The firm also does express loads for Ford and General Motors in Europe, to back up component supply to factories when road transport can't make the deliveries on time. Its three Belfasts (the firm also has one Hercules, a CL44 Guppy and Boeing 707) routinely carries satellites for launch in Guyana.