Is there an obvious route out of the road congestion problem?
Truck operators are quick to complain of the cost of road congestion, but could the transport industry itself do more to remedy the problem?
Earlier this year, the Department of Transport (DoT) predicted that, by the year 2005, one-third of Britain's motorway and trunk roads were likely to be suffering severe congestion. The immediate response of operators and industry lobby groups was to plead for more roads and fewer restrictions.
'You cannot tax us off the roads, we have no alternative,' said Tesco's distribution director Paul Bateman. 'If you want stores in towns, help us make deliveries to those stores,' he told the Government. 'If you want fewer deliveries, let us have 44-tonners.' Proclaiming that congestion costs '£1 per day for every man, woman and child in the UK', David Green, director-general of the Freight Transport Association, added that, 'We need to put in place long-term plans to deal with the inevitable growth in traffic levels - and roads must be an essential element of those plans.'
But according to the DoT the industry is hardly making best use of the roads it has. Graham Goodwin, a spokesman for the Department, points out that in 1995 the 'laden running' figure - the Department's measure of vehicle utilisation - was 71%, or only fractionally up on the 69% of 10 years earlier. Since those years had seen massive interest in logistics and distribution management, a rather more dramatic improvement might have been expected.
'Utilisation-boosting measures, such as the use of load agencies and backhauling, have been slow to take off,' acknowledges Dr Ian Canadine, director-general of the Institute of Logistics. Both methods aim to reduce the number of unladen journeys by finding loads for the return trip. Industry insiders argue that there's no simple solution.
'Although we do as much backhauling as anybody, it has to make commercial sense,' says Martin Palmer, business development director at Bibby Distribution Services. Ill-considered back-hauling can add to vehicle mileage and reduce utilisation. 'How far do you divert for a load?' asks Palmer. 'And how long do you wait for it? Collections can take a lot longer than a straightforward delivery.'
The industry claims that a lot of initiatives are under way, nevertheless.
Alan Cole, chief executive of Transport Development Group, points to a growing demand for 'shared user' operations. These days TDG vehicles carry both ICI Dulux paints and Cuprinol products from the Williams Holdings stable. Similarly, conventional trailers can be replaced by special double-deck designs: Marmite on the lower deck, in one case, with empty yeast containers (for refilling) above.
David Smith, head of primary distribution at Tesco, is urging haulage companies to go further and equip their temperature-controlled vehicles with a bulkhead and two temperature-maintaining condenser units instead of one, to permit fuller loading. Smith also wants hauliers to refit their vehicles (at a cost of around £1,000 each) to carry roll-cage pallets, the wire-mesh containers-on-wheels much favoured by retailers. 'If operators equipped their vehicles to take roll-cage pallets, we would see more backhauling.'
Yet another solution (and by no means a new one) is to employ software to plan routes in order to maximise utilisation - and backhauling opportunities.
Alan Jones, commercial director of the haulier Danzas, is an enthusiastic exponent of this approach. 'You can save millions by scheduling vehicles properly,' he says. 'It used to take a human scheduler five hours to schedule our routes. The computer does a better job in half an hour.'
But it's by no means certain that vehicle utilisation is the whole answer.
'Simple observation shows that congestion hotspots are filled with more cars than trucks,' notes Canadine. 'If there are fewer trucks, won't more cars simply take their place?'.