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April 22, 2010

COMMENT: Time to harmonise freight haulage rules?

As the battle between consumers, airlines and governments goes into overdrive following the extraordinary eruption of Iceland's Eyjafjallajökul volcano, the knock-on effects are being felt across myriad motor sectors.

As the battle between consumers, airlines and governments goes into overdrive following the extraordinary eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökul volcano, the knock-on effects are being felt across myriad motor industry sectors.

Just one example of the ripple effect from the 500t per second of Icelandic ash that spewed out for days on end, has been that of the freight transport industry, which has been thrown into sharp focus.

Naturally, as component manufacturers and the factories they were supplying began to run short of just-in-time goods delivered by air, the emphasis turned to road haulage.

This was particularly true for southern Europe, which remained largely open as its northern counterpart shut up shop for a week and which served to act as a staging post to transport goods.

But it appears all is not equal in a Europe so normally keen to harmonise us down to the last nut and bolt.

Take this from the UK’s Freight Transport Association (FTA), which details the following discrepancies in lorry haulage bans: France from 22:00 Saturday to 22:00 Sunday; Germany from midnight to 22:00 Sunday; Italy from 08:00 to 22:00 Sunday and in Switzerland all day midnight to midnight and every night from 22:00 to 05:00.

There are of course several glaring absences there to add to the confusion. There are no bans in place in Belgium, Ireland, Netherlands, Denmark, Ukraine and many other eastern European states.

And the UK. It appears the UK has little or no regulation for heavy road transport, apart from having to obtain permits for lorries in central London and operating in tunnels, but there does not seem to be much nationwide regulation on operational hours, apart from those concerning drivers of course. 

And FTA head of international service Donald Armour cheerfully admits he would be happy if there were no restrictions anywhere for his members, although he concedes: “It would be easier if there were common restrictions.”

Armour cites his members often being “stuck in lay-bys at weekends,” as they look to comply with whatever jurisdiction they happen to be passing through, but he insists more uniformity would improve supply chain efficiency.

“What would be good would be [bans] from 22:00 Saturday to 22:00 Sunday and not get [drivers] caught out quite so often,” he says.

Next month provides a salutary example of the challenges lorry drivers – as well as vehicles weighing more than 7.5t – face under the bewildering maze of different rules.

Armour reels off a list of bank holidays in France alone where restrictions will apply. 1 May – Labour Day, 8 May, Victory in Europe Day, 13 May, Ascension and 24 May, Pentecost.

“On those days there are bans that go from midday to 10pm,” he said. “If they run beyond a Sunday, you can’t do anything.”

Clearly, no-one wants vast juggernauts thundering over hill and dale on a peaceful Sunday or bank holiday, but this week’s events have highlighted how much we rely on road transportation.

The Brits are famously reticent when it comes to taking any diktat from Brussels, but this may be one instance where they could accept a small step towards standardising EU-wide bans in a bid to improve efficiency.

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