Truckers

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The Independent Culture
Steve Mills pulls up outside the Bull Ring Shopping Centre in the centre of Birmingham, much to the ire of the lunchtime traffic that is forced to weave around his giant 40-tonne truck. The bullet-headed driver of a bread van hoots from behind, but Steve ignores it. The 48- year-old grandfather from Ashford in Kent has seen it all before. Air from the truck's brakes hisses out with a shrill gasp, and a dog on the pavement yelps in distress as its owner pulls it away.

Steve's blue-and-white Scania cab had been easy to spot trundling up Smallbrook Queensway, emblazoned with union flags and slogans protesting against the recent Budget rises in diesel and excise duty on HGVs and demanding: "British diesel at Euro prices... help us keep your food costs down." In front of the dashboard is lodged a bright pink sign bearing the name of the organisation that staged a mass protest in London on Monday against the rises: TransAction.

I climb in. It's a long way up. The lines on Steve's face have been drawn from 20 years' hard slog in the cab. His hair stands up in places and there is a tooth or two missing from his bottom gum. He is a grafter, an old hand, a veteran trucker.

The cab is spacious. Behind the seats is a 3ft-wide bunk bed, where last night's bedclothes lie ruffled. We sit six feet above the road, looking down on the cars that swerve around our feet. In the cab Steve is cocooned by carpeted ceiling and walls, into which are fitted a small TV, radio and CB.

Traffic moves out of our path as we take wide sweeps around the corners of the Bull Ring and head south-west for the M5. Steve concentrates intently; these trucks take a good deal longer to stop than a car and those extra few seconds of warning are crucial. He scatters cigarette ash over the wheel as he flicks his head from left to right, using all three mirrors to check the 40ft trailer is clearing the turns way back behind us.

As we join the slow lane of the M5 and feel the first big balls of turbulence buffet the cab, Steve rests his left hand on the headlight flasher which he flicks as other trucks overtake.

He set off from Ramsgate docks at 5.30 this morning, carrying several tonnes of plastic and paper imported from France. Now he is empty and heading for Sharpness docks near Bristol for a full load of fertiliser to take back to farms in Kent.

"Yeah, France. That's funny, isn't it? Here's us moaning about the Europeans coming and doing our jobs over here on the roads because their diesel is so much cheaper, and then I find myself carrying French loads."

Steve is a worried man. Since 1994 he has been, "stupidly" he admits, an owner-driver with two trucks. The increases announced by Gordon Brown earlier this month mean he is pounds 100 a week worse off on each truck.

You might have seen Steve's truck if you were stuck in traffic on the Bayswater Road in west London on Monday. He was in the front line of the mass TransAction demonstration, with 1,300 other drivers protesting about the 11 per cent (6p a litre) Budget increase on diesel and the rise in excise duty on 50-tonne, five-axle vehicles to pounds 5,750 (at least three times the European average). He gave up a day's work to do it, even though he can ill afford to. His income is around pounds 200,000 but he shells out more than that in costs. Last year he made a loss, and this was to be the "turnaround year", until the Chancellor announced his Budget.

He drives slower now because he can save a fraction of a penny by burning less diesel per mile. More worrying is that he eats only infrequently. During a recent three-day trip, he spent just pounds 11 on "the odd bacon sandwich here and there".

If he had not been on the road unexpectedly late on election night he would have voted Conservative - as would, he claims, many other truckers. It would not have done them much good, though, as the Tories were also keen on taxing HGVs.

TransAction, flushed with its success in the capital, is threatening outright rebellion and disruption to compete with its French counterparts. At the time, the French port blockades were criticised by UK drivers who were stranded with full loads, but now they seem like a good idea. Mind you, you'll have to hunt far and wide to find a British trucker who will admit the French have ever got anything right. Dover seems the most likely flashpoint for a blockade, but Steve will not elaborate. "I can't say. I don't know yet but something will happen if there is no change. We don't want to do this because it inconveniences people but we are being forced to by these price increases."

What the Government has done might be good news for the environment. We discuss the merits of this while gazing out over the lush fields of the River Severn's flood plain in Gloucestershire. The green pressure group Friends of the Earth says lorries consume 10.2 million tonnes of diesel every year and emit 32 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, the principal cause of global warming, and that higher duties are essential to encourage fuel efficiency and cuts in carbon dioxide emissions. Getting tough with the truckers might force business to rethink transport and look to the rails as well as repositioning distribution centres to cut down mileage, but Steve is not convinced.

"What happens when the goods get to the end of the railway line? A truck picks them up," he says.

Despite any green benefits, jobs will clearly be lost. Steve doubts he will last another year and says many owner-drivers and small haulage firms will fall with him, being forced either to move abroad to exploit cheaper fuel and tax or to go bankrupt.

"This is my life on the line, my family's life, our income. This isn't just a few blokes having a moan. It's not bullshit. We're fighting for our families here. What would you do?"

Years ago, the protest would have been five times the size and the government would have had to listen. But things were different then, there was a trucking fraternity. Tighter safety and quality controls have cleaned up the image of trucking and transformed it into a disinfected industry. Out with the string vests and Iron Maiden T-shirts, in with starched boiler suits, uniforms, even ties. Trucks are gleaming clean every time they leave the depot; trade logos and artwork are designed by expensive art college types with degrees in graphic design. The old school drivers have been stripped, hosed down, shaved and sent on courses in defensive driving and political correctness. If they swing out of their lane on the motorway, road-users are on the phone to the snitchy "Am I Driving Courteously?" hotlines advertised on the back doors of trailers. Trucking has been sanitised. Truckers have lost the camaraderie they once enjoyed. Steve has watched the changes with a lump in his throat, for it means now there is a split in the ranks, with more drivers unwilling to risk rebellion for a day's earnings and a night in jail or a fine or being threatened with the sack if they are found at a demonstration like Monday's. "The laugh and the joke has been taken out of us," he says. "One thing that has killed all that is the closing of the truck stops. There used to be hundreds of them up and down the country, great places, truckers only, where you'd get a big meal and a cup of tea for 60p. "You were with your mates there. The Kent boys always used to stop at Toddington near Luton on the M1. It was like being down the pub back home - lines of lorries all from Kent. We had such a laugh, telling stories about friends and what they'd got up to. You didn't see an unhappy driver. "You're lucky if you can find a truck stop these days. The A1 had loads. There was one every few miles up there. You know, I can't think of one that we'll pass on the route today. Isn't that shocking? All the way to Bristol and not one truck stop." They died when aggressive little restaurant chains bought them up, built shiny new premises and began serving all-day breakfasts for more money. "You go to a service station today and see how many truck drivers are in there having a meal. Hardly any. They stay in their cabs these days. They cook in their cabs, watch TV in their cabs, sleep in their cabs. No one meets up and talks anymore." We stop at Frankley Services at lunchtime. Of the 15 trucks parked, all but five are occupied by a solitary driver reading a paper or talking on his mobile. Steve rarely gets on his CB. Mainly he is tuned to Radio 1. "You've got to listen to old Zoe in the morning, haven't you?" Eddie Stobart, the Cumbrian lorry magnate who uniformed his drivers and started a fan club (now with 25,000 members), said he receives letters from women drivers saying how relieved they are to see smartly dressed truckers around the place. Makes them feel safe. So, are we breeding a generation of yuppie truckers? Steve smiles and holds his hands up: "I'm not saying anything. I know some of these people." They include drivers for the big supermarket chains and retailers, companies that can offset tax increases by sticking 10p on a yoghurt pot or pounds 5 on a three-piece suite. Private hauliers and owner-drivers do not have that option. Loading up with Russian fertiliser at Sharpness docks at the north end of the Severn estuary, Steve chats to fellow drivers who echo his fears. They talk of dark days ahead and even hint that fuel smuggling might soon become commonplace across the Channel. Steve will not get home to Ashford tonight; instead he'll find a spot en route and maybe indulge in a bacon sandwich and a last Benson & Hedges - on his own - before crawling behind his seat into the bunk to sleep, trying not to think about how much money he has lost today.

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