Slow trip across single market: John Murray travels from England to the Italian Alps with a truckload of pork

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AN exceedingly tall, blond, blue-eyed young man is in charge of the frozen pork being unloaded from the refrigerated trailer. He speaks German with the English truck driver, but we are, in fact, in Italy.

You would scarcely believe it to look at San Candido, a pretty alpine town, which has Teutonic atmosphere and architecture, and an alternative German name - Innichen - to match. The pork has travelled 1,850km (1,150 miles) to the German-speaking Sud-Tirol region of Italy, known in Italian as Trentino-Alto Adige.

It has come from Hargrave International's haulage yard at Spalding, Lincolnshire, having been loaded earlier at a Middlesbrough abbatoir.

The trip began on a Friday afternoon and it is now 3pm on Tuesday: despite the tumbling of trade borders throughout the European Community from 1 January, it still takes an appreciable time to get coals to Newcastle or, in this case, pork for salami to the Italian Alps.

Despite the hype heralding the coming of the single market, there are factors beyond the loosened customs control and open borders that still hold up speedier distribution of goods throughout Europe.

From a truck driver's point of view, the ubiquitous tachograph - or 'spy in the cab' - is often a greater barrier to speedier delivery and pick-up than customs clearance was.

Then there are myriad unharmonised restrictions on when trucks can use the roads in the various Community countries, not to mention a set of different weight regulations depending on where you are. But there is no denying that the time-wasting and costly delays that used to occur as a result of problems with customs clearance are a thing of the past.

The drivers no longer face long queues at customs points, nor do they have to worry so much about problems of incomplete documentation.

From the haulage company's point of view, a lot of tiresome bureaucracy has been cut out, particularly with the disappearence of the once-essential single administrative document, universally known as the T-form.

T-forms were prepared by shipping agents at the ports and detailed everything from the nature of the goods being transported to the way they were packed and their value. But since 1 January the T-Form has been redundant within the EC and it was without one that we set off for Italy.

The driver, Steve Hodgson, had 20 years' experience on the road, and was well qualified to talk about the vicissitudes of haulage, having run his own small company a few years ago.

Hargrave International, where he now works, is the biggest privately- owned refrigerated haulage company in the UK, with more than 100 trucks.

On our way out of the UK, there was not a customs officer in sight. We were waved through passport control with barely a glance and without having to get out of the cab.

We stopped on a weighbridge operated by the Dover Harbour Board - the weight that can be carried varies throughout Europe, despite the single market. British hauliers complain they are penalised by Britain's limit of 38,000kg (37.4 tons), against 40,000kg in most other EC countries and 44,000kg in Belgium and the Netherlands.

'There is a further restriction in the UK on the amount of weight that can be carried on the truck's drive axle, so British trucks usually have an extra axle,' Steve explained. 'All this means we can't run to capacity: it makes a mockery of the single market and stifles our earnings capacity.'

Steve also pointed out the effect on hauliers of the devaluation of sterling. 'Combined with a 5 per cent rise in French motorway tolls, this added 22 per cent to our running costs, and we haven't been able to pass that on to the customer, because the business is just too competitive.'

As at Dover, we did not see a single customs officer at Calais.

Our load was frozen pork and in the past this would have necessitated a stop at the gigantic Rungis meat market outside Paris. There a vet and customs officers would examine the goods and inspect the health documents.

As such clearance could usually be obtained only in the evening, a driver coming from England would perhaps have to wait around for the day, get the load cleared and then drive all night to deliver the goods in time.

Steve said avoiding Rungis is the main benefit of the free market when crossing France.

We entered Italy via the Mont Blanc tunnel on Sunday. In Italy, trucks are not officially allowed on the roads until 10pm on Sundays although in practice driving is allowed from 8pm. Because we arrived at the tunnel at 5pm, that meant a three- hour wait before we could pass through.

On the Italian side of the mountain, there were no customs. However, there was a checkpoint manned by one policeman, who ignored our passing with that brand of indifference special to Italian public servants.

The next day, at a motorway toll- gate, we had our first and only encounter with the law. A young policeman flagged the truck down. 'Taco,' he demanded of Steve, gesturing to the speedometer beneath which is housed the tachograph. After a quick glance at it - and at the previous day's - he wave us on with a satisfied 'va bene'.

Among British drivers, the Italian police have a reputation for corruption surpassed only by the French. Many - especially in the south - will demand a bribe if they can find the slightest transgression on the tacograph record. Steve joked that the Italian word he is most familiar with is 'quattrocento' - 400, as in 400,000 lire ( pounds 190) which is the corrupt policeman's opening bid.

To reach our destination we climbed towards the Brenner Pass. In distance terms, it might have made more sense for us to have crossed the Alps there, rather than at Mont Blanc. But that would have meant entering Austria, which is not in the EC and has a total ban on trucks on Sundays and between the hours of 10pm and 4.30am.

The joy of travelling by truck was revealed as we climbed into the mountains - the high vantage point from the cab enhances the spectacular views. But having left the motorway, the mountain road is precipitous: driving a large truck up here is not for the faint-hearted.

At 2.55pm on Tuesday, shortly after passing a sign for Gustav Mahler's summer residence, we reached our destination. The pork was unloaded, the papers were signed, and by 4pm it was back on the road.

The secret of successful haulage is never to make a one-way trip. The following day, Steve drove to a small town near Ravenna to pick up a load of fresh fruit to bring back to England.

At the fruit co-operative the clerk wanted to see all manner of documents no longer required in the EC. Despite the delay, we were back on the road within a couple of hours. Whatever the changes in bureaucracy, for those who transport our goods across Europe, there is always the road . . .

(Photograph omitted)