Last Tuesday John MacGregor, Secretary of State for Transport, announced that early next year, just before the Channel Tunnel opens, lorries taking freight to and from rail freight terminals will be allowed to be six tonnes heavier than the current 38-tonne limit.
Significant productivity gains would result from six- axle vehicles with 'road- friendly suspension', he claimed. Other lorries would be limited to 38 tonnes. 'This is a boost for the rail freight industry,' he said 'and a further incentive for companies to move goods by rail.'
Not so says the BR paper. 'Given the difficulties of policing the restricted use of 44- tonne lorries and the 6-10 per cent cost advantage provided by the use of heavier lorries it is clear that, unless policing is exceptionally tight, the proposals could result in a reduction in freight moving by rail,' it says.
The 44-tonne lorries will be able to travel fully-laden only if going to or from a rail freight terminal. However, no restrictions are to be imposed on routes or the distance covered travelling to the railheads.
There is nothing to prevent a 44-tonne lorry driving from Edinburgh to the railhead in Willesden, north-west London, transferring its load to a freight train for the short journey to Stratford in east London, then picking it up again.
Nor is there anything to prevent such lorries travelling on unsuitable roads in rural or densely populated urban areas. The Council for the Protection of Rural England and the pressure group Transport 2000 have said that the 44-tonne lorries should be restricted to specific main roads.
To prove that they are travelling to railheads, drivers will have to carry a consignment note signed by British Rail or the rail operator. As 'possession of the correct note confers significant financial advantages (on the carrier),' the paper says, 'abuse of the system is likely. Valid consignment notes may be transferred between cargoes and extra consignment notes (where no rail movement has occurred) may be generated.'
BR freight executives see the move as a way of allowing heavier lorries on to Britain's roads by the back door. One BR insider says if the Government really wanted to encourage more freight on to the railways there are many obvious ways of doing so - laying special track, building more terminals, improving handling.
The decision to introduce 44-tonners from early next year is also curious, given that the Government recently sought a temporary exemption from a European Community regulation which raised the tonnage limit to 40 tonnes throughout the EC. Britain gained an exemption until 1999 in order to allow the Department of Transport to check that the nation's bridges were up to bearing the weight of 40-tonners.
Dr David Cebon, a Cambridge University engineering lecturer, said: 'Either there's a problem with bridges or there's not. These trucks will do more damage to roads and bridges than the 40-tonne vehicles.'
The introduction of 44-tonners is a significant victory for Britain's road hauliers. But will they now go all out for 44- tonners throughout Britain? The Freight Transport Association had wanted the limit for all lorries on British roads raised to 44 tonnes. It declares itself content 'for the foreseeable future' but is not ruling out a change of heart in the 21st century. The Road Haulage Association also professes itself happy 'for the moment'.
But 44-tonners are mere babies compared with the rest of the world. There are already 50-tonners in the Netherlands and 60-tonners in Sweden. In Michigan 65ft-long, 11-axle behemoths weigh in at 72 tonnes.
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