To encourage industry to switch freight off the roads and on to the railways, lorries taking freight to rail terminals will be allowed to be six tons heavier than the 38 tons currently permitted by law. All other lorries will be limited to 38 tons.
The 44-ton vehicles will have to have six axles and will need to be equipped with air or some other form of road-friendly suspension. Six-axle lorries are on British roads already but until now they have been carrying less than capacity to remain within the legal limit.
Environmental groups had reservations about the Government's proposal, while road hauliers either welcomed the move or complained that it did not go far enough.
Bryan Colley, director general of the Road Haulage Association, said that the announcement was 'a step towards levelling the European
transport playing field where currently British hauliers operate at a weight and excise duty disadvantage.'
Forty-four ton lorries on six axles are permitted on roads in Denmark, Italy, Belgium and Luxembourg. In France and Germany they are permitted for combined lorries that carry containers to railheads. In Eire, Greece, Portugal and Spain the maximum weight on all lorries is 40 tonnes on six axles.
Fears that these heavier lorries could cause more damage to the nation's roads are unfounded, according to Brian Parker, a traffic and transport consultant. Mr Parker says that vehicles with the increased weight spread over six axles do less damage to road surfaces than lorries with fewer axles. He does not know, however, what effect heavier lorries will have on the nation's bridges.
Garry Turvey, the director general of the Freight Transport Association, attacked the move on the grounds that the weight limit should have been lifted to 44 tons for all lorries. This, he claimed, would have taken more heavy goods vehicles off the road, reduced carbon-dioxide emissions and saved industry millions of pounds.
As it is, the Department of Transport estimates that 'over a period of time (unspecified)' it could lead to a reduction in the number of HGVs on British roads of 5,000. There are 606,337 HGVs - defined as anything weighing more than 7.5 tonnes except for buses, coaches and agricultural vehicles - on the road in the United Kingdom.
Tony Burton, a senior planner for the Council for the Protection of Rural England, said yesterday: 'There will need to be very strict enforcement to keep the lorries on the major roads and off rural roads. They should be on a very few designated routes.'
Transport 2000, the environmental pressure group, also wants strict measures to confine 44-ton lorries to designated routes (motorways and major trunk roads). But the Government has no plans to limit the heavy lorries to specific routes; ministers consider the idea to be inflexible, bureaucratic and difficult to enforce.
Transport 2000 is also worried because there are no restrictions on the distance the lorries will be allowed to travel to the railheads and there are no assurances that the new regulations will be adequately policed. It wants the distance travelled to or from rail terminals to be limited to about 30 miles.
The Department of Transport will consult interested parties on amending the Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations in the next few weeks with a view to allowing the heavier lorries on the roads by early next year.
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