Leading Article: Bigger, better lorries, and a rail piggy-back

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The Independent Online
NOBODY likes lorries, except some drivers and, presumably, those who manage to make a profit by operating them. The bigger the lorry, the more certain it is to be seen as hostile, dangerous and damaging to the environment. When Britain joined the European Economic Community (as it then was) in 1973, pressure to increase the UK maximum payload weight from 32.5 tons to 38 tons aroused strong emotions. Anti-Europeans made great play with the potential damage to this country's unique (of course]) heritage of ancient villages and no less historic bridges that would certainly result. It was then that the emotive term juggernaut became common coin.

The haulage industry countered with a welter of statistics intended to show that it was not the overall weight of a load that mattered but the weight on each axle. Indeed, they said, the larger the lorries, the fewer would be needed to carry the same volume of goods; so the environment would actually gain.

In the event, the UK postponed increasing the maximum payload to 38 tons until 1982, and is committed to a further increase to 40 tons in 1999. So it was something of a surprise when John MacGregor, the Secretary of State for Transport, yesterday announced that lorries taking freight to a railhead will be allowed to carry up to 44 tons, providing they have six axles and 'road-friendly suspension'. The maximum length remains the same, at 16.5 metres.

The relatively muted nature of yesterday's response from environmentalists suggests that weight is no longer so automatically equated with damage. In fact, experts say, 44- ton lorries with six axles do less damage - given a similar distribution of the load, a vital factor - than 38-ton lorries with five axles. Bridges are the exception. For those with long spans, the greater the overall lorry weight, the greater the stress. So heavier trucks must be kept off them.

The question of policing aside, Mr MacGregor's move looks sensible. Any step that might encourage a shift of freight from road to rail, the main intention, is to be welcomed. Better still would be a coherent overall strategy for promoting this transfer. In that context, support for a proposed network of railway routes with special rolling stock designed to 'piggy-back' heavy truck trailers to long-distance destinations - here and, after the opening of the Channel tunnel, across the Continent - would make good sense.

Yesterday's special pleading from the Freight Transport Association for the 44-ton maximum to be extended across the board should be taken with a heavy load of salt. The association argues that such a higher limit would take 9,000 lorries off the roads, reduce carbon emissions by 800,000 tonnes and cut lorry miles by 480 million a year. Its case is based on the false assumption that all lorries travel fully loaded. A genuine benefit would be to improve the quality of vehicles if new, six-axle trucks became the norm. That day will probably come, but every effort should meanwhile be made to ensure that huge trailers do as much as possible of their journey by rail. The piggy-back idea, which the EC is exploring, looks unequivocally good.