The Trial of the Trailer

From the February 2017 issue.

Nearing its halfway point, the UK’s Longer Semi-Trailer Trial is revealing some encouraging data. But will the nation’s foray into high productivity freight vehicles prompt a permanent change to its trailer landscape?

The world’s population continues to grow at an alarming pace. Forecast to crack the eight-billion mark in less than 10 years, it will put a strain on the planet’s resources and dramatically increase demand for freight transport services. Responding to the challenge, road transport industries the world over are investigating out-of-the-box High Productivity Freight Vehicle (HPFV) design concepts – think Performance-Based Standards (PBS) in South Africa and Australia, or the High Capacity Vehicles (HCV) of Sweden and Finland.

Though they use different methodologies and guidelines, all HPFV schemes share the same end goal: transport more cargo per trip. They are working too, with 20-30 per cent productivity increases reported by trailer builders  that have proactively embraced them.

Unsurprisingly, the UK road transport sector has also ventured into the HPFV field with its Longer Semi-Trailer (LST) trial, which started in 2012. Under the project, the UK Department of Transport (DfT) allows 1,800 longer trailers to be purchased by voluntarily participating fleets. 900 of the trailers had a one-metre length increase over the standard 13.6m length to 14.6m, and the other 900 trailers could reach a total of 18.55m, including the prime mover.

Expecting the longer vehicles to reduce CO2 emissions by reducing the number of truck trips, the 10-year trial set out the aim to save over 3,000 tonnes of CO₂ and provide an overall estimated economic benefit of £33 million (€39 million) over the life of the scheme – equating to about £1,800 a trailer (€2,125).

The announcement of the trial four five ago was a welcome challenge for some of the nation’s leading trailer manufacturers, with Mark Cuskeran, SDC Trailers Managing Director, calling it ‘great news for the industry as a whole’. “Operators will also welcome the decision as it’s an opportunity for some of them to operate more efficiently and, of course, reduce fuel bills and carbon emissions,” he commented in 2012.

Now reaching the halfway mark of the trial, the data is rolling in and, according to an interim report published by Risk Solutions on behalf of the DfT in November, is showing promising results. “At the time of the launch, there were mixed views on the trial, with some vehemently opposed. However, [the] progress report shows that, so far, it’s been very successful,” says Nigel Base, Commercial Vehicle Manager at the Society of Motor Manufacturers & Traders (SMMT).

Even with the productivity and economic gains outlined, the mixed views on the trial meant building the national LST fleet to the total 1,800 took ‘considerably longer than envisaged’, though. Only when the first set of estimated benefits for operators were corroborated with pure data from the front lines about a year in, momentum started forming and the number of participants signing on to the trial expanded rapidly.

Now, the full allotment has been made, with 98 per cent of the combinations on the road and the final two per cent in the process of manufacture. Publishing the progress report, Transport Minister, John Hayes, dispelled the initial hesitance and celebrated the positive results. “Lorries are the engine of our economy and this pilot scheme is helping hauliers deliver the day-to-day goods we need more efficiently,” he explains.

According to the report, some 90,000 truck journeys have been cut during the first four years of the trial, resulting in 10.6 million fewer kilometres travelled. Calculating for the British hauliers, the report says there is an average saving of one in nine journeys through the more efficient combinations. “This is good news for consumers, a boost for motorists as it is helping cut congestion with fewer vehicles on the road and it is also helping the environment,” Hayes adds.

Despite the bigger size of the trailers, the LST models, which sport at least one steering axle, fit within existing manoeuvrability requirements and maximum weight limits of 44 tonnes for six-axle vehicles. In an extra hurdle that may have contributed to the slow buy-in to the trial, each trailer manufacturer wishing to sell an LST model had to have its vehicle designs given the tick of approval by the UK’s national road transport approval agency, the Vehicle Certification Agency (VCA).

A total of 14 trailer builders took on the red tape to take part in LST production, with more than 50 unique models tested and documented by VCA. The first OEM off the starting block was SDC Trailers in January 2012, which promptly delivered a 15.65m ‘Envirotrailer’ with two rear steering axles to Eddie Stobart.

The maiden voyage of the longest-ever trailer to travel in the UK saw Eddie Stobart pack the trailer with 54 retail cages full of groceries for Tesco – a 20 per cent increase in payload, which Eddie Stobart CEO, William Stobart, says, “effectively allows the number of trucks on UK roads to be decreased”.

“We have worked in partnership with the DfT to help introduce these new trailers and the industry as a whole is set to benefit from the opportunities and environmental advantages they bring,” Stobart explained when receiving his first LST. “Eddie Stobart has a reputation for innovation in the transport industry and today is another milestone in the company’s history as we operate the first longer trailer in the UK.”

Now, according to the report, SDC’s LST models make up the majority of the trailers in the trial at 26 per cent of the 1,800, closely followed by Cartwright at 25 per cent. Local UK manufacturers Gray & Adams, Lawrence David and Don-Bur also contribute to the count, adding up to 88 per cent of the total LST trailer park.

There are 163 operators involved in the trial, with the number of LSTs allowed based on fleet size, up to 180 semi-trailers or 20 per cent of total fleet size, whichever is lower. The percentage-allotment approach was taken specifically by the DfT to ensure the smaller operators would also have the opportunity to benefit from the productivity gains the LSTs were expected to provide.

The feedback from drivers, operators and their clients has all been positive, the report reveals, with respondents noting the cost savings and trailer handling as major benefits to their operations. Although the main concern around the LST trial has been around the assumed detriment to vehicle safety from the longer trailers, the report from DfT reveals that on a per kilometre basis, LSTs have been involved in around 70 per cent fewer injury collisions and 70 per cent fewer casualties in comparison to the average for standard articulated HGVs.

In fact, the only reported incidences involving an LST over the last five years have been investigated and deemed to not be related to the particular differences of the LSTs involved.

“Following these positive results we are consulting trade associations and participants on whether to increase the number of vehicles in the trial,” DfT said in a statement.

The Department has since* committed to extend the trial for another five years and another 1,000 vehicles, taking the total number of trailers on the roads to approximately 2,800 over the next 12 months. The announcement has been welcomed by UK trade association, Freight Transport Association (FTA) as well as trailer builders Don-Bur and SDC.

SDC Trailers Commercial Director, Paul Bratton, says, "Feedback from our customer base is that the trial has been a huge success to date, and while the LST doesn’t suit everyone’s operation, it has brought enquiries and requests for more licences as hauliers see the benefits and additional flexibility these trailers offer, with all manner of loads, from hay to pallet networks.

"Where operation allows the full utilisation of a longer length trailer, the reduction in the number of journeys is a real fuel saving, which can only be of benefit to greenhouse gas reduction targets, not to mention an increase in profitability for the operator.”

The extension is likely due to a lack of data on the LST’s effectiveness in urban operations, as the majority of operators have put their LST to use in so-called ‘trunking’ transport tasks, which typically involve long-haul trips between distribution centres. While the report justifies operators’ decision to use their LST models for journeys that would provide the largest efficiency gain, it also reinforces the necessity of the data collection as crucial to the trial’s overall success.

So, while all data received by the DfT so far shows the trial of high productivity vehicles in the UK is heading in the right direction, it admits that the halfway point is still too early to predict whether or not LSTs will become the new normal on British roads. In the meantime, operators can continue to benefit from the productivity gains the trial provides, and do their part answering the unceasing freight demand.

*Updated on 28 Feburary to reflect the trial extension.

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