Features & Interviews Policy

Inside Whitehall: the future of Freight Transport

16 January 2013 #Features & Interviews #Policy

As Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Freight Transport, Labour MP Robert Flello takes a keen interest in the commercial vehicle sector. His day-to-day job as a constituency MP for Stoke-on-Trent South also brings him into contact with the industry. His connection is the Longton truck project, which plans to bring commercial vehicle production to Stoke-on-Trent this year.

Transport News Brief spoke at length with Flello about the work of the All-Party Group, his thoughts on the issues facing the CV sector and freight transport, and how these challenges can be met.

Flello started by explaining how the All-Party Group is going to change its methods to focus better on specific topics. “In future we’re going to mirror the approach of Select Committees and deliver reports,” says Flello.

Recent hot topics on the Group’s agenda have included the use of the Motor Insurance Database to assist with the recovery of vehicles. “We were making good progress until Mike Penning was moved away from Transport. We’re going back to the drawing board on some aspects of that.”

The All-Party Group is also navigating controversial waters around changes at VOSA, which have seen the number of VOSA sites reduced with much of the Agency’s testing work handled through the expanding Authorised Testing Facility (ATF) network. “We’re looking closely at how these changes are going. Government certainly needs to look at this, too. Although evidence is very anecdotal, there seems to be an issue with middle management not informing senior management of problems with the programme. We’ve heard of testers completing the fixed number of tests which they’re required to do and then leaving, even though there are other vehicles waiting to be tested.”

Southampton and Dagenham

While keen to sit down with VOSA and discuss the ATF programme, Flello knows there are also deep economic challenges facing the commercial vehicle sector, with significant pressure on VMs and suppliers to streamline their operations. Ford’s plan to end Transit assembly in Southampton and close the stamping and tooling operation in Dagenham is clearly a blow to the industry in the UK, although it’s worth noting that Ford plans to add a new, low CO2 2.0-litre diesel engine at Dagenham developed at its technical centre in Dunton, Essex.

Despite Ford’s restructuring plans, Flello is optimistic about the future of commercial vehicle production and assembly in the UK, alongside a strong role as a centre for research and development. “Yes, design and R&D are very important, but I’d hope we will remain high in the league table of CV manufacturers. We also produce some fabulous engines, gearboxes and bodywork. While it’s true that CVs can be produced more cheaply elsewhere, quality does become an issue. I don’t think we trade heavily enough on the standard of the products we make. It’s that quality that gives me optimism for the future.

“I’ve had quite a lot to do with the Longton truck project. Most of the parts that will go into the vehicles are UK parts, and that’s what’s going to make them very good trucks.”

Flello sees attracting the right people to the industry, training them well and retaining them as key to the sector’s future success. “I’m not sure it would appeal to the TV channels, but I think we need an X-Factor for engineers. So many young people want to be singers or footballers or perhaps a lawyer and what we need to tell them is that if you want a very fulfilling, very rewarding career, then consider engineering.”

Is this change of image for engineering and other practical and scientific professions something government and politicians can achieve, or does it need a fundamental change in social attitudes? “I’d say both. The previous Labour government and the current Conservative-led coalition have encouraged the study of science, technology, engineering and mathematics in schools, the so-called STEM subjects. That’s a move in the right direction, but the next step is to really show young people the opportunities these subjects can deliver. The final part of that equation is wider society appreciating the value of engineers.”

Flello praises the work the industry is doing to attract talented people, but feels further effort would be rewarded. “The industry is already doing some good work in this respect, but there’s still room to do even more. We need to celebrate the quality of British engineering, so that more young people will see it as their future career. The industry needs to shout louder, and to do so with one voice.”

Bigger trucks, the long grass and air quality

Some of the most ingenious design and engineering of recent years has been in the field of safety. While vehicle safety systems will continue to develop, Flello sees significant scope for improvement in safety standards through a fundamental reassessment of which weight and length of vehicle should be allowed to use which roads.

“For me, the starting point in looking at the size of vehicles is the suitability of the road. I think the Department for Transport needs to look again at road classifications. There is scope for some bigger roads like motorways safely to accommodate some really quite substantial vehicles. At the other end of the scale, it’s not right that a tiny little village should have to cope with existing HGV lengths and sizes, just because the current road classification system says that they can.”

Given his belief that longer, heavier vehicles can reasonably be used on many major routes, does Flello consider the 10-year trial of 1,800 long HGVs (up to 2.05 metres longer than the current maximum length of 13.6 metres) to be unnecessarily protracted? “Governments are often criticised for their lack of evidence based policy, but making a trial last 10 years is a great way of kicking something into the long grass.”

Flello also believes the reclassification of the road network – and using the network more intelligently – could help reduce carbon dioxide emissions and improve air quality. “Larger vehicles could be allowed to use the motorway network. They would then offload into smaller vehicles to deliver locally overnight or at times when congestion isn’t great. Avoid congestion and you cut down on pollution.

“There are also infrastructure issues to be solved. The use of piped gas with vehicles stopping to refuel at suitable hubs is something that government needs to take a lead on. Some companies are looking at putting in hubs which their vehicles could use but they don’t know whether to make that investment because of uncertainty about government policy. There needs to be clarity on taxation and Vehicle Excise Duty. Expensive investment like putting in a piped gas network won’t happen unless companies know that investment will pay off.”

Flello wants to see big measures and integrated solutions, like investment in a gas infrastructure and the wider use of electric vehicles in urban areas, rather than what he describes as “tinkering”. In his view, there are benefits to low-rolling-resistance tyres and aerodynamic aids but marginal gains should not distract from the bigger picture. “One stat I heard recently is that if a lorry driver on a motorway journey stops for a comfort break, then even with the best aerodynamic systems currently available it will take something like 50 miles of driving to cover the fuel costs of stopping. So, yes, there are quick wins, but sometimes tinkering is an excuse for Ministers and Civil Servants to avoid a thorough root-and-branch review of policy and put forward a proper plan.”

On safety issues, such as the protection of vulnerable road users like cyclists and pedestrians, Flello thinks the efforts of commercial vehicle operators and drivers need to be matched by a concerted effort by everyone on the road. “Road users, whether they are domestic cars, heavy goods vehicles, cyclists or pedestrians, need to understand the rules of the road. There’s an educational issue for all road users around safety.

“But there is a good story to tell with the work that’s gone into commercial vehicles in terms of mirrors and other systems which identify when vulnerable road users are alongside or perhaps undertaking a vehicle, so there are technological solutions out there which are very effective.”

However, Flello stops short of calling for Fresnel lenses, which dramatically reduce blind spots, to be compulsory on all commercial vehicles. “It comes back to the classification of the roads and the type of vehicles that can use them. If you’ve got a vehicle that is only going up and down the motorway, then having a mirror designed to spot cyclists and pedestrians seems unnecessary. However, a vehicle that is being used somewhere like central London day-in, day-out, should have a higher level of safety systems designed to protect vulnerable road users.”

Whether the topic is UK manufacturing, longer HGVs, road safety or air quality, Flello maintains that politicians and industry must work together. “There is always a need for political leadership. Governments need to put together plans and provisions that are long-term. That doesn’t absolve the industry from raising its own game. But good government and proper leadership should go hand in hand with a confident industry that knows what it wants and speaks with one voice – I think that’s the dream combination.”