Learn to love the lorry

Dave Young, a former truck driver, argues that, in a service economy, rail isn't the solution to mov

It's a sacred cow of middle-class belief that if freight were taken off nasty, dirty lorries and put on to the railways, our roads would be a much nicer place for everyone. Indeed, that was pretty much the extent of new Labour's policy for goods transport when it first took office.

Not long after a pantechnicon had deposited the Blairs at No 10, Glenda Jackson, new Labour's first transport minister, went to meet Eddie Stobart, the self-made boss of Britain's highest-profile haulage firm, at his new Daventry HQ. The retired thespian lectured him on the need to switch from road to rail until he wearily stopped her and asked her to look out of the window. There stood an entire freight train in Stobart's gold, red and green livery. He'd already bought a train, but Railtrack's crumbling infrastructure couldn't find space on the network for it to operate.

Even if it could, traffic congestion would remain because Labour's plans were hopelessly out of kilter with modern logistics. In countries with a flourishing manufacturing sector, the bulk delivery of raw materials - say, iron ore - by rail to the door of an industrial complex makes pretty good sense; ask the Germans. But Britain no longer has a flourishing manufacturing sector; the population is expected to support the GDP by patriotic shopping.

Your local Sainsbury's or Asda doesn't have a railway siding. Even if it did, there would be nowhere to store huge quantities of goods until they were sold. Geared to the rapid turnover of just-in-time deliveries of perishable goods, a modern superstore needs constant feeding by fleets of trucks - roughly one every three hours, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That helps to explain why 97 per cent of our goods go by road.

But couldn't we at least use smaller lorries, especially in towns? Only if you don't mind kissing goodbye to low prices. There are large extra costs involved in trans-shipping goods from a large articulated truck to a series of smaller vehicles - each with its own driver to be paid, each with its own exhaust emissions - which will need to make deliveries at the rate of about one every 15 minutes.

At least they would if there were enough drivers to pilot the trucks. A combination of EU laws that restrict working hours and the unwillingness of bosses to sponsor training has left the transport industry short of 40,000 professional drivers. For years, skilled truckers on low rates of pay (typically £6 an hour) have been working an average of 60 hours a week and spending three or four nights sleeping in the cab to earn a living wage. For as long as anyone can remember, there have been no apprenticeships. Would-be drivers, mainly working-class people with low disposable incomes, have paid £1,000 or more out of their own pockets to gain a vocational licence and enjoy some of the worst working conditions in Europe. The best employers, as it happens, are the big supermarket chains. By simply adding a penny or two to the price of a can of baked beans, they've funded salaries and hitherto unknown luxuries such as holiday and sick pay and shorter hours.

Not only has this scooped up the pool of experienced men, but it has also attracted women into this once most macho of occupations.

You'd think the Prime Minister would be delighted to note this civilising influence on the predominantly white, male workforce, with which he and his Islington friends have so assiduously avoided contact. Sadly, he has not even noticed.

As the fuel protests of 2001 demonstrated, Britain is strategically dependent on the continued good humour of truckers to ensure its fuel and food supplies. Remember who brought down Salvador Allende? And don't think the army will ride to the rescue; modern-day lorries, bristling with electronics, are far beyond the skills of the average squaddie.

So what can be done? There are no quick-fix, mission-statement solutions. The UK's 420,000 trucks do not cause jams, but 23 million cars do. Getting people out of cars and on to public transport could work for us, as it does for the Dutch. We could even consider bigger trucks on specified routes to achieve economies of scale and reduce their overall environmental impact. The lorries on our roads, being designed as much by politicians as engineers, are inefficient in energy terms compared with those in the rest of Europe.

But whatever ministers de- cide, this government like any other will have to learn to love the lorry.

Dave Young is the editor of Truck & Driver magazine