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Abnormal Loads On Motorways

6.16 p.m.

Lord Mason of Barnsley rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what action they propose to reduce the problems caused by daytime movements of abnormal loads on motorways.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I raise this Question to ask the Government what are the prospects of the Government, in co-operation with the police and the Freight Transport Association, agreeing to ban the movements of abnormal and wide loads on roads during the day; and whether they should be escorted by the police or private escort companies. Consideration might also be given to whether a set of public national guidelines should be laid down governing abnormal load movements on the roads.

We are all aware of some of the problems. Abnormal loads under police supervision reduce three-lane motorways down to two. The result is miles of tailbacks, frustration, impatience, bumper accidents, road rage and the ruination of schedules--all caused by abnormal loads. We see giant pieces of machinery on transporters--even army tank transporters--being moved on the motorway at five o'clock in the evening. Even during the course of a working weekday, havoc can be created over long stretches of main roads. Undoubtedly also, though not so important, caravans on the move on coastal roads are not only a major frustration to holidaymakers but cause accidents through impatience and ruin holidays as well.

Worse still are abnormal indivisible loads. I refer to loads which cannot, without undue expense or risk of damage, be divided into two or more loads for the purpose of carriage on the roads. They travel under escort at 15 to 20 miles an hour. One police officer has said that the sheer number of abnormal loads currently being escorted on a daily basis across Great Britain makes for an inefficient and costly system. It affects the police service, the haulage industry and the consigners of loads, and a large part of the country at the same time.

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In one year, 1,781 abnormal loads were escorted by the police in South Yorkshire alone. A survey of 16 forces over a nine-year period showed that notifications of abnormal load movements increased by 12 per cent. That is typical of the national trend. The burden on the police is significantly increasing, and the frustration of road users, especially in commerce and business, is rising accordingly.

How and when an abnormal load can be moved varies from force to force. Before an abnormal load can be moved it necessitates two working days' notice, giving time, date and route, dimensions length and width, and the chief officer of police may vary the timings in the interests of road safety and to avoid undue traffic congestion. I can tell your Lordships from experience that that cannot be avoided on the M1 during the day. Above all, there does not appear to be a national policy on the movement of these loads that covers all divisional forces.

What is of concern in the police service is the possibility of the national privatisation of these operations. Studies have taken place between the police and the Home Office in regard to the privatisation, civilianisation and rationalisation of many key traffic policy functions. Some are still under consideration; others are gradually being introduced. What is of major concern and crucial importance is the safety and security of the movement of abnormal loads.

The Freight Transport Association has let it be known that policing, particularly on high-speed roads, calls for special skills and sophisticated equipment. It says that the job must be left entirely in the hands of the police--with which view I concur--and that it would be folly to abandon it. Naturally, operators do not like paying for escorts, but prefer to pay for the security and safety of a police escort than a private sector service. I believe that there should be more open, acceptable liaison between the different divisional forces on motorways. The Freight Transport Association suggests that it is questionable whether six forces sharing the policing of the 120 miles of the M25, or 12 forces patrolling different sections of the A1 between London and Scotland, make for the best use of resources.

Is not some privatisation going on already? In North Wales road hauliers are being told to provide their own escorts. In such cases, what is the view of the Home Office as to the supervision of private firms, whether they be Group 4, Securicor or individual firms? What of the safety and security of loads? Under what special proviso can a private haulier move an abnormal load on the M1? Will not the police still have to travel with private escorts to ensure the safety of the public? Will not the routeing, authorisation and administration still be in the hands of the police? Does not all of this suggest that these operations should remain in the hands of the police? Given their powers of arrest, if the police were not involved, hijackers and roadway robbers would have a field day. It would be a godsend to the criminal fraternity.

On the 21st February 1995 the Minister the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, said in a Written Answer at column 64:

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    "A Police Community Liaison Committee has suggested that the movement of abnormal loads on motorways should be limited to night time only, and a few similar letters have been received from members of the public."

What are the prospects of a nationally recognised policy on abnormal load movements at night only with police escorts, recognising that the costs incurred by police are wholly covered by the companies concerned? I believe that the majority of hauliers would accept movements at night as national policy, with all forces complying with national guidelines. I believe that the Police Federation agrees in principle. The Association of Chief Police Officers believes it to be the logical next step. I believe that the motorist would be delighted.

6.23 p.m.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth: My Lords, your Lordships will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Mason, for putting down this interesting and somewhat intriguing Question. I am sure the noble Lord will forgive me if I do not share the criticism in his earlier remarks. My researches and knowledge of the problem of abnormal loads do not suggest to me quite the difficulties that he mentioned in the earlier part of his remarks--miles of tailbacks, frustration, road rage, accidents, and so on. There is no record of any extreme abnormality under any of the headings that he mentioned.

The noble Lord fails to remind your Lordships that under the Authorisation of Special Types (General) Order 1979 it is incumbent upon hauliers to give notice of any abnormal loads to be transported by road. It is then for the chief constables of police authorities to determine which loads shall be escorted. My understanding is that some 150,000 escorted movements are carried out on motorways and urban roadways in the course of a year out of approximately 1,350,000 notifiable movements. From that, we can see that only a small number of the notifiable movements have to be escorted.

I do not believe that there is any question as to the police abrogating this responsibility. The police responsibility in this matter is an historical one. There is no law which says that the police should undertake these tasks. In some cases, due to pressure on resources, various police authorities now take a different view. I have no doubt that my noble friend the Minister will tell us the exact position. In any event, whoever does the job at the moment, whether loads are escorted or not, the police authorities determine and control all details of movements: whether they be by day or by night, the speeds, the times, and upon which days. It is exceptional for hauliers to pay for this service. I understand that there is an exception in the case of Siemens and National Power in relation to the transportation of generating plant from Avonmouth to Didcot. My honourable friend the Minister for Transport in another place gave an Answer to this question on 24th November. Whatever arrangements National Power and Siemens came to with regard to payment, it would be interesting for the House to know whether that money

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accrued to the police authorities involved in the escort duties or fell into the bottomless pit known as the Treasury.

I believe that the Association of Chief Police Officers carried out an experiment in respect of escort duties. I understand from the Freight Transport Association that the experiment was successful. It tested the ability of a private contractor with the use of a non-police vehicle to carry out a movement from the north of England to the south coast. For that purpose, both motorways and inter-urban motorways were used. There is no difficulty provided that escorting companies or persons are properly trained. Essentially, there is no policing obligation here. It is a matter of escort duties. The noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davies, shakes his head. No doubt a little later he will give his views. If there were to be an accident both the escorting body, whether it be the police or anybody else, would be obliged to call upon the police to deal with it.

Lord Clinton-Davies: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. Does it not occur to the noble Lord that sometimes it is very difficult to distinguish between simple escort duties and the prevention of crime? Does he appreciate that particularly the large convoys can constitute very vulnerable targets for villains? Therefore, it is important to have the police at hand, not miles away. They are capable of coming to arrest any miscreant.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth: I am sure that that is a point which the noble Lord might have brought up in his response, but we are time limited. Frankly, I do not see the connection. An escorting body on the motorway does not preclude the police from discharging their ordinary policing functions on the motorway. We are not talking here about crime but about escorting abnormal loads. That is the subject of the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Mason. We are not talking about crime as such.

I understand that the Home Office has produced a report, following a review of traffic policy, from which I quote:

    "The work being taken forward with ACPO aims to encourage the unescorted movement of abnormal loads at night-time on motorways and linking dual carriageways and the private escorting of such loads on those roads during the daytime".
Consultants have been appointed to undertake a review of the kind of skills, qualities, and so on, that would be required of a private body.

That issue has been broached with the road haulage industry and its views have been made clear. The haulage industry would prefer--as most of us might well prefer--the police to undertake those duties. But police resources are scarce. I would sooner the police went about their business of catching criminals and wrongdoers than have them undertake escort duties which could be carried out by somebody else.

I should be quite happy if we could find a method by which the haulage industry could pay for the police to undertake those duties and have the money retained in the police authorities, so that they could perhaps recruit their own motorway escorting police service. Perhaps

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my noble friend can tell me whether or not that is possible. If it is not, we should resort to using other services, which are properly trained, properly monitored and which abide by the guidance given by chief constables under the provisions of the order to which I referred.

I should like to ask my noble friend some questions and I shall understand if he is not able to give a full answer to them this evening, but perhaps he will let me know in due course. How far advanced is the work of the review body? In the event of private escorting, will any primary or secondary legislation be required? Further, how will the fee structure, whether it is in the private domain or through the police, be constructed and by whom? I have mentioned the escort duties remaining with the police and the charging system. Perhaps my noble friend will be able to answer those questions.

My final question is perhaps not germane to the noble Lord's Question but is, I think, germane to the general subject of police and traffic. Can my noble friend tell me whether the review has dealt with any further police tasks concerned with vehicles and traffic? Are there any further tasks contemplated, and in what area?

6.35 p.m.

Earl Attlee: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Mason of Barnsley, for tabling this Question for debate. It might not appear to be of earth-shattering importance to many in your Lordships' House, but it is to the motorist, who is undoubtedly affected by such loads and to those who are involved in or with the heavy haulage industry.

Before saying anything of substance, I should remind your Lordships of my interest. I am president of the Heavy Transport Association; I own a Thornycroft Antar that can operate only under a special types order; and, finally, my Territorial Army unit has a transporter operating under special types rules.

The whole question is that of striking the right balance between the interests of industry that needs to be able to move the loads, the safety and convenience of the ordinary motorist, which are largely looked after by the police, and finally the bridge and highways authorities.

I start with the need to move the loads. The need revolves around economy of size. A large generator is more efficient than a small one, as is a large piece of construction equipment. The cost and inconvenience of moving a large piece of equipment usually pales into insignificance compared with the efficiency savings that come from using such a large piece of equipment. It should not be forgotten that the vehicles used for carrying abnormal loads are taxed at the rate of £5,000 per annum. That goes some way toward paying for the police escort, though not--I accept--all the way.

We are still a world player in the heavy engineering industry, but the product still has to be moved to a port for export. I repeat the word "export" and remind your Lordships how significant that can be for foreign exchange and job security in areas of traditionally high unemployment.

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The noble Lord addressed the problem of the inconvenience to the ordinary motorist and the need to avoid accidents. Those matters are in the hands of the police, as was so well explained by the noble Lord. The police have the power to vary the time of the move and to decide whether they need to escort the load. As the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said, there is no legislative requirement for them to escort it and one can escort it oneself. In general, abnormal loads are not allowed to move during rush hour. But a major question is whether they should be allowed to move at night. For many years, the Metropolitan Police encouraged moves between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. and all day Sunday. However, it is only recently that other police forces have allowed night moves on motorways and dual carriageways. During a night move, the load is lit up like a Christmas tree.

The road conditions within each constabulary vary enormously. For instance, Norfolk has few good roads and no motorways, whereas in the industrial heartlands of the country there are very good roads. Therefore, it is not surprising that all the constabularies have differing policies. Sometimes, they are too rigidly applied, without technical consideration. The problem of night moves is one of them. I have to advise the House that in general the heavy haulage industry is well pleased with the service provided by the police.

There is one area where there is still some police dogmatism; namely, running at night. The noble Lord, Lord Mason, suggested that approach as a means of reducing congestion. I wholeheartedly support him. We are talking only about a load on motorways and dual carriageways, with or without an escort, be it private, police or the haulier himself.

I have listened carefully to what the noble Lord, Lord Mason, said. It makes a lot of sense to me. I do not propose to deal in any detail with the matter of private escorts. I must say that it is a very difficult subject, with the pros and cons very finely balanced. It seems to me that all concerned--the police, the heavy hauliers and the trade associations--are ambivalent about it. But I should like to make some observations on this issue.

First, only the police should be allowed to stop the traffic, whether for the purpose of escorting an abnormal load or for making multi-agency checks on goods vehicles. Secondly, private escorting is only suitable for motorways and linked dual carriageways without roundabouts. Where roundabouts occur, one must involve the police in order to stop the traffic from entering the roundabout. Thirdly, if we decide to go towards private escorting, we must not create a monopoly; the contract must not be given only to the AA or to the RAC. I am pleased that the Government did not adopt that route with the Transport Research Laboratory; they gave the contract to the laboratory itself. I suggest also that we leave the option open to the heavy hauliers to escort their own loads.

One problem on the motorway to which I should draw your Lordships' attention is that sometimes the load has to be moved into the middle of the carriageway. Bearing in mind the speed at which the traffic moves on

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motorways, one is likely to need a police escort in that situation; only the police have the skill and ability to interfere with traffic to that extent.

The movement of abnormal loads outside of the Construction and Use Regulations (C & U) and under 150 tonnes, as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said, is permitted by the Authorisation of Special Types (General) Order 1979, referred to as STGO. The STGO is designed to cover the vast majority of--dare I say it?--ordinary, abnormal loads. It is of a permissive nature and if the driver of an abnormal load breaks one of the conditions of the order, even very slightly, he can be prosecuted for C & U offences. In other words, he loses the protection of the STGO. For example, if he was running at 76 tonnes gross train weight and there was an error in the paperwork, he could be prosecuted for being 100 per cent. overloaded. The courts' sentencing policy is not consistent and the outcome is often a lottery.

A serious anomaly has developed regarding the maximum weight and notice requirements. When the original order was laid in 1979, the maximum weight under C & U was 32 tonnes. That was increased to 38 tonnes and was recognised in an amendment to STGO. However, operation at 44 tonnes is now permitted for inter-modal work under C & U. No notice is required to any authority. The anomaly is that an operator who needs to carry an abnormal load at 39 tonnes gross weight has to notify all and sundry, whereas the inter-modal operator does not.

I am reliably informed that a six-axle 46-tonne artic operating under category one of STGO causes no more stress on the road structures than does a 44-tonner on inter-modal work. Allowing 44 tonnes for abnormal loads under C & U is not recommended as it will be the thin end of the wedge for even higher weights for general construction and use, which I cannot support. Thirty-eight tonnes is quite sufficient. There are other technical difficulties with the current STGO but I do not propose to test your Lordships' patience by going through them. I therefore ask the Minister whether he intends to draft and lay a revised STGO before Parliament which will address those well-known problems.

I mentioned the role of the bridge and highways authorities. They include British Waterways, Railtrack, BR Property Board, London Underground and the local councils. They have the power to reroute abnormal loads to avoid going over weak bridges. Unfortunately, the council highways authorities do not appear to have a realistic attitude to routeing. The staff involved do not appear to have sufficient technical knowledge for their responsibilities. But there is no easy solution to the problem. Theoretically the councils should be in an ideal position to deal with these matters because they have local knowledge.

There is another problem which is similar, but more wide-ranging. I mentioned the importance of the heavy engineering industry. Most of the output needs to go to an east-coast port such as Imingham and thence to Rotterdam which then gives access to anywhere in the world at economical rates. Very heavy electrical

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equipment has to be delivered to power stations around the country. Other very large pieces have to be moved around the country. Most of those moves have to be authorised by the Secretary of State.

In the past the Department of Transport tried to maintain a network of high and heavy load routes, but it is not easy and there is no legal duty to do so. Another problem is that the department is not in a good position to persuade a highways or bridge authority to accept a load on their structures. Therefore the local authorities can ignore the department's and industry's national considerations and adopt a NIMBY attitude. So the question I ask the Minister is: what is the policy regarding high and heavy load route networks?

Once again, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Mason of Barnsley, for introducing this matter for debate and look forward to hearing the Minister's reply.

6.46 p.m.

Lord Berkeley: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Mason of Barnsley, on introducing this debate. I want to talk this evening about trains on the road. This is part of the overall problem of abnormal loads. But it is particularly aggravating and irritating to motorists to see trains being delivered on the road, mainly because it is unnecessary. As a general principle, trains should go by rail.

I must declare an interest in relation to my connection with Eurotunnel. Eurotunnel had a large number of shuttle locomotives delivered by road from the Midlands to the Channel Tunnel, sometimes to the port and sometimes to the tunnel. They were of too big a gauge to travel on British Rail lines and possibly the company may be excused for doing that.

I was responsible for ordering two coaches which were condemned. They were being delivered from Yorkshire to Folkestone, and it was interesting to note that when they arrived they were at that time the newest coaches in the whole of the Kent network. That was before the latest delivery, but at that time they had already been scrapped elsewhere when the Kent network owned nothing beyond a Mark One.

Obviously some large loads need to go by motorway; but why trains? Some preserved railway trains need to be taken by road because they are not suitable for rail. But many steam specials travel on the railways these days and trains involved in accidents sometimes need to go for repair. The most apt example, which happens quite frequently, is the InterCity Great Western 125 high speed trains which are based in Plymouth and are sent regularly to Crewe for overhaul of their engines. They go by road. They are capable of travel by rail when they are hauling coaches, but somehow, when they are on their own--perhaps they are lonely--they have to go by road. It normally takes two-and-a-half days. I gather that a police escort is usually involved. It is incredible that a 50 year-old coal-fired steam train is safe on the railway, but a modern diesel locomotive that hauls passengers most of the time is deemed unsafe.

There are two reasons for the carriage of trains on the road. The first is safety and the second is cost. In the new semi-privatised railway all operators are charged

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for all movements. They need to find a locomotive; a driver with route knowledge (it does not only apply to taxis); and a special contract needs to be drawn up between the operator and Railtrack.

Safety on the railway is of vital importance, but it must be affordable safety. We are in danger of forgetting that safety is meant to be in the interests of the passengers rather than in the interests of the operator protecting himself or herself from claims.

The principle now is that all trains must have a safety case before they can operate. That is obviously very important, but how safe should they be? Should they be safer than by road and accidents caused by heavy load movements? Shall we say, affordable safety? This month Modern Railways devotes several pages to safety cases under the headline "... storm imminent". I believe that that sums it up. Several years ago Railtrack, or its predecessor, had to apply for a safety case for the electrification of the Tonbridge-Redhill line in order to demonstrate that third-rail electrification was safe. The third-rail has probably been around for 60 years or more, so why did they have to make another case to demonstrate that it was safe?

There are three types of trains awaiting a safety case in which we all want to travel--that is to say, North Kent and Great Northern; the Regional Railway's 323s between Manchester and Liverpool and, of course, the Royal Mail multiple unit trains. They all have something in common: they are all awaiting safety certificates to enable them to operate. Some of them have had to submit 1,000 pages or more of paper work and most of the cases have cost half a million pounds. It can take a year to obtain a certificate, which is a year's loss of revenue. That compares with several days for an application to take a train on the road, which probably explains why that is happening. We are getting very close to a system where safety is becoming impossible to achieve. It is safer to close the system because then one has 100 per cent. safety: one cannot have an accident if nothing is running.

That is probably London Underground's argument to justify closing the Northern and Bakerloo Lines across the Thames, which they recently announced. It is certainly safer for the operator, but is it safer for the passenger? In the very unlikely event of a flood in the Underground, is the risk of being killed greater than that of being killed by a road vehicle while walking across a Thames bridge because the Underground is closed? I believe that the same applies to trains being taken by road. Does the operator have to give the police a year's notice, spend half a million pounds on a 1,000 page safety case for each journey and each load, in order to prove that the load is safe? We have heard the answer tonight from several noble Lords, and that is no. Two days are needed and at the moment it appears to be free.

If my two condemned coaches which were delivered from Rotherham to Folkestone were unsafe on the railway system, why should they be safe on the roads? It must be roughly the same low risk of something falling off and injuring another traveller, whichever way one goes. Does the road operator have to pay the full cost of delay to the other motorway users and the full

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cost of police escorts? I believe that the answer is no. The difference is that we, the road users and taxpayers, have no choice and have to carry the road costs and the risks of accidents, whereas on rail, the corporate operator, be it Railtrack, London Underground or one of the many train operators, have lawyers who tell them that it is better not to operate the system at all than risk anything happening, however remote. It would be equally logical, but also equally ridiculous, to suggest closing the motorways to avoid accidents because one would not have any accidents if the motorways were closed. But that is where this blinkered approach to safety is leading and I repeat, "storm imminent".

In conclusion, at a time when the Government are actually encouraging freight from road to rail, the regular carriage of trains and locomotives on the motorways must be one of the most bizarre examples of the consequences of this policy. I really urge the Government to institute an urgent review of this rather ridiculous situation.

6.53 p.m.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, I too would like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Mason of Barnsley, for introducing this very interesting subject. I shall briefly comment on some of the points that have been made by previous speakers and that, hopefully, will help me cut down on the list of points that I intended to make.

The noble Lord, Lord Mason, was extremely convincing when he referred to the lack of a national policy for determining how these loads should be managed while they are on the network. It was an extremely interesting point and I hope that the Minister will respond to it. I also agree with noble Lords who said that it would be sensible to try to ensure that these very heavy loads are carried at night. As the road system becomes fuller it is right that the Government are no longer prepared to build their way out of this particular problem, on the ground that they never could.

There is, therefore, a greater need to manage the traffic on the roads. That means rationing the road space at certain times for certain kinds of users. Given the incredibly rapid and damaging effect that any hold-up can cause not only on the motorway system but on the surrounding network--and we have only to look at what happened as a result of the first lot of snow and how that ricocheted back from Kent into Surrey, causing enormous damage to people's schedules with whole nights wasted sitting in motorway cafes and so on--we see how useful it will be if we can separate the use of the motorways by these abnormal loads from use by other traffic, such as rush hour, business and daily traffic. That is an excellent approach and I hope that the Minister will be able to respond in a positive way on that matter.

I disagree with the suggestion made, I believe, by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. In common with other speakers, I believe that it is important for the police to be in charge of abnormal loads. It is not so much to stop crime being committed--although I can see that for certain loads that might be important--but that in the

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event of an accident one of the emergency services is already present at the scene. That is an enormous advantage in this particular case. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to that point. It is idiotic to have to call an emergency service if there is an accident whereas if the police continue to escort these very big loads they are already there.

I do not believe that anyone would deny that the passage of abnormally large loads has to be done by road. Generally, they cannot be taken by rail because of the size of bridges and so on. I am not in any doubt that this type of movement has to be carried out. However, if it is an important economic matter, the question of payment arises, and I shall return to that in a moment or two after I have commented on the delightful suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, who should know; namely, that, on the whole, railway carriages should travel by rail. I thought that that was a point of such absolute simplicity that it has great virtue. I was reminded of songs about porters and not being able to get to Crewe, which he particularly mentioned. That is still one of the major rail junctions in the whole of England. I am sure that the noble Lord is right on that particular point.

The last point I wish to pick up from previous speakers is the incompetence of local authorities. I do not know whether noble Lords could see my hackles rise at that point. I ask the Minister whether he has any evidence whatsoever that local authorities are not carrying out their responsibilities as regards heavy loads. I am sure that I do not need to remind him that for loads of 38 tonnes and over, transporters have to apply to the local authority. They have to be consulted about the route and they are normally consulted by the police when the load is particularly large and its transportation has to be organised by the police rather than by the local authority. I hope that I am right in thinking that highway authorities are more than competent and do know where their weak and strong bridges are and where there are narrow overhead railway bridges.

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