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Alan McKinnon – Professor of Logistics

THE 
LOGISTICS BLOG

Current issues in logistics and transport

Life without Lorries – 12 years on

This is National Lorry Week in the UK when the population is urged, by the Road Haulage Association, to ‘love the lorry’. Affection may be too much to expect, but certainly the aim of improving the image of the lorry, and the haulage industry as a whole, is very laudable. People must be reminded just how vital a role they play in supporting our economy and way of life.

Although the RHA calls this the 2nd annual  National Lorry Week, there was one back in December 2004 organised by Commercial Motor magazine.  Back then I was commissioned by CM to write a report predicting what would happen if all the lorries in the UK stopped running.  How long would it take for the economy to collapse?   The resulting report called ‘Life without Lorries’ and a subsequent US journal paper called ‘Life without Trucks’ generated a lot of interest.  The study was subsequently replicated in Sweden and used (or mis-used) several times by UK trade unions to show how devastating a national lorry driver strike could be.

The evidence that I assembled from nine major sectors suggested that severe disruption would occur in only four days. Factoring panic buying into the scenario could cut this figure by a day or more.  My estimate was based on the amounts of inventory in critical supply chains, the positioning and replenishment of that inventory and the relative dependence on road transport.

If I were to conduct a similar analysis today would much have changed? Would the UK today be any less vulnerable to a total dislocation of its road freight system?   I think that, if anything, the situation would be worse.  In many key sectors the ‘just-in-time’ principle is being even more assiduously applied. Inventory has become more centralized and supply lines have lengthened.  This is reflected by an increase in the average distance moved by each tonne of road freight from 87km in 2004 to 92kms in 2015.

Although between 2004 and 2013 (the last year for which we have consistent modal split data) the amount of freight movement in UK-registered trucks actually fell by 7% their share of total tonne-kms increased from 64% to 71%.   This is not to belittle rail’s achievement since 2004 in capturing significant amounts of ‘fast-moving consumer goods’ traffic from companies like Tesco and ASDA.  But this is almost all intermodal traffic dependent on road feeder movements at one or both ends of the railway trunk-haul which would cease in the no-lorries scenario.

The rapid growth of online retailing over the past decade will have had little impact, because the upper links in e-tail supply chains are just as reliant on lorries as those supplying shops.

There are three sectors in which the impact of a road haulage shutdown will have diminished: fuel supply, postal services and banking.

I estimated in 2004 that after five days without trucks 40% of the nation’s car fleet would have run out of fuel.   The total annual distance travelled by cars in the UK in 2014 was almost exactly the same as in 2004, but average fuel efficiency substantially improved. Over this period the average mpg of new cars rose by 38% for petrol vehicles and 31% for diesel ones.  If the road-based fuel supply system were paralysed, the fuel already in car tanks would support more motoring today than in 2004.

The internet has substantially reduced our dependence on road-freighted postal services. Between 2005 and 2014/15 the number of letters handled annually by the Royal Mail dropped by a third from 19.7 to 12.6 billion. The growth of online banking and credit card use will also have reduced the physical movement of money by road across the so-called ‘cash in transit’ network.  The postal and banking sectors, however, generate only a tiny fraction of truck traffic and are unusual in handling products that can easily be ‘dematerialised’ for electronic distribution.

For almost all other products there is at least one link in the supply chain that requires physical movement by a lorry. We may not love it, but we should recognize the central role of the lorry in the life of the nation.

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© Professor Alan McKinnon 2017

Kuehne Logistics University
Hamburg
Germany

contactme@alanmckinnon.co.uk

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© Professor Alan McKinnon 2017

 

Kuehne Logistics University
Hamburg
Germany

 

contactme@alanmckinnon.co.uk

 

Contact me

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