ESTA Director outlines exceptional transport challenges in Madrid speech.

ESTA Director Ton Klijn gave a major speech last week to the logistics department of the University of Madrid – Colegio de Ingenieros de Caminos, Canales y Puertos – on the issues facing the European exceptional transport sector and the significant changes that are in the pipeline.

Klijn said: “I was delighted to be invited to give this speech. We at ESTA are keen to work closely with our Spanish colleagues and regulators on issues of mutual interest and concern.”

The full text of his speech is as follows:
“Those of us working in heavy and abnormal transport have often felt that our concerns have not been taken seriously by our political masters, whether in national governments or the European Commission in Brussels.

Despite the importance of our work for society’s well-being, we have struggled to receive a hearing. We are, admittedly, a smallish industry. Our abnormal transports amount to some 2,5 % of all goods transport movements. But in terms of economic and social impact, we punch well above our weight. Please realise that without abnormal transport, no wind turbine, no power station, no industrial factory or highway infrastructure could be built.

Today, maybe – just maybe – that is beginning to change, as companies and politicians alike struggle to improve the environmental footprint and economic performance of the road transport industry.

ESTA has long argued against the plethora of petty and unnecessary national regulations governing abnormal transports. Such regulations have often been used by national or local authorities for protectionist ends.

For years, we have called on the European Commission to enforce harmonized standards for abnormal transports across its member states.

So you will understand, we strongly support the Commission’s recent moves to revise the directive that regulates weights and dimensions of commercial vehicles. We hope we can make the most of the opportunities this presents.

This may seem like a dry and technical issue, but if handled correctly, carefully considered changes to Directive 96/53 could be a game changer.

Back in 2008, ESTA contributed to, and supported, the publication of the European Best Practice Guidelines for Abnormal Road Transport. It was an excellent document. Unfortunately, since then not a lot has happened. Most member states have not implemented any of the recommendations, even though they helped to draft them, and it has, by and large, been ignored.

To our great surprise and pleasure, the Commission has said now that it wants to look again at the Best Practice Guide and the measures it proposes such as SERT, the Special European Registration for Trucks and Trailers, intended to reduce paperwork and bureaucracy.

When it comes to the abnormal transport industry, a lot of Brussels’ aims can be achieved by revisiting the guide. But it is also crystal clear that without making any of the new regulations compulsory, no changes ‘on the ground’ will come about.

A revision of the best practice guide would help create a European abnormal transport system of regulations and permits that is fair and harmonised. That is to say, a one-stop shop in every EU member state that can be approached through the internet.

We are calling on the Commission to ensure that the reforms use modern information and communication technologies to ensure compliance with national permits and road access limitations. There are huge benefits to be captured.

We know from experiences in other parts of the world – in particular, the United States and Australia – that the introduction of effectively designed online permitting systems leads to a rise in the number of transport permits applied for, and at the same time reduced costs for the issuing authorities. In addition, the number of infrastructure damage incidents is significantly reduced.

None of this is ground-breaking – the systems we describe are already in use in various parts of the world. The only reason we are not using them in Europe is because of regulatory barriers at a national level.

A further possibility we see for information technology in abnormal transport would be to connect the vehicle position by GPS to an intelligent access system.

Systems already in place in Australia and the United States have shown a reduction in road congestion problems and fewer transport route violations, again with reduced government enforcement costs.

We have the opportunity here to develop a better regulated, more efficient and safer
abnormal transport industry, but only as long as the developments are both agreed and acted upon by all member states.

But if the recent communications from Brussels are a cause for guarded optimism, the news from France and Germany is not so good and contains an important lesson.

In France we see a refusal of transports over 120 tons GVW in already 11 Départements; and a straight refusal of transit for abnormal transport in several regions. The argument used is the poor state of the road network infrastructure.

In German the authorities last introduced an new online permitting system, called VEMAGS.

VEMAGS is the German online system for the application and approval for oversized and heavy transports in all 16 federal states. The new rules were intended to make the system more efficient, but instead are leading to increased costs, unnecessary bureaucracy and greater delays.

Along with other organisations, we had a meeting in Germany at the end of last year, and I think the authorities there were a little shocked at the strength of the opposition.

We are still waiting for a reply from the German authorities in response to our serious concerns about the new VEMAGS permit system for heavy transport that we discussed at this meeting .

A few examples:

One of the new rules is that permits can only be ordered from the regional authority where the transport starts or where the transport company has its headquarters or a major branch office.

This leaves foreign transport companies with fewer application points and the number of authorities from whom a transport company can obtain a permit for a heavy transport or abnormal load has been reduced, with some authorities becoming overwhelmed by the demand. Especially those at frequently used borders.

The cost of obtaining permits under the new regulations has also increased, in some cases significantly and different authorities often charge different amounts for identical permits.

A test made by our German colleagues showed deviations of up to 200% in permit costs for the same transport.

To make matters worse, transport companies are often unable to contact permit offices by telephone and if they email, do not receive a reply. It is obvious is that some people will end up driving illegally without a permit because they are simply unable to get one as it is so difficult to communicate with the relevant authorities.

Meanwhile the situation is becoming even more complex as the German transport ministry has said it will prioritise taking abnormal loads off the roads and increase the use of rail and water, for environmental reasons. They are planning to enforce this by further changing permit procedures.

This raises a whole raft of questions. What happens to international transports that are entering Germany from other jurisdictions? How will loads be transferred onto barges and rail? In addition, train tunnels are often too small for abnormal loads.

What is more, it is not at all clear that carrying abnormal loads by boat or rail, with the needed transport to and from transfer locations and the additional lifting operations, is better for the environment than using efficient, modern trucks for the whole route.

Our message to the German government is that it is easy to make statements such as this – but the devil, as they say, is in the detail. Rather than acting unilaterally, the authorities need to consult the industry, ESTA and the other European and international organisations.

We need regulations that are, as far as possible, the same in all European states. As we have said, this would make us more efficient, reduce costs, and improve safety – and we all want to reduce our environmental impact. But unilateral actions are not the way to do it.

When all the above issues are combined with the range of reforms already being introduced via the European Commission’s Mobility Package and Green initiatives, then it is clear that heavy and abnormal transport in Europe is facing its own industrial revolution.

On the upside, we see that the needs and opinions of the heavy and abnormal transport sector are at last being taken more seriously.

However, there is a clear and urgent need for detailed consultation and for proper coordination if we are to make the improvements in a way and within a time frame the transport industry can handle.

Change is essential and is coming, whether we like it or not. But how it will be managed is crucial.

Thank you for your attention.”