Mega-trucks proposal runs into political roadblock

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This article is part of our special report Road transport: Who’s in the driving seat?.

SPECIAL REPORT / A controversial proposal to end cross-border restrictions and length-restrictions for mega-trucks across the EU is looking increasing unlikely to see the light of day in the current European Commission.

On 17 September, the European Parliament’s transport committee will debate issues including new aerodynamic aspects of the proposal, which unite environmentalists and the road transport lobby.

But it increasingly appears to be an academic exercise, according to the International Road Transport Union (IRU), even though the parliamentary rapporteur, Jörg Leichtfried (Socialist & Democrats, Austria), still expects his report to be adopted at the last plenary of the year in April 2014, a month before the European elections.

“If nothing goes wrong he’ll succeed but given the volatility and sensitivity of the whole dossier I doubt it,” Marc Billiet, the IRU head of EU goods policy told EURACTIV.

“The proposal is pretty controversial for some member states and it also lacks clarity in several aspects. The Irish EU presidency didn’t want to touch it. The Lithuanians won’t touch it and it remains to be seen if the Greeks and Italians will actually do something with it.”

“It is very unlikely that there will be any clear messages coming from the European Council before the parliamentary recess next year,” he added.

The proposed new guidelines are part of a wider revision of the EU’s 1996 weights and dimensions directive, whose provisions date back to the 1980s.

'Mega-trucks' are vehicles that can be up 25-metres long, and weigh 60 tonnes. They can carry larger volumes and the road industry say using them requires fewer trips. Current rules say that European lorries may be no longer than 18.75 metres and weigh no more than 40 tonnes.

MEPs in the European parliament have fought a small-scale guerrilla war against several of the proposal’s measures and, in March last year, forced the transport commissioner Siim Kallas to apologise for neglecting to consult them.

The new EU-wide aerodynamics proposals, arguably an environmental sweetener for the legislative expansion of mega-trucks, were presented to Parliament in April, and would add devices to the back of vehicles hitched up to 45 foot containers.   

Environmental campaigners and road hauliers have united to push for a speedy adoption and implementation of these rules.

Eye to eye

“We see eye to eye [with the IRU] on the need for more fuel efficient transport as it means less pollution and we are on a similar line on aerodynamics as again this is a very simple and cost-effective way of making trucks less polluting,” said Nina Renshaw, the deputy director of Transport and Environment, a green think-tank.

“But we don’t see eye to eye on adding another 50% of weight to each truck,” Renshaw cautioned, “it would mean that trucks could be 60 tonnes rather than the standard 40 tonnes today.”

Environmentalists say that making road vehicles longer and less manoeuvrable, as the IRU proposes, would increase the risk and severity of accidents.

“The safety reservation is a huge one,” Renshaw said. “It is not disputed by anyone that mega-trucks are more dangerous per vehicle, and we don’t believe that there will necessarily be less of them out there because of road pricing schemes.” 

A report for Transport and Environment by CE Delft found that allowing mega-trucks to cross national borders would make freight transport by lorry 20% cheaper.

But the IRU counters that so far, truck weights have only increased to 60 tonnes in four countries – Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and Sweden – and their main purpose is to carry an additional volume of goods, rather than an additional weight.

Empty running

A recent report by Steer Davies Gleave for the European Commission’s transport department on EU road cabotage found “no statistical evidence” to support the view that foreign hauliers were involved in more road accidents than domestic ones.

The same paper also noted that ‘empty running’ – lorries driving without a load – was equivalent to about 22% of all vehicle kilometres driven. Reducing this phenomenon “would have a knock-on effect on CO2 emissions,” the report says.

But passenger car emissions, which account for 12% of all of Europe’s CO2 pollution also underpin the rail sector’s case against the EU’s mega-trucks.

Unife, the Association of the European Rail Industry argues that any expansion of mega-truck sizes would “shift freight transport from rail back to the road, thereby resulting in a considerable increase of CO2 emissions from transport”.

The IRU disputes this, arguing that the rail sector is trying hard to block the legislation because of “theoretical estimates” that are rooted in a 3% loss of transport market share by the rail industry.

'Mega-trucks' are vehicles that can be up to 25-metres long, and weigh 60 tonnes. They can carry larger volumes and the road industry say using them requires fewer trips.

But the vehicles have been sharply criticised by the rail industry and environmentalists, for pushing up road-transport demand unsustainably.

Some member states, particularly in Scandinavia where rail networks are less advanced, see them as a potential solution to Europe's increasing congestion and pollution problems.

Currently these trucks are outlawed in a majority of member states, but countries such as Sweden and Finland have authorised their use. While EU law states that member states may allow such trucks to circulate on their territory, so far, it does not allow international transit.

  • 17 September: European parliament transport committee hearing into mega-trucks issue
  • April 2014: European Parliament rapporteur says he will bring legislation to a plenary vote

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