London Hauliers LABOUR PARTY Wary of THREATS
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Low Rates and Clearing Houses are Big Problems, but the Major Worry Comes from the Political Tug a' War
By. Tony Hatton THE political cloak which was thrown over road haulage by the Labour Party 10 years ago still envelops the industry in the London area. Bad rates, doubtful clearing houses, labour shortages and increased costs all take their toll from the capital's hauliers, but if these were the only problems they had to solve, life would be much easier.
As it is, they have the threat of reprisals from a disgruntled Opposition, coupled with a disconcerting s);,ing to the Left in public opinion.
The . Conservatives are half-way through their term of . office, and, confident of success at . the next election, the Socialists are even now forging ahead with plans for another take-over of the nation's road transport network.
Two years ago The Commercial Motor tried to discover how free enterprise in London was faring with its new lease of life. It found enthusiasm and a great deal of faith in what the future would bring. Another Labour Government seemed a` long way off, and the immediate problem was to get a firm footing in the battle against a highly organized State undertaking which was suffering from inexperience of opposition.
The story now is somewhat different. Although British Road Services have increased their efficiency to cope with competition, private hauliers have not been left behind in the race for business. The rivalry is just as keen, yet it has lost much of the bitterness which prevailed in the initial stages, and, on the whole, the two sections of the industry are giving the customer a better service than he has 'ever enjoyed before.
But most of London's hauliers are dogged by the suspicion that their businesses will be snatched away u6 from them again by another Government purge of free enterprise. Many of them think along the same lines as Mr. E. Wade, of Wade's Transport (Tottenham), Ltd., High Road, London, N.15. He believes that if road haulage were nationalized again there would be a record rise in the issde of C licences, provided that some curb was not put on them—and that is already more than an idle dream. When his business was last nationalized, a company with which he had a valuable contract found that it could not get satisfaction from B.R.S. The result was that the directors bought their own vehicles and now run a fleet of more than 100—all good business lost to contractors. It is doubtful, he says, whether that is an isolated case.
As specialists in packaged loads and furniture carrying—Wade's have 32 covered vehicles—he is convinced that a State monopoly would never be able to give the same " personal " service. And it would be this failing, he maintains, which would encourage customers to start or increase their own fleets.
Mr. Wade thinks the Labour Party would take over the whole industry at. one sweep, but there are other London hauliers who believe that discretion might be exercised next time. Among them are Mr. W. French, traffic manager of Michael Jefferies (Transport), Ltd., Beckton Road, E.16. In his view, a fresh nationalization plan might be tempered to do away with only threatening opposition to B.R.S.—the heavy trunkers, for instance.
Jefferies are experts in the handling and redistribution of dock traffic, and here, again, they believe that the personal touch, which is so necessary in their line, would be beyond the scope of B.R.S. With this in mind, they are forging ahead with long-term policies designed to increase their own efficiency and service to the public.
One man with particularly strong• views on the subject is Mr. R. J. Elmes, managing director of Silver Roadways, Ltd., Bermondsey Wall West, S.E.I6. He was with B.R.S. for a number of years, and realizes from the inside the disadvantages of such an organization—particularly the reluctance by the staff to make decisions.
"You learn to avoid it after a time," he said, "because there's always the possibility that after a few days you will have to explain your actions on three or four foolscap sheets."
He is convinced that the customer gets a better deal from free enterprise, but this does not hide his wariness over the prospect of renationalization. Silver Roadways have an upto-date fleet to be proud of, but the company have no intention of entering into schemes which might cost thousands of pounds and not pay for four or five years. By that time, said Mr. times, the people reaping the benefits might be the State, and not Silver Roadways. He believes that many others, equally uncertain about the future, take this attitude.
Talking to hauliers about their businesses, it soon becomes clear that renationalization is their major worry, but, in common with other industries, they have their more immediate problems to face. At the top of the list are rates—bad ones, in particular.
. In many cases, rates are decreasing while costs become heavier, and hauliers lay part of the blame cm B.R.S. competition.
Immediately after denationalization, many hauliers whose businesses had been taken over by the State succeeded in regaining vehicles and some bought back their old undertakings and continued to use B.R.S. rate schedules for their traffic. The State undertaking had been able to allow a fair profit margin, which was now going to private hauliers.
A little bewildered by the new rivalry, B.R.S. found that they had to be competitive to gain business, which meant pruning schedules. The hauliers followed suit, other hauliers cut rates just that little more, and so the slide began. The fantastic result is that rates are now virtually back to pre-1947 standard—and that means they are hardly any different from 1939 charges.
Mr. H. Olins, manager of Reece Bros. Transport, Ltd., Ridge Street, S.E.16, told me: "It is now almost impossible to raise rates any. higher. Only a few established customers will tolerate increases, whilst the rest will often settle for a poorer service rather than pay that shilling or two extra."
From all over London the story is the same. Hauliers dare not put
into operation the Road. Haulage• Association's recent recommenda
tion for a 6 per cent. increase because they are afraid of losing traffic, which is already scarce. Higher costs and heavier wage bills are having to be absorbed as much as possible to avoid more calls on customers, because whenever increases prove inevitable there are kicks from the people who have to pay.
This applies particularly to general hauliers, who face fierce Competition from owner-drivers and cut-throat operators running themselves out of business. James Shirley and Sons, Ltd., Naylor Road, S.E.15. have 100 vehicles, many of them on A licence. They put up their rates by 5 per cent., but eventually had to come to a compromise with some of their regular customers, who claimed they could not afford the increase. Mr. Wade found that when his company put up charges, several customers would agree to them only on condition that there was a promise of reductions again as soon as possible.
Even in specialized fields the story is much the same. For instance. Guest Carriers (Hackney), Ltd., Anton Street, E.8, have not increased their charges for a long time, despite increasing costs. The main reason is that there are so many other companies doing the same type of work who would probably be afraid to follow suit.
In fact, where London is concerned, rates are not nearly as profitable as they were when the previous survey by The Commercial Motor was published.
Why is it, then, that the capital's hauliers cannot band together not only to seek better payment, but also to increase their own efficiency? Would it not be a good idea for small groups to handle multi-drop consignments between them, so that each would be able to keep the maximum number of vehicles on the road?
Suspicion prevents this kind of arrangement. Mr. Shirley, who has in the past tentatively approached the idea, has come to the conclusion that it would never work in slack periods, because each operator would be afraid that his colleagues would undercut him in desperation if conditions became too bad.
Mr. G. A. Harris, a London R.H.A. official, said: "Many of these people worked themselves up
from nothing by sheer hard work, and they got nO help from anyone on the way. Their attitude now seems to be that they still don't need any help, and they find it extremely difficult to trust people in the same line of business."
When hauliers discuss their problems, clearing houses are mentioned with clockwork regularity. Shirleys have compiled a list which names dozens of organizations to be used by their drivers only in emergencies. Reece Bros., too, instruct their drivers to avoid certain companies, although they are themselves clearing-house operators in Ipswich.
And what do the clearing houses think of all this? Mr. Elmes admits • that with a large number of them the hauliers have a grouse. But he stresses that rate-cutting and good business must not be confused, for competition is the basis of free enterprise.
Nevertheless, it seems hard to believe that to bring a heavy vehicle back empty from the provinces should prove cheaper than loading it through a clearing house, yet hauliers will point to this fact as an example of the level of rates offered.
Jefferies lay some of the blame on the big companies, but they agree that their major problems come from owner-drivers and inexperienced dabblers who will accept anything just to see a load on their vehicles. It is this attitude, of course, which is preventing London's bigger concerns from forcing up rates to an economic level.
Surprisingly enough, • despite all these obstacles, relatively few of the London hauliers who ventured into the industry on denationalization have since gone out of business [Mr. J. Turner, chairman of the Metropolitan and South Eastern Area of the R.H.A., said in his report for last year that almost half the deletions from membership was in respect of newcomers who purchased vehicles front B.R.S. and then left the industry. Unfortunately, he did not state the number.] They have had little encouragement over these past fontyears for, apart from rate troubles and the Labour Party's threats, progress has of necessity been slow.
For instance, the first three months of 1957 were the worst in living memory where long-distance work from London was Concerned, and the position has still not properly recovered.
Yet it seems doubtful whether many hauliers will forsake the industry until the very last moment if renationalization does become a reality. The Londoners who snapped up specialA licences four years ago may appear a pessimistic bunch on the face of things, but deep down they still have hope of better times just around the corner.
If their courage has proved nothing else, it has shown the nation that a first-class haulage network does not need the guiding hand of the Government.