More Profit, Less Traffic
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LAST week I pointed out that the number of C-licensed vehicles exceeding 30 cwt. unladen was increasing very slowly as compared with the lighter. vehicles. Possible reasons I mentioned were that many C-licensed vehicles granted soon after the war had . lapsed at the end of the five-year currency period; and that the promise of denationalization had made traders less eager to take out new licences or to renew the old. The improved service given by British Road Services could provide another reason, except that, as the recently published report of the British Transport Commission shows, the volume of traffic carried by nationalized road vehicles has fallen over the past few years.
According to the report, there was some improvement during .1953, although this is not reflected in the figure for the year as a whole. At the beginning the tonnage of traffic carried was running 16 per cent, below the level at the corresponding time in 1952. The position improved progressively "with the increasing volume of industrial output," and at the end of the year the tonnage being carried was at a level 5 per cent. higher that at the end of the previous year.
Industrial output, as measured by the official index, reached a level of 121 in 1953, as compared with 114 in 1952, and 117 in 1051. Tonnage carried by B.R.S.. during the three years shows a continuous decline, from 47m. tons in 1951 to 42m. tons in 1952, and to just under 40m. tons in 1953. What the B.T.C. report calls "the challenge of the decline in traffics" was met by reductions in mileage operated, by pruning the fleet, by increasing the average capacity per vehicle, by increasing the days each vehicle was at work and the miles run per day, and by obtaining a "slightly better loading of the vehicles." All these things are in line with the best practice of the best operators, but the real "challenge " presented by the loss of traffic at a time when production was increasing has not been faced in the report.
"Discriminating Process" The decrease in the number of vehicle miles from 710m. in 1952 to 680m. in 1953 is referred to with some pride as "part of a valuable and discriminating process of improving the efficiency of operation Of the road haulage services." As the decrease of approximately 4 per cent. is a little less than the fall of 5 per cent. in tonnage carried, the discrimination must be in traffic rather than in the use of vehicles. It may be that B.R.S. have chosen to carry mainly the traffic that pays them best and have diverted the unprofitable loads elsewhere, perhaps by the judicious granting of permits.
There is not much evidence in the report that this has happened, and such a policy would in the long run endear B.R.S. neither to the haulier nor. to the trader. The fact remains that, in spite of the loss of traffic, the receipts went up in 1953 from £77.6m. to £80.2m., and expenses declined from £76m. to £71.4m., leaving a highly satisfactory net figure of nearly £9m., over £7m. more than in 1952.
Efficiency of operation would seem to be the explanation. In an attempt to measure this elusive entity, the report includes a diagram showing at four, different periods the miles per vehicle at work. Early 1951, when
B.R.S. were carrying more goods than at any time since, is given the index figure of 100. The figure is nearly 110 at the end of 1951, over 110 at the end of 1952, and about 114 at the end of 1953.
It would be difficult to devise a less revealing diagram. Mileages and the number of vehicles at work are both known, but they must be combined "with other factors to give a significant result. One important point is whether the mileage is loaded or empty, and another is the total volume of traffic carried during the period surveyed. With this information it might be possible to arrive at the road transport equivalent of the celebrated net ton-rniles per total engine-hour by which the Commission are content in another part of their report to judge the increasing efficiency of British Railways.
Signs of Astigmatism In general, the report contains useful information sensibly presented except for some slight signs of astigmatism. It summarizes fairly the changes brought about by the two Transport Acts, and accepts the pattern imposed by the legislation of 1953. Regret may be detected, however, in certain passages praising B.R.S. Since nationalization, it is pointed ont, traders generally need to get into touch with only one B.R.S., office for the movement to various destinations of all their traffic, "instead of maintaining contact with a number of relatively small haulage firms." This sentiment, one might think, would clash with the intention in the 1953 Act to indulge the trader in his apparent preference for the second alternative.
The improvement in B.R.S. efficiency, says the report, is the more remarkable in that-1953 was a year of great uncertainty in the minds of the staff, on account of impending denationalization. Much as one may deplore the shortcomings of human nature, there is little evidence that certainty and security automatically produce greater efficiency. The opposite principle largely directed the passage of the 1953 Act. Could it not be the case that the disturbance within B.R.S. caused the improvement rather than hampered it? Dr. Johnson made the observation'that a sentence of death was likely to concentrate a man's mind wonderfully.
Licensing Irks .B.T.C. • The need to obtain carriers' licences. irks the Commission a little. The freedom from this restriction up to a year ago "allowed flexibility in the distribution of vehicles to meet fluctuating traffic requirements." B.R.S. Could "reduce quickly .the number of vehicles in use whenever circumstances warranted it, and thus effect considerable economy without prejudicing future operations." The benefit of the freedom is frankly admitted now that it has been lost. Hauliers would have been at a disadvantage had their own fluctuating traffic requirements been tethered to licences, leaving B.R.S. with unfettered liberty to move in wherever the traffic was increasing. The report does not add that B.R.S., even when not themselves restricted, have had power to object to the granting of licences to other operators.