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CM relives the success of Econofreight Heavy Transport, one of the best-known
Words: Lucy Radley / Images: Andrew Hunt / Peter Clark / Richard Llewellyn
Travel to the North-East of England and mention Econofreight Heavy Transport to any driver and they will boast of either having worked for the irm, or knowing someone who did. The name speaks of a glorious past in a region where the street furniture is designed to be removed to get the wide and high loads of steel out. It’s also a source of much gloating that not only was the Tyne Bridge fabricated by the Geordies’ southern rivals, they delivered it for them too. Not to mention the Angel of the North.
But Econofreight’s story is bigger than that, for there are few who would argue they were responsible for the shape of heavy haulage today. To grow from a small general haulier into a world-renowned abnormal load specialist in the space of 60 years is no mean feat. To then vanish in a puff of your own diesel smoke is incredible.
Econofreight Distributive Services started trading in December 1938 as a general haulier with warehouses around the country. Liveried in a shade of bright orange, it considered itself a North-Eastern haulier, with a main depot in Thornaby. Described as “the Prestons [of Potto] of its day” by Richard Llewellyn, the original company showed no hint of the direction it would later take until 1956, when it bought out Tarslag, another small haulier with an interest in civil engineering projects and tippers. The companies slowly merged under the Econofreight name, and continued as an independent until 1963, when both were acquired by Tarmac as a wholly owned subsidiary, and the orange livery was replaced by the khaki of the larger company. Depots in Harrogate and Darlington, set up to service UK fertiliser contracts, were both rail-linked, some of the irst to be so, long before intermodal transport became the watchword for the future that it is today.
These irst two changes were the start of what could easily be described as Econofreight’s favourite pastime – merging and being taken over – and perhaps further explanation as to why the details are so sketchy. Quite simply, the people and contracts of the irst 20 years have disappeared into a rather complicated timeline, and have no real bearing on what came next. And plenty came next, as by the mid-60s the Tarmac-owned company was merged with D. Tarrens under the name of Econofreight Services, then in 1968 Tarmac itself merged with Derbyshire Stone, together becoming Tarmac Distributive Services (TDS), of which Econofreight was a subsidiary. But the company changed hands yet again, when in October 1972 TDG bought Econofreight from TDS. It inally began to specialise in 1976.
But let’s stop for a moment: we’ve missed out the most important event of all, when at the creation of TDS a man called Tom Llewellyn came onto the scene and made Econofreight what it was. Originally a transport manager ▲ Above: Foden YDC 521J for Derbyshire Stone, Llewellyn became MD of Econofin Tarmac colours. Circa reight, and had the foresight to take the irm in the 1971 direction that would make it famous. Below: A pair of Nicolas Econofreight had always been involved in what was then Self-Propelled Modular classed as heavy haulage in a small way, with 60ft trailers Trailers
operating out of the Leicester yard, but the 1970s saw the start of the North Sea oil boom, and the consequent need for much larger objects to be moved. Tom’s son, Richard Llewellyn, joined the irm as a management trainee in 1973 and saw much of what his father achieved irst-hand. “It was the development of the equipment and vehicles that really increased the possibilities,” he says, “particularly hydraulic steering and suspension. Our original bogies were very basic, just a set of rear trailer axles with nothing in between, really. Of course, things were very different then. This was all pre-health and safety. We notiied the police of moves via telex. But without the people involved, none of it would’ve happened.” Possibly Llewellyn’s biggest asset was his eye for collaboration and acquisition. By 1980 he’d set up a joint venture between Econofreight and Mammoet, and in 1985 discussions began with Wynns and Sunters – both well-respected names in their own right – who had been working together as United Heavy Transport. The three merged in May 1986 to form Econofreight United Transport, and from there the only way was up.
In 1992 Tom was quoted as saying: “We have got some of the best transport brains in the world, here. If you have got enough money, we can move anything, anywhere.” And he meant it. At the time, Econofreight held the record for the heaviest move in the UK, an oil industry module weighing 10,760 tonnes. “The self-propelled side and load outs were the big business by then,” conirms Hunt. Overseas work was no problem either: “HSBC contracted the company to move, everything, all the steel, to Hong Kong,” says Richard. “We had a lot of work in South Africa as well, and places like Texas. Wherever we were needed, basically. Then there was the Norway job, of course.” Centred around the Troll Onshore Base in Kolsness, this was a three-year contract to move newly built oil rig modules into Norway from Holland, using heavy ballast tractors and self-propelled Hyspec trailers, where they were then assembled. Some of the work was subcontracted to Norwegian haulier Spesial Transport as part of Econofreight United Transport, and their vehicles were reliveried into Econofreight’s blue and white for duration. A major source of work in itself, the Norway job was to prove instrumental in the irm’s demise, when it drew the attention of Brambles Heavy Contracting, part of Australian conglomerate Brambles, which currently employs 12,000 people across 45 countries and whose subsidiaries include global pallet company Chep. After much negotiation, Tom Llewellyn sold Econofreight to Brambles in 1990, and left to become a consultant in 1996. His successor, Keith Lewis, oversaw the eventual break-up of what remained of the various divisions; the Light Heavy (up to 80 tonnes) side going to GE Curtis Heavy Haulage (itself owned by crane-specialist Sarens Group) in late 1997, and the rest to Abnormal Load Engineering – ALE Heavylift – in 1999, where it continues to this day.
Hunt – now a manager for ALE – echoes the thoughts of many on the subject. “Econofreight developed and changed with industry, but then the economy itself changed. The Australians just looked for a way of making money, they weren’t interested in the actual company. They bought it when the order book was full, and then asset-stripped and split the business when they were inished with it. It was just greed.” With the oil boom coming to an end work had to be found elsewhere. Put simply, the market had moved on. “The thing was simply too big, so they got rid of the transport company. That would have happened regardless, the equipment was getting old by then. There had been some investment, but not in transport. Econofreight did all the hard work, all the innovating, then everyone else jumped on the bandwagon with lower costs.” It’s fair to say that Econofreight was a victim of its own success. Could things have ended differently? Hunt says: “There was never going to be room for both ALE and Econofreight to continue. We all wish it could’ve been Econofreight that lasted. I do think they would still be there if Tom had stayed. He drove the company, put the right people around him. He was an amazing man.”
Tom Llewellyn passed away on 16 May 2005, but both he and the company he built live on in the memories of everyone who knew them. The irm may have gone, but its legacy is with us still in the way heavy haulage is conducted to this day and, as such, Econofreight Heavy Transport will never truly die. ■