Myth busting in the freight industry

by | Oct 9, 2019 | Policy, Sustainability

Author: Elizabeth de Jong, Policy Director, FTA

Elizabeth de Jong

As the voice of the UK logistics industry, in the last quarter alone, FTA’s team met with 150 civil servants, regulators and elected officials. Since the logistics industry plays such a vital role in the UK economy – contributing £124 billion gross value added (GVA) – it is important that planners, government and decision makers have a thorough understanding of the sector. However, FTA is faced with commonly held views about freight that are simply not true. These misconceptions can lead to proposals and decisions based on false assumptions; here are the five most common.

Myth one: “It’s dirty HGVs that cause our air quality problem.” 

The reality: Unlike diesel cars, lorries have worked to an on-road test since the start of 2014. These Euro VI engines have reduced air quality emissions from the tailpipe by 80-90%, according to roadside tests by the likes of Transport for London. This is on top of already substantial improvements from when the logistics industry started working on this problem in the early 1990s. These efforts are partly why UK air quality is improving year on year and has been for some time.

Myth two: “There are loads of lorries running around empty or half full – if we just had consolidation we’d need far fewer trucks.”

The reality: Logistics is highly incentivised to load as optimally as possible. The UK already has one of the most efficient freight systems of any developed country, with lower empty-running than the EU average (lower, too, than the supposedly more efficient Germany). Many operations could never take a return-trip load (such as tankers delivering to petrol stations), and it is the reality of our society that we import in or make goods across the country that then need taking into our towns and cities to be consumed – meaning there will always be an imbalance in the movement of goods.

Myth three: “Online shopping means our towns and cities are now clogged up with vans.” 

The reality: Only a minority of vans are actually used to carry freight. An RAC Foundation report in 2014 found the most common use for vans was for carrying equipment; only just over a quarter of van mileage was for the delivery or collection of goods. Only one in 10 vans on the road are parcel vans, and in London it is estimated that vans servicing online shopping orders account for just 1.5% of traffic. This may have changed a little as online shopping has grown, but the broad picture will remain the same.

Myth four: “We could just do urban logistics by bike or e-cargo bike.” 

The reality: We move 2.5 million tonnes of goods into our towns and cities everyday by HGV. Ultra-light logistics like e-cargo bikes are great and can help in particular places (like pedestrianised high streets, public squares serving blocks of flats) but they won’t make a dent in the tonnage we actually need to move, which means they can’t help much on congestion, emissions or safety matters. One medium-sized HGV can do the work of 10 vans, one van can do the work of 10 e-cargo bikes – we need to use the right vehicle for the right journey or we will clog up our streets far more.

Myth five: “Rail is an out-of-date method for freight and we should give its space on the railways to more passenger services.”

The reality: Weirdly, this notion was put forward by the former Transport Secretary Lord Adonis. A major growth area that the UK needs to deal with is containerised traffic from our deep-sea ports and, as they are uniform in size and originate from one set point, these movements are well suited to rail. Each freight train can take 70 HGVs off our motorways and provide a carbon saving of up to 76% on that one movement, so good for other road users and the environment.

However, for rail freight to thrive, it needs road transport to provide last mile access. One of rail freight’s biggest challenges is the net difference in product payload between road transport alone and a combined road/rail approach. FTA is supporting the ’48 tonnes for 48 miles’ campaign by Malcolm Logistics. Just by allowing an increase in tonnes for 48 miles around a rail terminal, it is estimated the resulting annual net reduction in road transport would be in excess of 70 million gross tonne miles.

The logistics sector is the lifeblood of the nation’s economy. Decision makers must be in a position to make fully informed choices about the future of freight. FTA will continue to help government to do so by dispelling these common misconceptions. To learn more about FTA’s campaign work, please visit

Efficient logistics is vital to keep Britain trading, directly having an impact on more than seven million people employed in the making, selling and moving of goods. With Brexit, new technology and other disruptive forces driving change in the way goods move across borders and through the supply chain, logistics has never been more important to UK plc.  A champion and challenger, FTA speaks to government with one voice on behalf of the whole sector, with members from the road, rail, sea and air industries, as well as the buyers of freight services such as retailers and manufacturers.

Elizabeth de Jong is speaking at Highways UK, which is at the NEC, Birmingham on 6/7 November.