GB-EU road freight exports recover to 80% of normal levels

Land Transport

Source: Lloyd's Loading List, 2021-02-19

Following a major post-Brexit drop in January, UK international road freight exports appear to have recovered to around 80% of their normal levels for this time of year, although the latest UK government figures indicate that up to one in five UK road-borne exports are still not taking place, as traders continue to struggle with post-Brexit trade complications.

The UK government claimed that the “latest available data shows that overall freight volumes between the UK and the EU are back to their normal levels”, highlighting figures indicating that the numbers of GB-EU road freight vehicle movements carried on ro-ro services in February had recovered to almost 99% of their February 2020 levels.

But figures from the UK Cabinet Office also indicate that around 50% of UK outbound lorries were reportedly still running empty on short-straits cross-Channel services in January, compared with an estimated average of 30% of outbound HGVs being empty in normal times.

And for total GB-EU ro-ro freight traffic, based on ferry manifest data, the Cabinet Office said empty HGVs represented 23% of total outbound flow in January and February 2020, with that same data source indicating “an increase of around 9-15 percentage points in empty HGVs in January and February 2021, to date”. That indicates that up to 38% of GB outbound HGVs are still running empty.

That represents an increase of 65% – a rise of almost two thirds – in the numbers of GB outbound HGVs returning empty to the European mainland. Conversely, comparing the proportion of vehicles that normal carry loads from GB to the EU, 77% of vehicles, with the current figure, of between 68% and 62% carrying loads, indicates that there could still be a drop of up to almost 20% (19.5%) in the levels of GB-EU road-borne export volumes compared with last year – a decline of up to one in five road freight exports.

Despite responding with technical clarifications, a spokesperson for the UK government’s Cabinet Office declined to comment on the apparent drop in GB-EU road-borne export volumes of up to one fifth compared with last year, nor to acknowledge whether that does still represents a challenge. 

In its public statements about the latest figures, the Cabinet Office erroneously stated that “the latest available data shows that overall freight volumes between the UK and the EU are back to their normal levels”, saying that “this has been possible thanks to the hard work put in traders and hauliers to prepare for the end of the transition period.”

Despite declining to comment on the apparent continuing loss of up to one fifth of GB-EU road-borne exports, the government noted: “Our focus now is on making sure that any business that is still facing challenges gets the support they need to trade effectively with the EU.”

Analysis last week by the UK’s Road Haulage Association (RHA) indicated that UK road-borne exports through Dover were down by more than 40% compared with the normal levels expected for this time of year.

Rod McKenzie, Managing Director of Policy and Public Affairs at the RHA, cautioned that this was a very fluid situation and things were moving on week by week. But his sense was that the numbers of lorries returning empty was still up compared with last year.

“And that has got to tell us something,” he told Lloyd’s Loading List. “It could be that European hauliers, and we are hearing this, anecdotally, are reluctant to go through the faff of customs on the British side, so would rather run empty and lose £500 on the load and then maybe recoup their costs in some other way. The other theory is that exporters aren’t exporting, either because they have changed their business model and are not going to any more, or possibly because they’re holding off a bit longer.”

McKenzie said it was a pity that the association appeared to have got into a bit of “tit-for-tat” with the UK government over this. “We’re all this in this together. We want Brexit to work and we want the borders to work. But if our members are saying they are not working, then we are duty bound to point that out to the government, however embarrassing or annoying that it might be for them to have an industry body that is calling them out,” he told Lloyd’s Loading List.

While there was no complete clarity on the precise figures, McKenzie believed that even if the drop in UK road-borne exports was now only 15-20%, that was still very significant, and it was important to acknowledge this and look for solutions.

“Our job is to represent our members and we’re trying to get to the bottom of what is a very difficult and complex situation in the history of Britain, and that is not always an easy path. But I think it is a very important one for us to tread and we’ll carry on treading it.”

He confirmed reports from others within the freight sector that one of the most challenging areas for traders and logistics operators with the new border and trading arrangements appeared to be over groupage or less than truckload (LTL) movements.

One area that has been problematic in the first weeks of this year was for UK seafood exports to the EU, although that problem appeared to have eased following discussions between UK and EU officials.

McKenzie believed that there was potential to iron out some of the other difficulties within the new border arrangements, or the way that they are interpreted by officials. And he is hopeful of having some continuing constructive conversations with government about that and what can still be done.

“Absolutely. As far as I am concerned, all this is ongoing stuff,” he told Lloyd’s Loading List. “We’re not going to let this go away while it continues to be a problem.”

“And we have this double deadline coming up later in the year with regard to imports, with April for SPS, and then in July – and that, I think, is going to be challenging for Europeans to do what we have been doing for the last six weeks or so.”

Highlighting some of the areas where UK-EU traders have been facing challenges this year, David Emerson, CCO for the EMEA regional at freight forwarding and logistics group SEKO Logistics, explained that the situation for full trailer loads was relatively straightforward, but there has been a major problem for LTL and parcels traffic – which is a key part of its UK-EU business, where it provides logistics for a number of companies involved in e-retail.

“Obviously, up until Brexit it was a domestic move to or from Europe. That changed on 31 December. What we found with the parcel business and the general freight forwarding business is that things are moving, but it’s been very, very difficult,” he observed. 

He said his company had spent four months preparing for the new trading arrangements, “an awful lot of paperwork and administration and jumping through hoops basically to move these parcels. But we have done it.”

But he said UK-EU parcel volumes were “between 60 and 70% down (in January) from this time last year for both B2B and B2C moves, which really is a direct result of customers – of retailers and etailers – closing off their services until they get themselves sorted out. 

“So, on the parcel side, we’re definitely getting there; on the freight forwarding side, for full trailer loads, it’s pretty straightforward moving full trailers between the UK and Europe, both ways, from shipper to consignee – it’s not massively difficult.”

“The difficulty everyone seems to be having is definitely at the LTL level and at the parcel level, where there are some onerous rules to get around. But then again, the logistics community, and the brokers as we are now, are kind of getting through it.” 

He said it was too early to say for February. “We are seeing a slight uptick on outbound parcels, but only very slightly compared to January. We aren’t seeing the challenges on FTL (shipper to shipper moves) but all else is tough going (LTL and parcels) still from an admin and cost perspective.”

As to whether much of that traffic will come back, once customers are fully familiarised with the new processes, or whether much of it has become unviable now because of the new associated administrative costs, eg of declarations, he responded: “On the parcels, I think it’s a combination of both. Retailers and e-tailers who had the basket value pre-Brexit will try to find a way; those that sold low-margin product without much margin will probably just turn it off and put it in the ‘too hard’ box”

“That’s what we are seeing. We also see that they turned it off early January and are now starting to turn back on again if it’s worth their while. It’s also the same for those selling wholesale into the EU (B2B) – if it’s too complex, they turn it off.”


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