For an industry that has done much to enhance palletised transport, the pallet exchange networks are unfairly hobbled by UK fuel costs which give foreign operators an unfair advantage. Since their introduction about 20 years ago, the palletised exchange networks provide the most efficient delivery system available for small consignments based on member hauliers trunking to a central hub to exchange pallet loads for the second and final leg of the journey. This means there is less empty running. In UPN’s case, for example, the figures show that their members’ vehicle fill rate is 85%, around 15% higher than the sector average.

Important though high vehicle fill rates are, it is by no means the only example of how the exchange networks are improving their green credentials. Mileage can be reduced by relocating hubs, as with UPN’s new Fradley Park hub opened up last year which saves 180,000 miles a year. Members are also investing in double-deck trailers, as with Palletline, the first to do so, which reduces mileage owing to higher pallet load productivity. The introduction of new processes and procedures that sharply reduce paperwork also favourably impacts green issues. An example of this is UPN’s real-time signature capture system, and within 12 months it plans to introduce completely paperless consignments across its network. Its new central billing system is entirely web-based and so at the end of each month members pay or receive only one cheque. There is also an on-line booking system.

The networks have not been slow to vary their service offerings. They now offer half pallet load movements, while UPN has developed the micro pallet load. Pall-Ex has turned its attention to providing new services for customers which support their own green aspirations. These include Pall-Ex’s Retail Plus and Eco-Drive. The latter involves removal of packaging waste and recycling by any UK freight company, thus diverting many thousands of tonnes from landfill sites.

The pallet exchange network concept can be applied to Europe, where Pall-Ex already has partnerships with Italian and Spanish players. That said, however, there could be problems over fuel cost differences among European players. “The continuing increase in the cost of fuel is having a serious impact on our members and their businesses,” says UPN’s director, David Brown. UK members pay more for their fuel than their European counterparts and although most depots are able to pass on the costs directly to their customers via fuel surcharges many feel that the market cannot continue to sustain these levels of cost over the long term unless serous economic growth returns soon. The number of business failures among hauliers seems to be as high as ever, with many firms that have been in family hands for generations having to close down. Generations of skill and experience will be lost and cannot be replaced easily.

So far the UK government has been impotent in levelling the playing field over fuel cost differences yet it is clear that Government support is badly needed now. It is difficult enough coping with the economic slowdown without also having to contend with Government-inspired issues which make life more costly and difficult for hauliers.

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