Does Highways England deliver for its freight and coach customers?

Look around you. Virtually everything you can see has been delivered on a truck. The efficient distribution of freight becomes more important by the day as online shopping booms. Standing inside the Barking depot that site manager Stephen O'Hare runs for delivery company DPD and it's easy to see how an accident or other disruption on the adjacent interchange between the A13 and the A406 (north/south circular) can bring the business to a costly standstill. So how well does Highways England deliver for these important customers?

Transport Focus visited DPD to launch Logistics and Coach Manager Survey: England's strategic roads, a report summarising the findings from our latest research where we asked over a thousand freight, logistics, delivery and coach managers how satisfied they are with the way motorways and major 'A' roads managed by Highways England meet their needs.

The results are blunt: one quarter (26%) of managers taking part in the survey were dissatisfied, another quarter (23%) were ambivalent (neither satisfied nor dissatisfied) and only half (52%) were satisfied, with how Highways England's roads serve their business.

For delivery companies – who move over 90% per cent of the nation's freight – and for coach operators and their passengers, it's critical the road network is well-managed in terms of their needs. As two-thirds of the organisations that participated in this survey confirmed, they need their vehicles to arrive within one hour of the time specified in their contractual agreements. Two-fifths say their business is threatened by disruption on the road network.

As Chris Floyd, the general manager for DPD and his colleagues underscored, the logistics sector need Highways England to keep the time-critical nature of their operations much more 'front of mind' when managing incidents, because the clients of logistics firms rarely afford them much leeway. Plus, regulations govern the hours drivers can spend behind the wheel. Trapped trucks sometimes must be 'rescued' because their drivers are out of hours.

In the survey, the costs imposed by poor road surfaces on freight proved to be the issue of most common concern to fleet operators – almost one third of logistics coach managers surveyed volunteered comments about how this problem affects their bottom line.

This was closely followed by poor incident management: information about delays and disruption provided in real time to lorry operators by Highways England must be improved, particularly where accidents close routes unexpectedly. Managers also want to better forward warning when planned road works will close roads or extend journey times, especially at night when so much freight is on the move.

The survey also confirms marked dissatisfaction within these sectors with roadside services. Freight and coach businesses want more parking spaces and better vehicle security at roadside services, and for the facilities to offer better value for money.

Transport Focus will use these findings to press Highways England to place more emphasis on the needs of these crucial road user sectors. In particular, we reiterate a call we made a year ago for Highways England to consider establishing an business unit focused solely on meeting the needs the coach, freight and logistics sectors, led by specialists with a thorough knowledge of the sector and its needs.

This will become even more important as the welcome investment in roads signalled in the recent Budget becomes a reality on the ground – there already are and will be even more roadworks!

We also plan to repeat this survey at regular intervals and want to see the results inform the way in which the performance of Highways England is measured from 2020 to 2025 (the next road investment period). Finally, this work was made all the better by the help we received from the Confederation of Passenger Transport, Freight Transport Association and the Road Haulage Association.

Anthony Smith is Chief Executive of Transport Focus