Negotiating the border

20 September 2011

It’s been a long time coming but the well-established campaigns for uniform regulations on international special transport are making headway, slowly but surely. Kevin Walsh speaks to ESTA and the SC&RA to find out the current state of play.

Abnormal load transport is a complex undertaking, the difficulties of which often vary greatly from job to job. Heavy goods transport routes from ports to city centres and from industrial areas to significant national thoroughfares have always been essential for a well-functioning economy.

With heavy transport however, the standard routes and measures taken to ensure speedy transport for standard business freight are rarely sufficient on their own.

Different countries take fairly different approaches to infrastructure planning to accommodate the necessities of abnormal load transport. In some parts of mainland Europe urban planners will pay special attention to parts of the network known for heavy use by transport firms.

Street furniture that is easy to temporarily remove and replace is sometimes used, on other occasions gated roads have been built through the centre of major roundabouts to allow large loads with the proper permissions to travel straight through and avoid unnecessary tailbacks.

But by their very nature abnormal loads cannot be specially catered for on every route, as there are rarely common points of origin and destination from one job to the next. This makes route planning vital, with foreknowledge of the terrain and other factors that can affect the smooth execution of a transport job the only guarantee of a project running to schedule.

Where one state authority, such as the Highways Agency in the UK or the RDW in the Netherlands, has responsibility and set procedures for the transport of abnormal loads along the entire route for one job, operators based in that country should have enough experience within the firm to deal with the appropriate regulation.

However when the project demands interstate transport differing state regulations can be a major stumbling block, which has time and again cut operators margins and made jobs far less lucrative.

One Polish rental firm owner, Igor Pawela, can attest to the problems caused by not being fully familiar with local regulations when trying to perform an abnormal load movement.

Pawela’s company, Viatron (profiled in this month’s Job of the month, recently purchased a GTK1100 from Manitowoc to to undertake tricky jobs including the servicing of wind turbines. After visiting Manitowoc’s dedicated production facility for the GTK1100 at Wilhelmshaven, Pawela made his way back through Germany on Thursday evening, but after being stopped twice to have his permits checked he was unable to reach the Polish border before Friday.

“In the end we couldn’t reach the Polish border in one night, and because you cannot transport any abnormal heavy loads between Friday and Monday evening we had to stop, it caused a fourday delay which was very costly and frustrating,” explained Pawela.

As the crane was destined to go straight to its first job site this was a significant problem which cost Viatron on this occasion, but anyone involved in heavy haulage will have heard similar stories over the years owing to wildy differing rules from country to country.

This makes an already difficult job much more complex. A brief consideration of national differences in overload regulations relating to axle spacings, load limits, height limits and convoy sizes, indicates the scale of the potential problems involved.

This is not an exclusively European problem. In the US each state has its own regulations regarding heavy transport allowing certain configurations of transport for certain loads.

Firms that carry out interstate heavy transport work such as Barnhart Crane and Rigging regularly experience much of the same regulatory variance.

By way of example, Barnhart Crane and Rigging’s Memphis branch dispatcher Lemark Carvin, explains that even variance in rules for the I40 and I55 bridges near his location can regularly cause problems in receiving a permit to use the bridges.

“For day-to-day transport or crane movements, we have a two-county permit, but it will not grant you access to cross a bridge. You have to go to another authority and they give us the okay if we’re good to go. If not that means having to take the boom out of the crane, having to pull the operators off out of the crane, having to take the auxiliary winch off. They change the requirements frequently so one quarter it’s no big deal and the next quarter it’s a big deal. So we run into that on the I55 and right now on I40 they’re not letting us cross, any of the cranes, period.”

Carvin’s colleague, Tim Fielder, who is responsible for ‘super load’ transport has dealt with many sets of divergent regulations, often on the same job, during his 15 years at Barnhart.

He describes another tricky aspect of abnormal load transport, caused by the devolution of regulatory powers to local municipalities.

“We more often encounter it on the super heavy lift hauls. Sometimes when you go through small towns, especially when you have to get off of a state route where the size or weight of a piece is such that you can’t go across a state-owned bridge. You have got to get off onto city and county streets to get around that obstruction and then you’ll find a local county engineer or city engineer that sees that as maybe an opportunity to line his [city’s] pockets.

“Some of them will have a protocol for permitting heavy loads, it may be what they call house move, and if those protocols are already developed then it’s generally not a problem. But there have been several cases here recently where myself and our competitors have moved through towns, counties, municipalities, and these guys don’t have these protocols for moving something like this so they basically just look at it as an open cheque book and think ‘if you’re gonna come through our town you are gonna pay us what we want to let you come through.”

With different authorities allowed to make the rules from state to state the system can seem almost chaotic to an outsider, and the occasional mistake or inexperience with its workings can be very costly.

But this is something the Specialised Carriers and Rigging Association (SC&RA) have been trying to help simplify for years.

Despite smaller local authorities getting in on the act of issuing permits for super loads, the overseeing authority in the US concerned with highway transport is the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO).

By working with the regional arms of the association for the Northeast, Southeast, Western and Mid American states, the SC&RA is attempting to standardise regulation.

SC&RA vice president Doug Ball describes his association’s work with these authorities as the best way to achieve the “lifelong goal” of uniform regulation.

“When you look at the USA, almost every state has some type of different regulation. In the USA you have up to 80,000lbs (40USt) and then certain width parameters. They’re non-permitted (no permit required) so that you have freeflow from state-to-state.

“Once you go over these particular widths and the 80,000lbs (40USt) you come into a permit load. The permit loads are basically the prerogative of each state.

So you can imagine if the states are not coordinating with each other, or we don’t as an industry try to provide what we would call routine issue parameters of a load then you’re going to have total variance, and that’s what we have now.

“What we try to do is work with those regions so that we can at least get some type of uniformity within at least the region because we see such a difference in requirements. In some states you’ll have a super load being in excess of 120,000lbs (60USt). Another state, like Texas, it’s 254,000lbs (127USt). There is tremendous variance in identifying even those.

“When you get to a super load then you have additional requirements and you have additional restrictions, so if you’re travelling interstate, and most of our members do movement of interstate permitted loads, that lack of coordination between states on the simplest of requirements can really cause an awful lot of havoc for the industry, trying to move those goods.”

Other examples of variance include axle spacings and permitted weights per axle, which can often mean that while a seven-axle trailer may be acceptable in two or three states on a certain super load’s defined route, if one state on that route requires the load to be moved on an eight-axle trailer, the only sensible approach is to complete the whole journey using an eight-axle trailer.

This extra axle of course adds extra weight and may even require a pilot car depending on state rules, so one change can have a tremendous knock-on effect.

“When you don’t have the same requirements another axle may require additional components,” says Ball, “whether it’s a pilot car or whether it’s rerouting. Because you’re adding that much more weight, and the bridge in question is not approved for that much more weight. So the lack of uniformity is like a ball rolling down a hill: it gains momentum.”

A ‘top-down’ approach to unified regulation is much needed, and many agree that even just standardised axle spacing requirements would be tremendously helpful to hauliers.

But with the American infrastructure deficit currently at over $2.3 trillion, there seems to be little money in the US economy to repair or replace ageing infrastructure. This is resulting in more and more bridges being down-rated and deemed incapable of safely carrying the loads they once did, so anything to relieve some of the mounting pressure would be most welcome.

In the EU the European Association of abnormal road transport and mobile cranes (ESTA) is trying to find a way of doing just that. Faced with the same kinds of problems as their US counterparts, for the past decade they have been working on a permit system that can be utilised throughout the EU.

The Special European Regulation Trucks/Trailers document (SERT) aims to provide a standard format for permit applications for a range of transport jobs that can be accepted across Europe.

David Collett, the managing director of UK-based heavy transport and shipping company Collett and Sons, and president for Special Transport at ESTA, explains: “It started off as a Dutch document but they freely accept anybody’s application for a SERT document. From an operator’s point of view, and an operations point of view, the document itself makes an awful lot of sense compared to the other formats and types of document that you actually have to use at the moment in other countries.”

“It gives you axle spacings, longitudinally and laterally, and also gives the opportunity to put whether you’ve got steering axles or rigid axles, so there’s a lot of information there. A modular trailer can be made up of all sorts of different modules, but on the SERT document there’s a way of documenting even that, so its all straightforward and easy to use.”

At the moment ESTA is working on an economic impact assessment to present to the European Parliament explaining the cost implications for across the industry of dealing with the current disparate system.

“We went to Brussels a couple of years ago and they agreed that yes it's a great idea in principle and they can see the purpose of it but we need to supply data to say our industry spends this much during any given year and by simply having a single document there will be a cost saving to the industry and to Europe. And then the idea is that we will get the backing of Brussels to push that through, that they demand that you use SERT rather than another document.”

ESTA is currently accepting responses to questionnaires sent out to its members across Europe involved in special transport, and is hoping to have the completed economic impact assessment by the time of its November meeting.

Then after presentation of a standardised document to the European Parliament, the first steps toward creating more unity between national special transport policies across Europe will be underway.

Barnhart hauls a turbine part made by Siemens Barnhart hauls a turbine part made by Siemens
US transport firm Barnhart works hard to comply with regulations for individual US states US transport firm Barnhart works hard to comply with regulations for individual US states