ANTONIA HOYLE gets behind the wheel of a 41-tonne monster

Queen of the road: As Britain is crippled by a dearth of HGV drivers, leading to shortages of everything from Yorkshire puddings to McDonald’s milkshakes, ANTONIA HOYLE gets behind the wheel of a 41-tonne monster

Getting in requires a Herculean climb and two handlebars, with which I haul myself up the steps. The wing mirrors are the length of cricket bats; there are ten tyres, each the size of a bicycle.

The diesel tank takes £700 of fuel, and at 45 feet, the trailer behind me would stretch over more than half the length of a tennis court. 

Sitting in the driver’s seat, fitted with comfort-enhancing air suspension so it dips and sways with every movement, the vast scale of my surroundings makes me feel Lilliputian.

Getting in requires a Herculean climb and two handlebars, with which I haul myself up the steps

Yes, it’s a vehicle — but not as I know it, because I’m learning to drive a 41-tonne articulated lorry. It’s the type of heavy goods vehicle (HGV) for which there is currently a crippling shortage of people who know what to do with them.

Many businesses have been complaining about the UK’s shortage of lorry drivers, which is causing serious supply chain problems. 

Covid-19, tax changes, levels of pay and Brexit have all combined to contribute to a lack of qualified drivers.

With Covid still causing restrictions to testing, leading to a backlog of 47,000 vocational driving tests, the Road Haulage Association estimates an alarming shortfall of about 100,000 HGV drivers.

It’s left supermarkets struggling to fill their shelves, and restaurants to restock their produce. Last month, Iceland said they’d had up to 40 deliveries a day cancelled, while fast food chain Nando’s was forced to temporarily close 50 sites because of supply issues and McDonald’s stopped selling milkshakes.

As if all that wasn’t bad enough, Wetherspoons has just announced it’s facing a beer shortage, and at some Toby Carvery restaurants Yorkshire Puddings are apparently — horrors! — off the menu.

Many businesses have been complaining about the UK’s shortage of lorry drivers, which is causing serious supply chain problems

Food isn’t all that’s failing to make it onto the motorway. Materials for the construction sector are languishing unused in yards because there is no one to pick them up, and experts fear that by Christmas scores of presents will be all but undeliverable.

Not surprisingly, demand for drivers has never been higher. After years of low wages and little recognition, lorry drivers now call the shots.

Waitrose is offering its HGVdrivers a salary of up to £53,780 — more than many newly qualified lawyers receive — and a £1,000 sign-up bonus, while Gist, a logistics company that delivers for Tesco, M&S, Aldi, Morrisons and Ocado, is reportedly offering annual pay of up to £56,674.

Little wonder, then, that here at Hughes Driver Training, the UK’s largest HGV driving school, with 40 instructors spread over 12 sites, business is booming.

Managing director Carl Hughes, 49, says the demographic of those he trains, once largely confined to men in their 50s, is changing to encompass 20-somethings sick of minimum wage jobs, retirees seeking to top up pensions, bank managers worried they’ll get the boot and victims of the Covid-ravaged retail and hospitality industries.

And there are a lot more women, too — some five to 10 per cent — which is partly down to the job being less physically demanding now. These days, lorry loads are often emptied by forklift truck, not hand, and trailer tarpaulins are lifted automatically, as opposed to requiring the driver to climb on top of the lorry.

‘So much has changed,’ says Carl. ‘People used to die. You don’t have to worry about falling off the top of the lorry.’

Which is a relief, although I still ask myself whether a largely desk-bound journalist like me has what it takes. Meeting Carl at his flagship test centre in Loughborough, Leicester to find out, I’m nervous. The scratches on the side of our Ford Focus are testament to my parking skills, and when I told my ten-year-old daughter, Rosie, that I was going to do HGV training, she was incredulous.

Also training here today is Adam Squire, 33, from the nearby village of Mountsorrel, a former chef turned Amazon delivery driver who has been offered a job at a distribution centre provided he passes his HGV test this week

‘Did you tell them you thought the speed limit was 80mph?’ she asks. I did not. Nor did I mention that on my return home from the resultant speed awareness course, I drove into a pothole.

I do find driving liberating, though. It stops me compulsively scrolling my smartphone, frees me from incessant nagging children and gets me out of the virtual house arrest of the past 18 months.

Jenny Tipping, 45, an HGV driver from Bournemouth, feels the same: ‘I love the freedom, the peace and the opportunity to listen to whatever I want,’ she says.

Jenny, now also an HGV driving instructor who has helped encourage other women in the industry, had two Masters degrees and was studying for a PhD when she ditched academia to become a truck driver in 2010.

‘My PhD wasn’t working — I needed time to think,’ she says. ‘Driving gave me an opportunity to process my learning.

‘But then I got involved with women in logistics, and being an anomaly in the industry helped it to become my career.’

Having no children, juggling antisocial hours with the demands of motherhood wasn’t an issue, but Jenny says many of the men she works with are fathers who take the children to school after a night shift, and then sleep.

‘It can fit in with family life as long as there are two of you,’ Jenny says. More difficult to navigate is the perception of an industry once seen as ‘blokey and dirty’.

Ensconced in the ‘tractor unit’ (as the front of the lorry is called), I turn on the ten-litre, 400 horsepower engine. It’s five times more powerful than a regular engine, but is much quieter than I expect.

Like most articulated lorries, there’s an automatic gearbox with 12 gears, so — thankfully — no likelihood of stalling. I turn a gear control knob on the dashboard to ‘D’ for drive, and off I go.

Although my trailer has been weighted with 8,000 litres of water in containers to replicate the weight of goods, the lorry feels far lighter than I’d imagined.

In fact, the sensation of steering is just like a normal car, helped of course, by the power steering. Heading down the disused air base on which the centre is based, I reach just over 20mph, which feels fast enough for a novice.

Although the motorway speed limit for lorries is 56 mph, Carl says many companies install devices to limit their vehicles to five miles less, which can save millions of pounds on fuel each year.

Two successful U-turns later, I’m practically blase. ‘You haven’t gone backwards yet,’ warns Carl.

Also training here today is Adam Squire, 33, from the nearby village of Mountsorrel, a former chef turned Amazon delivery driver who has been offered a job at a distribution centre provided he passes his HGV test this week.

‘I love being on the road,’ he says. ‘No two days are ever the same, and the bonus of HGV driving is there is a lot more money in it. I’ve nearly doubled my salary.’

Yet those wanting to acquire their C+E licence (the C meaning lorry and the E the trailer attached behind it) face a long wait. Adam applied for his licence in June last year. He is one of thousands of prospective drivers affected by the Government halting HGV testing during much of Covid. Now that examinations have restarted, there’s a huge backlog.

‘We’ve been telling the Government for years that they’re not giving us enough tests,’ says Carl, a former HGV driver who took over his father’s driving school in 2003. ‘It wasn’t until the supermarkets said they didn’t have enough food on their shelves that they started listening.’

While the Government says it is trying to streamline the process, what was typically a 12-week journey from application to licence acquisition is now taking months.

Also prohibitive to many is the £3,500 cost of acquiring a C+E licence, although Carl stresses his company offers finance plans.

Once prospective HGV drivers have had a medical to test blood pressure and eyesight and have got their provisional licence, they study for a theory test, for which they’re given 115 minutes to answer 100 ‘largely common sense’ multiple choice HGV-related questions.

Practical training generally requires eight to ten days of four hours’ driving practice a day.

‘First we introduce customers to the controls and safety checks,’ says Carl. ‘You need to be able to check your tyres. If you have a tyre blowout, it can put you across three lanes of the motorway and you’re in big trouble.’ Learning to drive in a town is another challenge. ‘You need to be safe in an urban environment to deliver goods,’ Carl says. ‘It can be hazardous.’ Quite.

As we drive through a gate at the other end of the centre to test my control, he gently warns me not to ‘knock it over’ — before telling me I ‘have potential’ when I succeed.

In addition to the antisocial hours, Carl says overnight stays on the less-than-luxurious lorry bed can be a deterrent. ‘Lay-bys aren’t particularly safe and the services can be a bit grim.’

But he stresses that not all HGV drivers need to sleep in the lorry: ‘You could drive a dustbin lorry, or work for a local building company. You don’t have to work weekends and nights.’

Now I have to attempt my toughest test — the S-shaped reversing exercise, in which I must drive backwards between two traffic cones placed 12ft apart — one and a half times the width of the 8ft 2in vehicle.

‘The examiner wants to see you turn left and right in both directions,’ explains Carl, who gets out of the lorry to stand at the side and guide me, leaving me fearful I’m going to run him over.

I adjust my direction by looking in the wing mirrors on either side of the vehicle until my trailer comes into view, before steering in the opposite direction until my trailer disappears from sight so I know I’m in a straight line.

It is disconcerting and difficult. But I succeed, and I’m delighted. ‘You’re a proper trucker now,’ says Carl. And do you know what? I might be . . .

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