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What next-day delivery models can teach infrastructure

Chris Swan

There’s no next-day delivery option for major infrastructure projects, but the construction industry would do well to take notes from the e-commerce boom.

Growing consumer demand has led to a radical overhaul of the logistics sector, ushering in the ‘last mile’ distribution model. Simply put, goods are transported by scalable freight from their point of origin to be consolidated at regional distribution centres before being moved on to their final destination.

Moving goods in consolidated loads and maximising freight distances is not only efficient but also sustainable, resulting in fewer lorries on the roads and reduced carbon emissions. In recognition of these benefits, Heathrow’s search for regional logistics hubs to support its expansion is already well under way, challenging the traditional model of UK infrastructure delivery.

Embracing last mile construction logistics offers a genuine opportunity to reduce HGV movements and shift towards an efficient, low-carbon supply chain, but only if supported by robust policy and planning.

Rail freight is already driving UK construction, with more than 20m tonnes of aggregates and cement moved by rail each year. It also produces more than 70 per cent less CO2 per tonne compared with the equivalent road journey.

However, in the current climate of headline-grabbing disruption for passengers, it is important that emerging transport policy doesn’t sacrifice freight requirements to make space for new passenger flows.

Policy power

It was encouraging to see Midlands Connect’s Rail Hub strategy, released last month, give due consideration to balancing freight and passenger needs, as well as recognise the importance of a clear local plan that has regard for cross-regional benefits. The sub-national transport body, whose partners include local authorities, LEPs and regional business groups, estimates that the strategy could shift the equivalent of 4,300 lorries a day from the roads by 2040.

“It is essential that clients and policy-makers consider how construction materials get to the right place at the right time”

Policy-making to support freight has the power to encourage investment at a time when the Department for Transport and Network Rail are also actively promoting this route from freight operators and clients, most of whom are private sector businesses.

Many are already developing capabilities with new equipment and terminals. At the end of 2017 Tarmac added to its portfolio of regional city centre rail depots with a new facility in Liverpool to enable continuity of supply to customers in the North-west, while also taking around 10,000 trucks off the road each year.

Optimal application

However, bolstering freight capabilities is only part of the puzzle; we must also seek to optimise the ‘last mile’ itself, which can often be a considerable distance and will typically be undertaken by road. As projects remain concentrated in urban locations, it is important that fleets reflect an ongoing commitment to safety and sustainability.

This means ensuring that vehicles are suited to the urban environment. Tarmac’s HGV fleet includes innovative Econic mixers and tippers, which have panoramic windows in the driving cab to improve visibility and promote awareness of other road users, particularly cyclists. 

From optimising ‘last mile’ solutions to the earliest stages of planning local and regional connectivity, it is essential that clients and policy-makers consider how construction materials get to the right place at the right time.

This cannot be left to chance. Early engagement across the whole supply chain can ensure that efficient and sustainable logistics are considered from the outset.

Without this collective focus, we risk failing to deliver the UK’s infrastructure ambitions.

Chris Swan is head of rail at Tarmac

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