My Lords, the Government have made it clear that they have no intention of permitting any trials of goods vehicles longer than 18.75 metres or heavier than 44 tonnes. The Government are awaiting the conclusions of research into a small increment in the length of articulated lorries, but this would provide no more loading capacity than is currently possible with a rigid draw-bar combination lorry.
My Lords, many types of lightweight freight are completely inappropriate for rail travel. At a time when all public expenditure is under critical examination, to improve productivity and to reduce costs, does my noble friend agree that it is appropriate to review all our regulatory systems at the same time, so that economic or environmental performance on this particular transport question can be improved wherever possible?
My Lords, before responding to that question, I should first declare an interest as I know Mr Dick Denby, who is a proponent of a longer and heavier vehicle. I have also received engineering advice from his designer on a pro bono basis. Mr Denby has done the country a great service by opening up this issue. As a result, this Government and our predecessor have been looking at a small increase in the length of an articulated vehicle to address precisely the concern of my noble friend: that low-density goods are bulking out, rather than grossing out, our current range of goods vehicles.
My Lords, does the Minister accept that it is the heaviest goods vehicles that directly abstract traffic from rail freight? Will he accept from me that, for years, the road haulage industry has been claiming spuriously that heavier and longer goods vehicles would mean fewer of them? Does he agree that the heaviest goods vehicles have, for over 30 years, failed to pay their true track costs, and does he accept that any acceptance of longer and heavier vehicles will cause even more damage to Britain's roads, which will be paid for by other taxpayers?
My Lords, most of what the noble Lord says is right. We are looking at an increase in the cubic capacity of an articulated vehicle, but we have absolutely no intention of increasing the gross weight of a goods vehicle, for precisely the reasons that the noble Lord explained.
My Lords, the noble Lord makes an important point. The damage to the road goes up in proportion to the fourth power of the axle weight, but we have no intention of altering the permitted axle weights either. However, the type of vehicle we are looking at will require different axle arrangements on the rear of the vehicle.
My Lords, I quite appreciate the Minister approaching this issue with some care, because he will know the anxieties of the general public about the questions over the damage which heavy lorries do to our roads and the pollution that they create. However, is there any reason why he should delay the charging of heavy goods vehicles, given that at present he is all too well aware of the unfairness of foreign lorries coming into this country and using our roads without cost?
My Lords, we discussed lorry road-user charging recently at Question Time. We are working on it and will announce on it in due course.
Can the Minister assure us that road safety will play a very prominent part in his consideration, because these lorries will not be confined to the motorway network. Will he please tell us, through the Library or however, how many prosecutions have been brought against HGVs-heavy goods vehicles-for contravening the weight restrictions on most of our roads?
My Lords, the noble Lord raises important issues about enforcement. This question is more about the design, construction and use of our vehicles, but he is right that we need to make sure that we enforce regulations on the operation of goods vehicles very carefully indeed.
My Lords, can the Minister confirm that it is the policy of this Government to carry as many goods by rail as possible and to transfer goods from road to rail wherever possible? In that context, will the Government continue to support freight transfer depots and other facilities to enable goods to be put on to the railway and carried long distances by rail rather than by road?
My Lords, on the first part of the noble Lord's question, absolutely. We will do nothing that reduces the amount of freight carried by rail.
My Lords, the gross train weight-that is, the all-up weight of a heavy goods vehicle-was increased some time ago from 38 tonnes to 44 tonnes, but the axle weight is considerably lower than that.
My Lords, one of our motivations for considering a slightly longer articulated trailer rather than using a rigid vehicle towing a draw-bar trailer-precisely the point that the noble and gallant Lord makes-is that we believe that an articulated vehicle will be slightly safer.