Formerly commercial manager at JST Services and now running his own consultancy firm, Neil Stoddart is chairman of the FISA Forest Haulage Working Group. Forestry Journal joined him for a whistle-stop tour of timber haulage in the Scottish Highlands to learn what challenges drivers face and what steps the working group is taking to tackle them.

ACROSS the UK, there are many regions where the sight of a timber truck is quite a rare thing. Up around Inverness however, in the highlands of Scotland, they are a constant presence on the road. Spend any time driving in the area and you’re bound to spot a few. And though drivers all work for different firms and take on different jobs, they typically share many of the same issues and concerns.

The high volume of timber transport operations in the area makes it a great base for Neil Stoddart, who has spent 26 years in the timber harvesting, haulage and shipping sectors. After building his reputation and a long list of contracts through his time at Scottish Woodlands and JST Services, he recently went into business for himself, launching Creel Consulting Ltd, which offers advice and solutions on shipping and logistics to a wide variety of clients.

Forestry Journal:  Neil Stoddart, chairman of the FISA Forest Haulage Working Group. Neil Stoddart, chairman of the FISA Forest Haulage Working Group.

Neil is also chairman of the FISA Forest Haulage Working Group, which is dedicated to the pursuit of a better, safer timber haulage sector. For the last year or so, much of the debate around health and safety in timber haulage has revolved around load security, leading to changes in legislation and the development of posters from FISA and the Timber Transport Forum detailing the minimum strapping requirements for typical loads on timber lorries.

Load security remains a hot topic for the sector, but it is far from the only one. Talk to a handful of hauliers and you’ll quickly uncover a hornet’s nest of simmering issues.

Forestry Journal:  This new Scania R580 is the pride of Brian Cormack’s fleet. This new Scania R580 is the pride of Brian Cormack’s fleet.

Forestry Journal’s quick day trip began south of Loch Ness near Loch Ashie Forest, where George Grant was collecting timber for Norbord in his new Volvo FH, part of Brian Harper’s fleet. A timber truck driver for some 20-odd years, George has seen enough and experienced enough to be very appreciative of the features of his latest wagon, including CTI technology, vehicle tracking with Dynafleet and a Palfinger Epsilon crane cab.

“It makes some difference being in the crane cab,” George said. “You might throw the load on quicker with the open seat, because you can see more of what’s happening and you want to get it finished quickly, especially in bad weather. But nowadays everyone should be in a cab. You see these boys who have been doing the job all their days and their bones are done from sitting in all the elements, sleet and snow blowing into their face.”

Forestry Journal: Haulier George Grant made the switch to Volvo for his latest truck – and couldn’t be happier with the decision.Haulier George Grant made the switch to Volvo for his latest truck – and couldn’t be happier with the decision.

So what would George say is the biggest challenge he faces in his job?

“Roads,” he said. “The quality of the roads in and out of the forest is often really bad. And other members of the public are coming head-to-head with you, not giving you room, but you’re not allowed to touch the side of the road.

“People are so aggressive with you. Even going on the road out of here, they’ve got signs up to say it’s a timber extraction route and to please use the lay-by to let lorries through and you still get abuse from other drivers. The other day I was going out and had someone taking photos of me, shouting at me about school hours. There’s not even a school around here. I’m not interested in having an argument with anyone, but you can’t avoid some situations.”

Leaving George as he was strapping his timber down, it wasn’t difficult to imagine the incidents he might come up against, navigating his wagon along a narrow, private road riddled with potholes and deteriorating tarmac. The forest road was also pretty rough.

“People just don’t want to undertake maintenance on forest roads,” said Neil. “As a forestry works manager, the last thing you want to hear about is a big pothole, because who’s paying for that? You might have bought the timber, but it’s not your road. The landowner doesn’t really want a surprise negative in the estate budget and the forest works manager doesn’t want to pay for it, because it ultimately it comes out of his margin. So nothing happens and it becomes a hazard. It will be left to get worse until a wagon ends up on its side.

“For drivers, there’s often no point phoning into a forestry office to say there’s a big defect in the road, because nobody does anything. An extreme example – but if a haulier phoned in and said ‘I’ve just seen a guy working a chainsaw in only his wife’s silk underwear’, you’d have four pickups on site with forest work managers everywhere, because it’s obviously a big health and safety issue.

“That’s why I think a road defect report should be a safety report. It shouldn’t just be reported as a defect; once a driver has submitted a defect as a safety report, if something goes wrong, there’s a chain of evidence – the driver has reported it, the contractor has reported it and, if an accident or incident happens, then the potential cause is well documented.”

Forestry Journal: Torgyle, where a slick operation was underway to clear some fine-looking Sitka spruce.Torgyle, where a slick operation was underway to clear some fine-looking Sitka spruce.

Arriving at the second harvesting site in Torgyle, near Fort Augustus, it was a completely different story. Here the road is the responsibility of Forestry and Land Scotland and is wide, smooth and well maintained. Even so, Isle of Skye-based Callum MacFarlane, loading up Sitka spruce logs in his Scania R560, doesn’t have to think twice about his number-one challenge.

“The biggest issue is roads,” he said. “Forest roads and even some of the public roads. Those and the sea eagles on Skye. They can give you a lot of hassle.”

Like George’s Volvo, Callum’s Scania also boasts CTI, so he can change the pressure of the tyres on the rig and the trailer. This is a huge advantage to hauliers on forest roads and sensitive private roads – in fact, many in this region will employ it on every road from their harvesting sites to the A9. The truck is also tracked from the office and has live cameras recording onto a hard drive, so any health and safety incident is captured.

Forestry Journal: Callum MacFarlane of Ferguson Transport.Callum MacFarlane of Ferguson Transport.

None of these features are cheap, which puts safe and compliant hauliers like Callum at a disadvantage where rates are concerned.

“Forest works managers often feel they need to go with the cheaper option,” said Neil. “They all want high quality and compliance. They want every box ticked, but often they’ll go with the haulier who can afford to be 30p cheaper often because he’s running the fleet without the compliance bells and whistles.”

“It’s very short-sighted,” said Callum. “I’ve been driving over 20 years now and I could name you four or five companies that come in, they undercut, they increase their lorries from one to two to three, then within four years they’re away.”

This means quality and compliance are fundamentally uncompetitive and explains why some of the larger haulage firms are getting out of the timber game altogether.

Forestry Journal: Kevin Cryley was the third timber truck driver met on the day and the third to say forest roads were his biggest challenge.Kevin Cryley was the third timber truck driver met on the day and the third to say forest roads were his biggest challenge.

A short drive west of Torgyle, in Invermoriston, Kevin Cryley from B. Cormack & Son was to be found just off the main road, collecting fresh-cut birch to be sold for firewood – a less-than-typical job for the area. The Scania R580 he was driving is the latest addition to the company fleet and comes complete with all the mod cons. It remains vulnerable, however, to the problem of bad roads – whether that means roads in a bad condition, turning circles that are on the wrong side or that are occupied by contractors’ caravans, or roads that are just too narrow.

“If they’re too narrow, that’s a real problem,” said Kevin. “You need that extra couple of feet either side of you. If your stabilisers are out, but there’s no road there, they just sink into the mud. And when you’re swaying, your weigher doesn’t work, so you end up getting hit for being overweight.”

Get hauliers talking and you can quickly uncover lots of little issues like this – all of them interconnected, all creating a sense of frustration and negativity around the sector, enough to persuade experienced drivers to seek something else and to dissuade youngsters from entering the arena.

And while many in the industry are sceptical – if not outright hostile – about the drive to improve health and safety, Neil is positive FISA is the mechanism that will bring about hugely positive changes for the UK’s hauliers.

If it had gone ahead, this year’s Timber Transport Conference would have been a good place to provide details, but COVID-19 put a stop to that. However, Neil was able to provide Forestry Journal with an insight into what projects the Forest Haulage Working Group has under review.

“Every HGV holder has to do 35 hours of CPC refresher training within five years to keep their licence,” he said. “It’s a relatively new scheme that’s only been going a few years and the modules, each of them seven hours or one day, are not very specific. You can do one on first aid or tachographs or safe driving. But what FISA would like to see is a forest haulage CPC module, and that’s an idea that’d capture people’s attention.

“We’ve now worked up a seven-hour forestry module for HGV drivers. Some of the things it covers are simple, like harvester and forwarder risk zones, loading trees at the roadside, a whole lot of things. But if you’ve just come off the tarmac, you’ve been working on motorways for 20 years and you’re told to go into the forest, you wouldn’t have a clue about a lot of it. This keeps it very specific. We hope it wouldn’t be long before the FC, FLS and NRW would be expecting every haulier that comes onto their land to at least have done the seven-hour module on forest haulage.

“Every driver got to do these modules anyway, so it makes sense to ensure they do one on forest haulage. If you think about it, it’s not just timber truck drivers it applies to. It’s also fuel tanker deliveries, plant deliveries as well, drivers delivering trees from nurseries and low-loader drivers. There are all sorts of people driving HGVs who will benefit from the forest haulage module.

“Equally, we think forest works managers should do it. There’s a whole raft of FWMs in their 20s who’ve come out of college and have not worked with the haulage sector before. They need to know all the problems drivers face. And if there’s a course with 20 guys, we want half of them to be managers, so they learn and understand what drivers are faced with out there, hear from the guys themselves. Normally they’d never get the chance. Often your average FWM would not have the time do what we’ve done today, running round to visit George and the rest to ask what challenges they face. But you get them all in one room and they can talk.

“FISA delivered a day course as a pilot in Lockerbie, half drivers and half managers, and everybody said it was refreshing. Managers were hearing things they hadn’t had any appreciation of, like the road being too narrow or turning areas being put on the wrong side. These are simple things that no one tells them at college, but with everyone in a room together they quickly come to the surface. I think it’s a great idea that’s come through the FISA working group, which is really achieving something. In addition, we have done the strapping guide, and are now looking at working-at-height issues.

“I would also like to see a new video made for the CPC course which can also be used as an induction tool for new starts – pointing out the hazards of forest haulage. It would be better than a book. That’ll be another positive and further proof that FISA is really making headway in haulage.”

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