As a week-long, multi-agency operation to improve safety on the M6 commences, Dan Gilkes takes a ride in one of Highways England’s Operation Tramline trucks.
It’s a sinking feeling in the stomach that nobody wants to feel. You glance in the mirror and there are the flashing blue lights coming up fast behind you. You indicate left and pull over, hoping that the speeding bike or plain clothes BMW is rushing after someone else. But no, it draws alongside and the officer indicates that it’s you they are after and the ‘Follow Me’ sign comes on across the rear windscreen.
How did they know to come after you? Where were they when they saw you? You probably didn’t even notice the plain white DAF truck that filmed your every move a few minutes before. Welcome to Operation Tramline, Highways England’s countrywide initiative to improve safety on the major road network.
Highways England has three of these white DAF tractor units, in the North, the Midlands and the South, that it provides to police forces across the country for various safety and training operations. Equipped with 360° cameras, and with a hand-held camera in the passenger seat, the trucks do have some discreet blue lights in the front grille, though it is rare that they would ever physically stop anyone. They are also de-restricted, so that they can easily pull alongside other trucks and pass them, while peering into the cab and seeing exactly what the driver is up to.
Operation Tramline is not just about catching truck drivers however, as the cameras can see all around, they are also looking at all other road users, in particular vans. Trailers are also of particular interest, with poorly secured loads as well as running overweight among the problems.
For a week in May, one truck was loaned to Warwickshire Police, to be used as part of Operation Vertebrae, working a section of the M6 to either side of the Corley Services, near Junction 3. Running up and down a short section of the motorway, with a team of plain BMW interceptor cars and motorbikes following a few miles behind, the officers on board were pulling in anything that looked dangerous or suspicious.
As the vehicles arrived at Corley, they were greeted by a multi-agency operation. This included DVSA, the HSE, HMRC, Immigration and Border Control officers. Warwickshire Police had brought a set of mobile weighpads to the event and the majority of the vans were sent straight to be weighed.
Within hours, a growing park of vehicles stood waiting for colleagues to come and take some of the load off their vans, before they could continue their journey, as the drivers took receipt of a variety of paperwork from the various agencies. How overloaded were they? One long wheelbase 3.5-tonne VW Crafter that was obviously dragging on the ground, tipped the scales at 4.8-tonnes. It was not the only one.
There are around 66,000 incidents on the M6 each year, of which 4,000 involve collisions. Since its launch in 2015, Operation Tramline has stopped almost 21,000 vehicles. VanUser took a ride in the truck with driver PC Mark Russell and camera spotter PC Jamie Blood, to see first-hand what is happening on the motorway.
“Our intention is to use a covert LGV on the network to observe normal use,” said PC Russell. “We are not there just to catch truck drivers. I would much rather catch nobody. We just want everyone to act responsibly and get home safely.
“We are passionate about Operation Tramline. The worst day we had 54 offences in 6-8 hours. Load security in particular is a huge issue.”
We cruise up alongside a truck and PC Blood lifts his hand-held camera. We can see in the other truck’s mirror that the driver is not wearing a seatbelt. As we draw level he waves to the driver and indicates his own seatbelt. The other driver quickly grabs his belt and gives a thumbs up. He could have been stopped and fined £100, but the feeling is very much that encouragement is better than punishment.
“We would rather educate than write tickets. If that driver earns £200 a day, he just lost a morning’s work,” said PC Blood.
“If he had an accident, he could lose a lot more than that,” adds PC Russell.
The two experienced officers can easily tell when a driver is using a phone, as cars weave across lanes. We also spot some incredibly late lane changes, as cars shoot off onto slip roads at the last possible moment. PC Blood is able to recite their registration numbers straight away.
Of the vehicles that are being pulled in, around 50% will be under 3.5-tonnes and the other half heavier vans and trucks. International hauliers will be searched by the Border Patrol officers and all paperwork checked. One major problem is drivers importing huge numbers of cigarettes to sell privately, as a sideline to their main driving job.
As we watch the morning progress, a scaffolding truck makes its way into the services behind a police bike. Most of the ladders on the back are unsecured and there are cones and other equipment rolling around in the back. A pick-up comes in with a two-axle trailer, carrying steel beams. The load is secure, but the trailer tyres are practically bald.
The DVSA is particularly interested in towing at the moment, but is also focussed on tyres. A new ban on tyres over 10-years old came into force last year for the front axles of trucks, coaches and buses. It also relates to any axle with single wheels on a minibus.
Another 3.5-tonne Sprinter rolls in, the rear end of its extra-long body almost scraping the ground. It is carrying flat-pack furniture and is obviously way over its weight limit. The driver seems genuinely surprised to have been stopped, but he’ll be there for some time before he can get a friend to come and take some of the load away in another vehicle.
Operation Vertebrae will progress up the M6, involving police forces in Cumbria, Lancashire, Merseyside, Cheshire, Warwickshire and the Central Motorway Police Group. Wherever your drivers are working, take the time to ensure that loads are within weight and secure, and that your vans are operating legally and safely.