Contracts for European Transport – Reminiscences

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Some things change but others don’t, and that’s certainly true if you’re reminiscing about the ‘old days’ in regards to European transport contracts. So, following the lead of TV shows like the BBC’s “Life on Mars”, let’s time-travel back to transport in 1973 – with a European flavour.

European communications

Transport contracts involving European work were still referred to as “TIR” and were considered a little exotic. The vast majority of communication between the UK and European customers or partners was done via telex – if you don’t know what that is, you can look it up in a museum.

Phone calls were also regularly made but there could be lengthy delays waiting due to “all lines are engaged” as the old GPO message used to tell you frustratingly for sometimes hours on end. Faxes, it might surprise you to know, did exist of a sort – they were called telecopiers and based around a revolving drum.

Language was also an issue because English was far less widely spoken in Europe than today. Then, calling northern Europe (just about anywhere from Holland to Germany then up into Scandinavia) was OK, as English was the norm, but France, Italy and Spain were major problems. Many international calls began and ended with “Bonjour, er, um”.
It sounds odd but some transport companies employed translators simply to make phone calls between offices possible in order to negotiate transport contracts.

The formalities

Britain hadn’t become fully incorporated within the EEC (today’s European Union) when Bowie was still Ziggy Stardust. Lorries crossing the channel needed to have a carnet de passage and a carnet TIR – pages and pages of paperwork describing what was being carried. You also needed transit permits for the countries you were crossing and they were rigidly controlled and frequently could stop your operations dead if you ‘ran out’ before the end of the period.

In theory, you could get an extra (e.g.) French road transit permit if you found a backload for a French lorry in the UK, but the system was open to much irregularity and abuse. It drove many a traffic controller to despair! Of course, Schengen didn’t exist, so checks at every border crossing of passports and paperwork were the norm. Now there’s a thought – what did all those border personnel do once the borders were abolished?

Then there was the currency issue, as drivers needed lots of different currencies on a longer distance European haul. Trying to handle the accounting when all the receipts came back, including all those currency conversions, was work for an army of accountants.

Geo-political realities

This world would be unrecognisable to younger people in the industry today. The iron curtain was still in place and very real; many countries of Eastern Europe were effectively closed and the world to the east stopped for most hauliers somewhere in Western Germany.

Yet on the other hand, parts of the world were more accessible than today. Overland TIR to the Middle East was expensive but relatively commonplace, with Iran, Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia all seeing large numbers of British trucks visiting them overland during the 70s oil boom.

Lessons learned

So, what could be learned in the 21st century haulage business from the 1970s? Perhaps the main loss has been the sense of adventurous fun that existed at that time – as new exciting opportunities arose with the EEC and Middle-East haulage.

We may today have the technology but perhaps transport contracts have lost that trailblazing excitement – and that’s to be regretted.

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