The perfect storm threatening container haulage is continuing

All parts of the UK have been impacted, including ‘essential’ freight, logistics and supply chain sectors, but the container haulage industry has been hit particularly hard, with many challenges still to be overcome.

Six weeks ago Metro wrote about container haulage operations and how it had been impacted by massive increases in demand, at a time of reduced capacity, all of which had been further complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

We have to report that despite the passing of time and lifting of restrictions in many regions, container haulage operations continue to be impacted and are showing no signs of improving any time soon.

It is of particular concern that issues with the vehicle booking system (VBS) continue at Felixstowe, despite the port claiming that the system has spare capacity each day.

Our direct experience is a continuation of delays in getting containers off the port and our haulier partners insist that the “spare” VBS slots are either at the wrong time of day, or the wrong terminal. 

We understand that the port has had significant challenges to overcome in recent times, but so has the whole UK logistics infrastructure and it is disappointing that they continue to make public statements that are totally at odds with port users’ experience.

Increased demand on road haulage

  • Almost 25% of containers move inland by rail. Services have been reinstated, but Felixstowe in particular have capped rail capacity to provide a sustained service following port congestion.
  • Inland rail terminal congestions, recently at F/liner Manchester the empty back log from Felixstowe closure and the overall volume lead to serious haulage delays, with train service diversions or cancelled.  
  • Increasing high volumes of ‘peak season’ containers – particularly at Felixstowe and Southampton – have no rail connections, creating congestion at the terminals and putting greater pressure on pure road transport.
  • Vessels schedule disruption, due to earlier changes to transit, weather delays and Covid related issues, are disrupting haulage forecasts.
  • Vessel call time increasing, 3-4 days in port not uncommon leading to issues over container discharge time vs delivery.
  • Congestion and port disruption means vessels are being increasingly diverted from original port of destination, putting pressure on new port of arrival and exacerbates road performance, as equipment is out of position.
  • Rail failures as vessels arrive late, with trains scheduled to depart, but booking windows impacted as containers are not available as expected.

Reduced road haulage capacity 

  • Trailers handed back during the pandemic are not being returned, which is really impacting drop and swaps.
  • Drivers who were furloughed have moved into other sectors which pay better, reducing the pool of qualified drivers available to the container sector.
  • Agency drivers are available, to fill some of these gaps, but the container sector can’t afford to pay them, particularly as many hauliers lowered tariffs during the lockdown, under pressure from the lines and cannot now recover rates.
  • Many EU drivers that have travelled overseas for holidays have not returned due to Brexit transition and quarantine regulations.
  • Delivery booking windows
  • Depending on port and destination, haulage booking window whether carrier or Merchant can be 10 days +


  • Vehicle booking system (VBS) availability and vehicle turnaround times are restricting hauliers collecting imports, on time performance reducing and the vehicle productivity reducing  placing pressure on haulage.
  • Increased costs and rates.
  • Operations slowed – through increased volumes and carriers are struggling to accommodate empty receipt back at the ports and a number are having to use off dock solutions, resulting in congestion and delays.   

COVID related impacts

  • Regular operational pauses for deep cleaning and COVID safe working practices at all ports means that terminal operating hours have been slashed, creating delays in all areas.
  • DC and warehouse social distancing measures are resulting in much slower container unloading, creating delays inland and reducing the numbers of collection/ deliveries drivers can make, including complete cancellations due to drivers hours.
  • DC’s and warehouses struggling to cope with late arrivals and still working with reduced hours and social distancing resulting in unload failures and then having an effect on next day delivery/ collections.

We anticipate that the current situation will continue through October and into November and then potentially improve as volumes taper and adjustments are made to the haulage fleets, providing service levels improve at Felixstowe.

At Metro we are working proactively with our customers, partner hauliers and rail providers to avoid delays or disruptions to first/final mile movements and transport movements nationally. 

Please contact Grant Liddell or Ian Barnes for the latest updates and market position.