Over the last 20 years, the fastest growing vehicle type on Britain’s roads is the van, according to 2017 Department for Transport figures. Since 1997, their numbers have increased by a staggering 75.7%. This is twice the rate for cars and over five times that for HGVs.
But their popularity has a downside. Vans have gained a poor reputation among other road users and the authorities; for several years there have been calls for them to be regulated in a similar way to HGVs. Trade associations have opposed the idea of additional regulation for commercial vehicles, preferring improved self-regulation.
An example is the Freight Operator Recognition Scheme, launched by Transport for London (TfL) in 2008.Initially, the scheme was required for any commercial vehicle operator that wanted to work on TfL contracts to demonstrate that it met TfL operating standards. Since then, it has grown in scope and size, and FORS accreditation has become a requirement to be eligible for contracts at a range of organisations. Today there are 5,210 registered members across the UK operating a total of 124,507 vehicles, including vans. Growth outside London has come since 2014, when TfL created a concession, the FORS Community Partnership, and appointed international consultancy AECOM to run it.
John Hix is the director for the FORS Community Partnership at AECOM. He says: “Currently there are 572 registered van-only fleets operating 7,872 vans. Of these, 477 are accredited, operating 5,582 vehicles. Overall, there are 37,534 accredited vans in the scheme.”
Membership fees consist of an annual subscription, based on the number of vehicles operated, plus a fee for the annual audit. Membership fees for a fleet of 11-25 vans costs £630 plus VAT, and £450 plus VAT to audit one operating centre. There are additional costs for companies that qualify at silver and gold level. (Hix is keen to point out that most of the revenue generated by FORS is ploughed back into the scheme in the form of free benefits.)
Like FORS, the Freight Transport Association’s self-regulatory code of conduct for van operators, Van Excellence, offers a framework to promote best practice and is also based around a code of operating standards.
Head of that programme, Mark Cartwright (pictured below right) reports on its current scope. He says: “We now have around 127,000 vans operated by 128 companies in the scheme. The high average fleet size shows that the early adopters were larger companies. Now members range from BT down to a four-van fleet belonging to a firm of auto electricians. The biggest change we have seen is the increased number of aspirational small to medium-sized businesses that have joined.”
There is no prescribed route into Van Excellence, and participation does not entitle that company to FTA membership. Companies that feel they need to improve can opt to subscribe to the ‘Guide to Van Excellence’ that helps them apply the Van Excellence Code (see link at end). Companies that already feel confident they are operating to a good standard can book an assessment (£639 plus VAT), which leads to becoming a recognised Van Excellence operator. Where standards fall short, Van Excellence offers training for managers and drivers. The programme also runs seminars across the UK that are free to enrolled companies.
Another service FTA provides is ‘Gate Checks’ for van operators. “There is a misconception that vans are operated like trucks, returning to an operating base on a regular basis,” Cartwright explains. “We estimate 75% of vans stay with their driver and are parked up at or close to their homes when not in use. FTA has introduced a visiting van inspection service to check these vehicles are being managed properly. We also check weigh them, as overloading is an issue for many van operators.”
The vehicle maintenance standards expected of a recognised Van Excellence operator revolve around the vehicle’s duty cycle and adherence to the manufacturer’s service intervals. Cartwright states: “Firstly, we expect operators to keep detailed records and agree an inspection and maintenance plan. They need to demonstrate that drivers are carrying out daily defect checks and that operators carry out what we term ‘duty of care’ inspections. These often coincide with servicing intervals, but should also reflect the duty cycle. We are not prescriptive about mileage, as high mileage is not as punishing in terms of wear and tear as urban driving.”
The Van Excellence standard is reviewed biannually by a governance group made up of van operators. Cartwright says it has changed little since its inception. More recently, the FTA has launched a defect app for van drivers, and, working with FleetCheck, has introduced a small fleet programme into Van Excellence.
FORS accreditation standards range from bronze to silver to gold, and each member company must pass an initial audit to gain accreditation, and then an annual audit to maintain or improve their rating. Recognising that van operation has unique requirements, it has introduced a ‘Van Smart’ tool kit to run alongside the core standards.
Explains Hix: “We don’t offer a different standard for van operators. FORS sets a broadly equivalent standard of performance for both van and truck operators. In terms of vehicle maintenance requirements for vans, FORS auditors will want to see an inspection and maintenance plan. This must show that the company has a rigid maintenance schedule. For vans, this will usually be within the manufacturer’s guidelines. The auditor will be looking at historical service records to ensure the schedule is being adhered to. In the case of companies that are leasing their vehicles, copies of all service records must also be held by the operator. It is not sufficient for the operator to say they leave it all to the leasing company.”
As both Van Excellence and FORS stand for the same principles – improving road safety and compliance – it would seem desirable for them to be compatible, if not interoperable. In fact, FTA’s Van Excellence Plus and Truck Excellence Plus qualifications were deemed compliant with TfL’s work-related road risk policy for contractors, until a FORS update in December 2016.
Since then, the two organisations have not resolved their differences. A spokesman told TE that TfL has no objection in principle to compliance alternatives, but that it is up to FTA to update Van Excellence to be compliant with FORS v4. In response, Cartwright said that doing so is not practicable, “because it requires mirroring of not only the content, but also the form of the FORS scheme in every respect”.
Given the similarity of Van Excellence and FORS, it seems ironic that there is so little common ground between them.
FORS standard, v4.1.ii (October 2017) –https://is.gd/uhoweb
TfL Work-related Road Risk Policy – https://is.gd/liguqu
Van Excellence code – https://is.gd/jizonu