The lack of international truck drivers is one of the causes behind the bottleneck in international trade. In Europe, demand will be around 400,000 over the next few years. In Spain, the required figure is over 15,000. Trucking is a hard and extremely lonely job, involving days away from home and nights at unwelcoming service areas or lay-bys. Despite the money that can be made, the younger generations are not tempted. EL PAÍS rode with a veteran Spanish truck driver for four days through France and the UK and found that driving a truck is not only unromantic, it can also be very depressing.
Day 1 Meeting at the Beaugency-Messas rest area (France)
It is Wednesday, October 13. Lázaro Bermejo arrives with his refrigerator truck at the Beaugency-Messas service area near Blois, in central France. This service area is no different from any other. It just happens to be on his route. Lázaro left the southeastern Spanish region of Murcia two days ago with 24,000 kilograms of grapes that must be delivered undamaged by Friday near Cambridge in the United Kingdom. The cargo is worth €46,000. He parks behind the gas station next to another huge truck that has its cabin curtain drawn. Lázaro prepares to spend the night there. The routine is the same tonight as every other night.
He casts his eye over the trailer locks and the wheels and checks the tachograph, which records speed and distance. He also takes a look at the cooling system, which keeps up a steady buzz all night. It’s a bit chilly outside and there’s no one about. The handful of other truckers that are parked there are already asleep or resting in their cabins. There won’t be any socializing. Lázaro eats some of the food from his fridge and climbs onto the mattress in the cabin to watch a couple of episodes of Breaking Bad on his computer, recorded on a flash drive. It’s the second time he’s watched the series. If he’s lucky, he’ll get drowsy and fall asleep fast, like he used to when he was young. If not, he will toss and turn in his narrow bed, as usual. Lázaro is 51 and has been traveling roads and highways like this one for 24 years.
During his career as a truck driver, there have been a few incidents: once, years ago, near a French gas station, an immigrant hid under his vehicle in a bid to enter the UK and was spotted by French police; another time, in winter, on the outskirts of Berlin, his diesel and heater pipes froze and he had to spend the whole night in the freezing cold without the option of moving from the parking lot; and once, on the outskirts of Paris, he had an accident – his only one – hitting a car while changing lanes. The car was dragged for around 10 meters but the driver was unhurt. Normally, though, absolutely nothing happens. Time is measured by the boring passage of kilometers and hours; by the cups of coffee drunk alone in gas station cafeterias and by visits to industrial parks to drop off or pick up freight.
Lázaro always drives at 90 kilometers per hour, for nine to 10 hours per day over six uninterrupted days. He takes a 45-minute break every four hours. After six days, he parks at a service area and stops for 24 hours straight. Then he starts over for another six days. After the second six-day stretch, he goes home to the town of Blanca, in Murcia, where he has two days off before getting back to work. The tachograph ensures he doesn’t break the rules, not that Lázaro has any interest in doing so. He knows what the job entails. “The worst thing is that you are always away from home,” he says. “I have missed seeing my daughters grow up and now they’re grown. I was never at their birthdays. You’re married, but it’s as if you’re not. The worst thing is the loneliness. At Christmas, you always spend either Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve out here, alone, in a service area. You look around to see if you can find a Spaniard and spend it together. Loneliness. You’re driving and you’re turning things over in your head. You look back and you think: ‘What have you enjoyed about your life, about your family, always sitting up here?’ You dwell on things like that.”
The harsh reality of this profession explains the lack of international truck drivers. It is a shortage that is exacerbated when the economy grows. An August report by the British consultancy Transport Intelligence puts European demand for truck drivers over the next few years at 400,000. The UK will need between 60,000 and 76,000 due to circumstance brought about by Brexit; Germany will require between 45,000 and 60,000 and France, 43,000; according to the same study, Spain is going to have to recruit more than 15,000. And it’s not going to be easy. Nobody wants to be a truck driver anymore. Nobody wants to be like Lázaro.
Day 2 Bypassing Paris en route to the UK
It’s dawn and it’s cold. Lázaro washes his face in the service area washrooms. He doesn’t talk to anyone. He gets a coffee from the gas station cafeteria but has nothing to eat – he doesn’t like to eat in the morning. He looks tired and has dark circles under his eyes. He’s had a bad night, with lots of tossing and turning in bed. There are other times when he falls asleep in the driver’s seat, with his legs up and the computer playing episodes of Breaking Bad in a loop.
He decides to start driving a bit later, at 8am, to make sure he reaches the outskirts of Paris around 10am in order to avoid the early morning traffic. Lázaro has driven past Paris hundreds of times, but he has never gone into the city. He has only seen the Eiffel Tower from a distance. The traffic is a determining factor: in the nine hours allowed for driving, he will have to get as close as possible to Huntingdon, the English town where his cargo will be unloaded the following day. As for the grapes he is carrying, he hasn’t tasted a single one. “I’m not much of a fruit guy,” he explains. He sets off at the scheduled time. The tachograph ticks on.
Dulsé Díaz, deputy secretary general of the General Confederation of Freight Transportation (CGTM), blames the nature of the profession for the lack of drivers. Young people, he says, prefer to earn less and drive delivery vans around town so they can sleep at home. “International truck drivers can earn about €3,000,” he says. “Those delivering local packages in vans may earn €1,500 or less, but they prefer it. Long-distance truckers also have to deal with the lack of security at service areas, a factor that puts many women off, and in many cases, drivers are forced to unload the goods themselves after nine hours of driving.”
Lázaro plays music in the cab, sometimes disco, sometimes singer- songwriters like Raphael, or else he turns on the radio to listen to sports news. Alternatively he talks on the phone with his wife, or with other truckers. Or he simply drives in silence, listening only to the voice of his navigator that guides him north. Despite his calculations, driving through Paris is taking longer than expected.
He has never been robbed, he says, but he knows about the spray trick. “It’s a self-defense spray,” he says. “When you’re asleep, in the cab, they spray you through the gap in the window. And whoever is inside is drugged. Then they pick the lock and come in. My colleague saw them come in but he was dazed. They stole his cellphone, his credit cards, his computer, everything. And he couldn’t do anything about it.” Since hearing about that incident, Lázaro has been thinking about installing a special lock, but he never remembers to get one.
Lázaro earns €3,000 after tax a month. But he says there are others who earn less. In France, the average salary is €50,000 a year and in the UK it is €59,000, according to Transport Intelligence. Lázaro is reasonably satisfied with his salary. That’s why he signed up all those years ago and is still doing the job. “As I didn’t want to study, I had the choice of either picking lemons and earning €1,000 or driving a truck and earning more. At first I thought I would stay on for a few years and quit. But …”
Lázaro goes through Calais and the Channel Tunnel, passing the new customs checks before entering the UK. He gets onto the UK roads, which he hates. He pushes his mileage quota to the limit to reach a parking area for trucks located within the Cambridge Services rest area, about 20 kilometers from Huntingdon. Mission accomplished. It is already dark. There are about 200 trucks lined up in two rows, facing one another. Everyone is in their cab. It’s a strange place, inhospitable and bleak. One of the parking lot attendants speaks some Spanish and Lázaro, who does not speak a second language, appreciates it. There is a shower service and a 24-hour Burger King, but Lazaro eats something from his fridge, goes to bed and puts on Breaking Bad.
Day 3 Unloading at Huntingdon and back to the continent
Before dawn, Lázaro has already taken his load to a depot on the outskirts of Huntingdon. This is a beautiful city, but Lázaro has only seen the ugly industrial part of it – the part that looks like all the ugly parts of all the cities in the world, full of roundabouts and warehouses. Today he didn’t have to unload the grapes, although on other trips, especially for supermarkets, he has to empty the truck with a forklift. He didn’t have long to wait today, either. There are days when it is far worse. By 10am his trailer is empty. His employer, a company named Fuentes Group that owns 500 trucks, orders him to return quickly to Calais to meet a truck coming from the Netherlands with a load of flowers that must arrive in the Spanish city of Valencia by Sunday, i.e. in two days. Meeting this delivery schedule requires a relay race for three refrigerator trucks coordinated from company headquarters in Murcia.
Antonio Fuentes is director of logistics and operations at Grupo Fuentes. He is also one of the five siblings now running a company that was established by their father, who started out with just one truck. Antonio is ultimately responsible for coordinating these 500 trucks, which are almost constantly on the road in Europe, to optimize their use. This is why Lázaro receives an instant order to drive down to Calais. “Anyone who spends several days in a truck can understand the shortage of drivers,” he says.
Again Lázaro has to contend with the hated UK roads before crossing the border again in the opposite direction. He eats a hamburger at the Channel Tunnel that costs €1 thanks to a discount for truck drivers. Back in France, in a truck parking lot in Calais, the two Fuentes Group truckers meet up at 3pm. They do not know each other. Sergio León brings the flowers from the Dutch city of Aalsmeer, 450 kilometers away. They swap trailers. León returns to the Netherlands with an empty trailer for more flowers. and Lázaro drives south with his. He drives at night. He pushes the permitted nine hours so hard that he can’t find a service area with a gas station and a cafeteria, and is forced to stop at a lay-by at kilometer 27.7 of the N-10 road, 19 kilometers from Chartres; he is literally in the middle of nowhere. It is 9pm and he goes to bed. In the city of Chartres, there is a tourist show underway consisting of lights projected on the imposing facade of the cathedral. Meanwhile, in the dark N-10 lay-by, Lázaro tries to sleep despite the trucks that rock his cabin as they pass by.
Day 4 Headed for southern France with flowers
With no rest area handy, Lázaro washes himself with water from a container. He drinks coffee that he has made himself in a coffee pot and sets off into the fog at 7am on an empty stomach. He has to get as far south as possible to swap trailers again with another Fuentes Group trucker coming from Spain who will head back to Valencia. Having completed six consecutive days of work, Lázaro will then have to stop to rest for 24 hours in a service area when night falls.
Juan José Gil, secretary general of the National Federation of Spanish Transportation Associations (Fenadismer), says that the profession no longer appeals so much to those with a sense of adventure and an urge to see the world. “Now young people can do that in a different way with cheap flights,” he says. “We have to look for other incentives to make this profession attractive again.” Michael Clover, one of Transport Intelligence’s experts, adds that measures should be taken to increase safety in the service areas, raise bonuses for truckers and rely more on technology to make each trip more profitable.
But Lázaro hasn’t revealed the whole story. As he drives along a French highway at his usual 90 kilometers per hour, he admits that living on the road has certain advantages. “You can miss it,” he says. “It’s addictive, like a drug. When you’re driving alone – and I do like to go alone in spite of everything – it’s like you have a different life. It’s as if, besides the life you have with your wife and daughters at home, you have a parallel life of your own, something like that, I don’t know…”
He parks at 6pm at a service area on the A-10, 110 kilometers south of Bordeaux, and waits for the third trucker in the relay. After switching trailers, Lázaro will stay put for the 24 mandatory hours. He will shower, drink more coffees, maybe cook something on a stove by the side of the truck. He might even find a Spaniard to chat with and, if not, he’ll watch more episodes of Breaking Bad. Then he’ll get word of his next job at another destination. And in another six days, he’ll be home, where he will have two days off, and the whole process will start all over again.