Interesting facts from Whittle’s 25 years in logistics
1) At present in 2021 Whittles specialise in 31 Eastern European countries . How many countries would Whittles have served in 1990 with the same geographic coverage?
Currently Whittles specialise in 31 Eastern European countries from Poland in the West to Kazakhstan in the East. However in 1990 or earlier, within the same geographic boundaries there were only 8! A full 23 countries less! First, the Soviet Union broke up into 15 independent states on 26.12.1991, then Czechoslovakia split into the Czech and Slovakian republics on 01.01.1993, and finally Yugoslavia gradually split into 7 independent countries between 1991 and 2008. The last newly emerged independent Eastern European country was Kosovo in 2008.
Eastern Europe is not an easy region. Geopolitical problems, tensions and disputes have always been part of our work in Eastern Europe. Whittles maintained its services into the problem regions even during military conflicts, escalations and political tensions : in Yugoslavia in 90ss, in Central Asia in 2001, in Georgia in 2008, in Ukraine from 2014 onwards and most recently Azerbaijan and Armenia in Autumn 2020.
Sadly, some regions in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine are still currently off limits and inaccessible or very difficult to enter due to the political situation.
2) What is the furthest point in the East that you can go to by truck from the UK?
Whittles routinely send trucks to Novosibirsk in Siberia or Almaty in Kazakhstan, which is close to the Chinese border, but Whittles’ record for the continuous journey of a truck (direct, with no transhipment) was organised in 2018 from Scotland to Kholmsk on Sakhalin Island, off the Far Eastern coast of the Russian mainland, due North of Japan. The journey took 17 days and the delivery point was closer to Japan than any other place on the continent.
3) What is the furthest point South that you can go to by truck from the UK
Whittles have pushed the boundaries in that direction too: Morocco would be the southernmost destination that we organised as a continuous non-transhipment journey taking a ferry from Southern Spain. Whittles did this route on numerous occasions since 2019. In the Middle East Sulaymaniyah and Erbil in Northern Iraq would be the current record holder destination for a non-transhipment trailer journey via Bulgaria and Turkey. This route has been on Whittles list since 2005 despite the dangers in this region.
4) Where would you go by overland by truck with no sea for hundreds of miles but still be unable to reach your destination?
This curious journey from the UK to a small town in Komi Republic in North-Eastern Russia took place in 2000. Whittle organised 3 trucks that were delivering industrial equipment from the UK to Pechora in Russia. If you look on the map there is nothing special about the place and there are some roads there but as we found out in Spring 2000 these roads were not passable all year round. The town gets cut off from the mainland by a river with no bridge across for HGVs. The trucks were literally stuck at the end of the road near the river and would have to wait till Winter for the crossing might be feasible. Luckily there was another alternative : river barges that we had to hire to get the trucks across the river into town and back. That was probably the first multimodal shipment that Whittles organised! Since then multimodal destinations have become part of Whittles service although more truck+rail rather than truck+barges!
5) How do you transport a theatre from one country to another?
Whittles have had many shipments for cultural events but one journey in 2003 was memorable thanks to the committed driver who followed all the instructions and got the truck to the collection point at 9am in Novosibirsk National Theatre, helped to load the theatrical props and stage gear, delivered at a pre-set time and date in Dublin and was giving updates on his progress every day. We knew that he had arrived but wanted to check if he was already offloaded at Dublin theatre. This time the Russian driver answered his mobile phone but started to whisper that: “yeah, everything is fine, I helped to offload the stuff, all ok, no problems”. -Why are you whispering then? – “I am in the theatre hall watching the rehearsal, it is really good I must say!”
It turned out that the theatre staff were so impressed with the helpful driver that they invited him to stay for the rehearsal as a way to thank him.
6) How fast do you expect to get a reply in business?
Everyone agrees the speed of communication in business has improved a lot in the last 25-30 years. What were the expectations and possibilities of communication with Eastern European companies back then?
In 1960-70 you would send a letter by post which would arrive at destination in 5-7 days time, sit with the secretary for a day or two, get it translated from English to a native language, finally get it discussed by the relevant department, get the written approval of the company’s boss then get it translated into English and off in the post to you. Your inquiry would normally be answered in 14-15 days’ time (and if you forgot to ask if they could quote in British Pounds rather than in Roubles or Drachma – the whole process would begin again!)
In 1980s- early 1990s telex arrived as a faster communication method, these machines were huge and noisy and sometimes had to be allocated a separate room. You type the message as if on a typewriter in this telex machine and then send it through the telex and it comes out with some delay at the recipients’ telex machine as a message on paper. Not quite instant, clumsy, noisy, you had to wait some time until connection was established but still much faster than post.
From early and mid 1990s fax machines become a cutting edge technology New Thing. You type your letter on computer, print it out and you can send it to one or multiple recipients through fax machine and it was almost instant. If you sent the fax in the morning, you could expect the reply in the afternoon or next morning. Things were getting faster, the problem with fax line was that it was working through telephone line and if the telephone line was bad you would get illegible message – which was often the case in remote places and at most Eastern European border crossing points. Also the special thin thermal roll paper kept the message for a couple of years and would fade after 3 years to become illegible – a self destructing paperless office in 10 years time.
From the end of the 90s internet has arrived and communication becomes even faster. In the beginning most companies in Eastern Europe and in the UK would not be constantly online. The internet connection was expensive and not always reliable. You would go online every 2-3 hours to download incoming emails and to send your own drafted replies. If you wanted to reply quickly you would need to call, it would be faster than the emails. Gradually the internet connection got cheaper and more widespread in the early 2000s, and email became the preferred way of communication globally. It is now reliable and practically instant. Sometimes you are expected to reply within minutes. However we always remember that where there is a genuine will to communicate with our clients there is always a way to do so irrespective of the available level of technology.
7) How far into city centre could an HGV lorry deliver the goods?
In most cases when the drivers get to deliver the goods to a European city and capitals the actual place of offloading is somewhere in the industrial zones in the city suburbs or on ring roads. The drivers rarely get even a glimpse of the cities where they deliver the goods. But it not always the case.
In 2015 Whittles got to organise the delivery of the promotional racing cars for Formula E into Moscow. The trailers were not only allowed into Moscow city centre but were escorted right to Red Square where the crated racing cars were offloaded and installed for public display. In the meantime the drivers were free to do a bit of sightseeing in the heart of Moscow. Whittles did a similar central delivery a year earlier into the Russian city of Sochi for Formula One event. And for the UEFA Champions League Final in May 2018 in Kiev, when our trailer was delivering promotional equipment and materials, it was even allowed into the Fans Zone in the city centre!
8) Could you deliver to the place the exact location of which is a secret?
Logistics is a precision art. The driver, borders and customs need precise details in weight, quantity and addresses. There are some cases when the delivery instructions were deliberately incomplete. Whittles had organised a few deliveries from the UK to various filming locations in Eastern Europe. One of the most memorable was the delivery of film production equipment that we organised to Kazakhstan in July 2019. Kazakhstan is a huge country the size of Europe and the interior is very beautiful but with inhospitable and rough terrain for the lorries. The delivery address was simply the edge of Charyn Canyon National Park in Raimbek region. “Once you arrive at the 54th kilometre on the road near Charyn you stop and we will take it from there” – those instructions were given to the driver by men in black. The driver did stop and was met in the middle of nowhere, the equipment was reloaded onto smaller vans and the contents were protected from prying eyes. 6 weeks later the whole procedure was repeated in reverse order and the driver returned the load under ATA carnet back to the UK. We were left guessing if a short 10 min scene from the next Bond movie was shot there.
What we do know is that we also transported some equipment to Karelia in Northern Russia near the Finnish border where some scenes from Anna Karenina film were shot in 2011. The same year Whittle started deliveries from Belfast and London studios to Ambasada Film studio in Dubrovnik where Games of Thrones series were shot. The longer the film, more equipment and support it requires, no wonder these multiple deliveries were going on for almost a year till Autumn 2012.
9) Can you deliver faster than the courier?
Whittles’ answer is yes it is possible, at least to some countries in Eastern Europe. In fact Whittles were the postman for several years delivering post shipments to St. Petersburg in Russia from 2013. The first shipment was memorable as the driver was asked to count and confirm the number of all individual parcels at the Russian border and there were literally hundreds of items in post cages.
With regards to the speed of some of our deliveries one client jokingly complained that our vans arrived from the UK to Poland quicker than the documents sent at the same time separately by an air courier!
10) What do you do if the contact with your driver is completely lost?
Nowadays you can hardly imagine life without a mobile phone and being contactable anywhere in the world. Only 20 years back mobile phones were an expensive luxury. You can now get an instant update on the progress of the shipment by calling directly the drivers’ mobile phones. In the late 90s and early 00s very few drivers had mobile phones and even if they had them the roaming charges were so high that they were switched off once out of their own countries. Standard procedure was for drivers was to have a phone card with some pre-paid credit and they would call every 2-3 days to give an update if the journey was a long one. You had to rely on the driver to call you or his garage to receive news. At that time to send the driver from the UK to Central Asian republics : Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan etc was not completely different from sending a man into space as far the communication possibilities were concerned!
By 2000 Whittles were carrying full loads and groupage shipments on a weekly basis to Kazakhstan. The first motorway in that country was built with the help of British company Balfour Beatty who contracted Whittles to ship their maintenance and spare part kits (inclusive of a snooker table!) from the UK to Almaty for over 2 years every single week. We were really confident and comfortable with this destination.
Then in June 2001 another Whittles’ contract for deliveries of building materials from UK to Almaty was coming to an end and the last truck was due to arrive in Almaty on Monday. Only it didn’t. Not on Monday, not even on Thursday. The last phone call from the driver was from Russia/ Kazakh border and then there was silence. After checks with the local customs and police posts there was still no trace of the trailer with the goods, nor the driver. Friday comes and the driver still does not arrive and does not call, the UK client however rings every hour. What do you do then?
Whittles had to fly out our representative from Manchester to Almaty on Saturday where together with the owner of the truck the search for the truck began. In the end the driver with the trailer was located in one of the car parks not far from Almaty. The driver miscalculated his expenses when he set off from home and gradually ran out of fuel, cash and food and then the credit on his phone card ran out too.
He was really stuck in a foreign country with no money and no means of communication.
After feeding the driver, fuelling the truck and completing the delivery the next challenge was to face the client in their local office in Almaty and explain ourselves. After that shipment Whittle was later awarded and successfully carried out another batch of deliveries for the same client.
Respect is due to the international drivers back then, who would routinely venture out on a several thousand mile journey with little or no communication support and no technical road assistance whatsoever.
No. 1 for road transport to Central and Eastern Europe.
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