Changing lanes

Atkins | 05 Dec 2008 | Comments

Despite their pivotal role in its industrial revolution, the UK’s waterways and canals have largely fallen out of the transport mix. Now, with the rising cost and environmental burden of road transport, could UK businesses follow Europe’s example and turn back to the water?

When, in the 19th century, UK rail development built up a head of steam, the transport of goods on its canals and rivers quickly drowned. While much of mainland Europe lived through the same trends – rail transport later being supplanted by roads – the continent has taken a more strategic approach to the use of its inland waterways.

Developing the UK’s canals and rivers as major freight networks presents a significant challenge. There’s no way around the fact that the geographical make-up of the UK limits the scope of water transport; there are no rivers that compare in size to the Rhine, Elbe or Danube. Being a relatively small island also means goods never have to travel too far inland from the coast, making road an obvious choice.

However, things are changing. There is a latent potential that UK businesses are beginning to explore; London in particular is seeing a slow but steady growth of water transport.

Ed Fox of British Waterways says the key to building up the river and canal network as a viable part of the transport mix is integration. “There are, without doubt, niche opportunities, and most operators want to look at more sustainable and green alternative forms of transport,” he says. “However, while you can build a road almost anywhere, not all industry is next to water. To make it work, your origin and destination need to be near water, otherwise you will start incurring extra cost for double handling.”

According to Atkins’ Jeremy Thorne, an expert in freight and sustainable transport, the UK will never see anything comparable to the European model of water use. However, he still sees many opportunities to use waterways as part of the transport mix.


“Birmingham city centre is a good example,” he says. “It is criss-crossed by railways and canals, which could be used to transport some of the bulky goods currently taken by road. Given the right market and economics, investment and traffic demand, there is the potential to pursue waterways such as these as a viable alternative to current urban transport methods.”

While this may sound like a sustainable transport paradise, Thorne emphasises that, first and foremost, it must be commercially viable.

“Freight carriers won’t use the canals just because they are picturesque or environmentally attractive,” he says. “And, while Government is supporting sustainable transport through its grant regime, there is a limit to what is possible.”

Rather than try to ape the European model, where tonnage is far in excess of anything a UK canal could handle, the prevailing idea is to go after the niche opportunities, where the origin and destination are both on the water.

By virtue of its geography, mainland Europe’s culture of water transport is more developed. From the Seine in the west to the Danube in the east, waterways have evolved into major superhighways for the movement of freight and waste.

Mainland Europe also offers far more opportunities to increase water transport’s share of the market than the UK, the most obvious reason for this being the greater number of big rivers. The Rhine – which accounts for around 70 per cent of European water freight traffic – connects the biggest port (Rotterdam) with one of Europe’s most densely populated areas, the Rhine-Ruhr conurbation.

Thousands of containers, some on 4,400-tonne mega-barges, make their way every day from the international terminal at Rotterdam straight into Europe’s consumer heartland. Meanwhile, the Danube – served largely by the seaport at Constanta in Romania – carries goods east through Hungary to Austria.

Karin De Schepper is general secretary of Inland Navigation Europe, the body that promotes the use of waterways as an alternative form of goods transport. She says there is a desire on the continent to develop the rivers and canals further as viable alternatives to road and rail.

“Demand is still growing and there is plenty of space available on Europe’s rivers,” says De Schepper. And it isn’t only the Rhine that is becoming busier: there is also growth in France. De Schepper points to the increased freight now moving along the link between Marseille and Lyon, with sea-going traffic heading inland to Lyon and further to Dijon. Growth has also been marked on the Seine, where more freight is now moving from Le Havre and Rouen to the Paris area.

River deep

Of course, continued growth will require continued investment. Some £4bn is currently being spent on the cross-border Seine-Scheldt canal project, designed to remove the current bottlenecks in Belgium and northern France.

Developing and maintaining rivers and canals as viable means of transport has serious short-term cost implications, both financial and environmental (even though moving goods by water uses far less energy than road). Indeed, according to the Inland Waterways Association, water transport generates 40-66g/tonnes-km of CO2, compared to between 207 and 280 for road.

Despite the obvious and immediate benefits of river transport, De Schepper admits that managing development is a delicate task. “If people want to use the waterways properly, the infrastructure has to be right,” she says. “Bottlenecks hinder smooth sailing, so it’s a priority for operators to make sure they are addressed.”

The most common way to increase capacity on rivers is dredging. However, while the techniques used have improved over the years, large-scale dredging projects can cause major disruption to the environment. Only recently have the impacts of dredging been tackled.

“In the past, the methods for widening and updating waterways have been too damaging to the environment,” De Schepper says. “However, today, each big project will see 40-50 per cent of the earmarked funds going to environmental compensation measures.” These can include anything from investing in more sophisticated dredgers to ensure wetlands remain intact, to reducing impact on wildlife through the construction of “fish ladders” – a series of ascending pools that enables fish to migrate up the river.

Driving development

The move to test new transport options is picking up the pace in London, where Atkins has worked with Transport for London (TfL) and local boroughs to develop alternative freight routes. As one of the co-ordinators within the Freight Unit at TfL, Joe Dack identifies and develops opportunities to reduce congestion on London’s already overstretched transport system.

“We aim to get more traffic to shift from the roads to the river and rail networks,” he says. “But we’re conscious that roads will always play the major role in moving goods around London. The fact is that water is only suited to certain categories, where it can be used cost-effectively.” That said, where they do make sense, London’s waterways are already playing a significant role in goods transport.

“In 2007, just under 1.8 million tonnes of goods were moved on the Thames, including 720,000 tonnes of waste and 737,000 tonnes of aggregates,” says Dack. “That equates to 176,000 lorry movements.”

TFL is currently working with partners, including Atkins and British Waterways, to construct Prescott Lock in Stratford, East London. This will allow up to 1.75 million tonnes of bulk materials to be moved by barge to nearby construction sites. This promises to save up to 170,000 lorry journeys, equating to around 4,000 tonnes of CO2 saved.

There are also signs that the credit crunch and pressure from the environmental lobby are leading more businesses to consider the shift from road to water. For example, Tesco launched a scheme in 2007 to move over 600,000 litres of wine a week by barge from Manchester to Liverpool.

As Atkins’ Thorne says, it is around the edges of the UK’s core transport strategy that waterways will find their niche. “Rivers and canals aren’t suited to ‘just in time’ or consumer goods, but that doesn’t mean they have no role to play,” he says. “Opportunities do exist.”

Europe is already ahead in terms of its capacity for water transport, as well as having the will and financial backing to enable its development. Now it seems that economic and environmental pressures could drive the UK to follow its lead.

Photo: David Iliff. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

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