Freight On Inland Waterways – A Great Future?


There seem to be two schools of thought on inland waterways freight in England: There are those who see canals and navigable rivers as a legacy from the industrial revolution which have had their day. And there are those who see inland waterways as an under-utilised resource which could make a huge contribution to getting freight off our roads. Both are wrong.


Freight on The Thames

Freight on The Thames

It is true that the traditional freight users of inland waterways have declined, moved away from the waterside, or changed their transport needs to focus on national distribution by road rather than trunk haulage to selected destinations by water. We have surveyed over 100 miles of prime waterways, and the fact is that there are almost no industries remaining on the banks of the rivers and canals who could possibly make use of water freight (but note my use of the word “almost”!).

However, as old opportunities recede, new opportunities are opening up, prompted by concerns about urban congestion and the environmental impact of lorries. The key opportunities are:

  • The small number of industries already alongside the waterways who have almost forgotten that this transport resource is available
  • The construction sector. Waterways are sometimes used to access difficult sites, but there are major opportunities to move building and demolition materials by water. This requires sources of scuh materials to be developed on the waterside. Powerday who have developed a huge waterside demolition waste and aggregates depot is a good example.
  • The waste sector. Huge bulk movements of waste already take place on the Thames. But there are real opportunities to move smaller volumes of waste and recyclates on local trips. More about this in later posts.

The opportunities to move supermarket goods, containers, retail products etc. are minimal. An honourable exception is the movement of containers on the Manchester Ship Canal – but this is a unique waterway.

A lot of time and money is wasted chasing opportunities for water freight which simply do not exist. Instead, with an appropriate focus, the volume of freight moved by inland waterways is likely to increase, in some areas significantly, and changes in the waste sector offer particularly exciting opportunities. But the movement of freight on inland waterways will continue to be a niche activity in England.


3 Responses to Freight On Inland Waterways – A Great Future?

  1. Bill Ellson says:


    You assert that ‘A lot of time and money is wasted chasing opportunities for water freight which simply do not exist.’ Perhaps you might be so kind as to supply some evidence to support what you are saying.

    The experience in London in recent years is that most developers of waterside sites simply assume that taking demolition wastes out and bringing construction materials in by water would be more expensive than road haulage and do not seek professional advice.

    There are exceptions such as the Chambers Wharf development where St Martins chose to use the river despite Southwark Council merely requiring them to file a report on the possibility of using the river.

  2. logistical says:

    I do not really want to pick on specific examples where well meaning people have made real efforts to get freight back onto the waterways, although I would be happy to discuss these with you more directly.

    You are right that developers sometimes assume that water freight would be more expensive. But often the question they ask is where can I take the waste to and get my building materials from? Powerday provides a destination, but there are very few such sites and also very few canalside sources of building materials. Those that do exist need to be promoted, while new sources also need to be developed. These facilities MUST be at the water’s edge, otherwise the economics really do not work out. But, of course, there are sources of materials on the Thames. And on the Thames materials are sometimes transported to site by barge, the best example being Canary Wharf and, hopefully, the Olympic Park.

    The Chambers Wharf example shows at least that if developers are required to consider water freight, some will find it fits their needs. And some will make the decision to use water freight even if it is more expensive, on environmental grounds. I wish there were more like that!

  3. John Dodwell says:

    Interesting, Ian, but a bit surprising in your limite horizons. I guess the 100 miles you have surveyed are the London canals as part of PBA’s canal wharf survey – small waterways in a UK context. Nevertheless, have you seen Land and Water’s new 85 tonne capacity light weight canal barge which is also authorised for use on the Thames too? Are you aware that, because of urban congestion, one man can take more in a day by barge than by lorry from say, Powerdays’ Willesden wharf to a Southall wharf for transhipment to the M4? Look outside London to the Yorkshire waterways to Leeds, Rotherham, Wakefield where motor barges take 500 tonnes.

    You are right to concentrate on the source/destination of the traffic. Look at imports of steel via Goole to storage at Leeds and Rotherham; at grain from the Seaforth Terminal to Manchester mills; look at oil tanker barges moving product inland from the Humber.

    Ring me on [deleted by IanB] and we can talk more

    John Dodwell
    Chairman, Commercial Boat Operators Association

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: