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.
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.