Water Freight: Thinking Big

I am really glad that my last blog stirred some comments. This is a new blog and I want it to be interesting and informative. It has also given me a good chance to think through what I mean about water borne freight. In part this has been influenced by recent work in London on the canals and Thames, on the River Trent, and on the Manchester Ship Canal. But perhaps even more it is influenced by 27 years of working in the rail freight industry, not least my three years “on the road” as a freight salesman.

I could write pages on WHY I think what I do, but in a nutshell this is my view:

  • Moving goods by water between two points is extremely cost effective, even over very short distances and for quite low volumes. This benefit evaporates when you move the goods away from the water.
  • There are few businesses alongside waterways who could benefit by bringing in goods or distributing products by water. 
  • Those few that remain are extremely important, and must be identified and supported to transfer their goods to water.
  • Transhipment is rarely economically viable. In other words, moving goods by barge then transferring them to road for final delivery is not usually cost effective. One exception is likely to be deliveries of goods into congested urban areas. But this needs waterside supermarket distribution centres. At least one end of the journey must be alongside the waterway.
  • Those few opportunities for viable transhipment are extremely important, and must be identified and supported.
  • Moving building supplies by water to and from waterside building sites is a very good market for water freight. But to develop large volumes we need more waterside sources and destinations of products. More Powerdays. We also need builders merchants to be located by the water’s edge. 
  • Those very few building materials suppliers that are at the water’s edge are extremely important, and must be identified and supported.
  • A huge opportunity for freight on water is the movement of recyclates and waste. This is “good traffic” for barges, and this is an industry going through a period of massive change. New technology such as MMRCV and SmartBarge helps the case for water.
  • But moving large volumes of recyclates and waste by water requires new waterside waste facilities. Waterside Energy from waste plants. Waterside recycling plants. Waterside Materials Reclamation Facilities. Waterside bottle banks. Etc. Etc.

This means we need to think BIG! The future of rail freight in the UK will be transformed over the coming years as a number of huge strategic rail freight interchanges open. This has been the result of years of slog by developers, the industry, and planners.

We need new water side waste facilities. We need waterside building materials suppliers. We need waterside supermarket distribution centres and warehouses. We need planners to encourage and support such developments and to require all waterside developers to consider the needs of water freight. We need waste planners to focus their search for sites on suitable waterside locations. 

If these things happen, large volumes of freight can be shifted on England’s inland waterways.

The water freight industry needs to focus on convincing planners and developers to make the changes and investments that are needed. It really does not help if effort is put into projects or plans which have a low chance of success.  

We need to protect important waterside sites against unsuitable development. Hopefulyy the credit crunch will buy a breathing space in this respect. But that does not mean blighting locations which are of no further practical use. A difficult balancing act.

In the mean time, I will not get excited about the odd trial load of cardboard or highly publicised shipment.


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