Industrial East London

July 1, 2009

I spent an enjoyable, if very hot, day looking at a couple of sites in East London on Sunday. Both sites were involved – rather tenuously – with the ill fated “Story of London” festival.

The Story of Three Mills Island

I only found out about this by chance. An open day which included both the House Mill and the new Three Mills Lock was too good to miss. Not least as I spent a lot of time with colleagues working up a very complicated funding deal for the new lock.

The event was not very well attended. But the tours around the wonderful House Mill were popular, and a coffee in the Miller’s Garden was delightful.

House Mill tour

House Mill tour

The Miller's Garden

The Miller's Garden

The new lock is complete and open – but public access to the footpath over the end of the lock is not available yet – hopefully it will be in the next few weeks.

The lock will allow barges of up to 350 tonnes capacity to access the Olympic Park construction site, and is already being used to take construction waste away from the site.

The new Three Mills Lock

The new Three Mills Lock

Three Mills island is a genuine hidden treasure. It includes two mills, some open land, the lock, and the 3 Mills TV and film studios. Among the usual sightings of coots and ducks, I noticed that Sand Martins are nesting in disused drainage pipes next to the River Lea.

Crossness Engines

A tube trip, two DLR trains, and a short rail hop took me to Abbey Wood station where a free minibus completed my journey to Crossness for one of the infrequent steaming days of their huge beam engine. This was a very welcome insight into a major restoration project. The well supervised visitors are allowed to enter the bowels of this incredible machine.  Bowler hatted engineers were on hand to answer questions, and some interesting displays and exhibitions completed the event.

Detail of Crossness engine room

Detail of Crossness engine room

Crossness Engine

Crossness Engine

The engine operates without any accompanying crashes and bangs or blasts of steam. But in its way the smooth operation of the massive beam and flywheel, with the spinning and shifting of various well oiled bits of kit, was even more spectacular for its peace and elegance.

Interesting to overhear at the entrance (£5) some visitors insisting that the event should be free as it was part of the Story of London festival. Only one of the volunteers seemed to even have heard of the Story of London – and he admitted that the engine open day was planned before the Story of London and had just been included to provide some additional publicity!

More Photos

Here, on Smugmug


Olympic Legacy – Where’s The Freight?

February 16, 2009

I am grateful to Diamond Geezer for highlighting that consultation has started on the plans for the Olympic Legacy projects. I turned straight to the consultation documents because I am enthusiastic about the Olympic project and particularly about the legacy potential.

As a freighty person the first thing I do when I see documents like these is search for words such as “freight”, “deliveries” or “goods”. The only place where “freight” is mentioned is in the context of moving freight by water. Deliveries are not mentioned at all.

My company was heavily involved in getting the Prescott Lock funded, so I am glad to see the reference to moving freight on the waterways. But seriously, how can you plan a development of this scale without planning for freight right from the start? Why is it that the public transport infrastructure is deemed to be essential, but infrastructure for bringing in goods and services is treated as an afterthought?

Water Freight: Thinking Big

February 4, 2009

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.

Freight On Inland Waterways – A Great Future?

January 30, 2009


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.

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