Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Waterways for freight

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This opinion piece from the BBC takes me back.

In 1970 I started work – and my first employer was the British Waterways Board. The only thing that has changed in the message is that back then we had not heard of greenhouse has emissions or carbon footprints. The idea of transferring freight to water was very popular – with motorists. They all, without exception, hated lorries – especially the new big 32 tonne monsters (actually quite small by modern North American standards) – partly because of their size was intimidating but mostly because they were slow and on many of Britain’s narrow, windy roads, hard to overtake.


The major issue though was that Britain’s canals were, on the whole, also narrow and windy. Developed in the 18th century, and not much upgraded after the opening of the railways, they tended to follow the contour lines and locks were usually only 7 feet wide. They were also very attractive scenically and increasingly popular for recreation. So any proposal to upgrade a canal to a size that would allow economic freight movement always fell foul of the waterway users. And the environmentalists. Because, of course, a new depot would generate lots of lorry movements.

There were two traffics that were won to water – domestic refuse, because it was used to landfill the Thames marshes, and sea dredged aggregates (sand and gravel) because land won sources were mostly exhausted within range of development. In both cases I suspect that current environmental standards would find both practices unacceptable. I do know that on the Fraser, one gravel pit next to the river is not allowed to use barges to move its output due to the objections of its neighbours who live in desirable waterside residences – so the gravel goes by road.

The current press here is for what is being termed “short sea shipping” – basically moving stuff inland from the port by barge, rather than the current practice of having four round trips by truck for every container. The only uncertainty I can see over that is where the containers will be moved to. The former Fraser Port lost something like 75% of its container traffic so there is no lack of capacity at Surrey Fraser Docks – which are at least rail connected. There are peole who think freight can go further up river, and while they may be right I cannot see the “gravel reach” being dredged any time – since that is fish habitat, and that is going to be seen as a priority.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 1, 2007 at 9:14 pm

Posted in freight transport

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