Chartered Institute of Building Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Building


Minister wants waterways used for construction freight

9 June 2020

The government is looking at plans to increase the transportation of construction freight via waterways and canals.

Rebecca Pow, MP, parliamentary under secretary at the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, suggested “starting to get freight back on to the waterways”, during on adjournment debate last Thursday about canals and their restoration.

She added: “With the move to net zero and to cleaner air, this is actually a huge asset, and we are starting to realise that canals can have a rebirth as transport links.”

Barges have been used on the Thames in London to remove spoil from the Elizabeth Line, the Northern Line extension, and the Thames Tideway Tunnel. They were also used to bring in concrete tunnel segments. Those works showed a reduction of 7,200 tonnes of carbon production compared to normal lorry movements. A total of 158,000 lorry movements were replaced by 3,900 barge movements.

The minister’s comments were welcomed by the Commercial Boat Operators’ Association (CBOA) which highlighted research from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change (Manchester University), indicating that CO2 from barges can be 25% of that produced by lorries.

The CBOA also claimed that other emissions such as nitrous oxide are lower and that even if lorry engines improve and were to be wholly electric-based, there would still be dangerous particulates from brake pads and tyre wear and road surface wear, which do not arise from using barges.

David Lowe, CBOA’s chairman, said: “I am very pleased that a Defra minister is now realising that water freight can enable cleaner air and that the inland waterways are a huge asset in making this to happen. We call on the minister to work with navigation authorities in improving relevant waterways to enable waterborne tonnages to increase. It is noteworthy that last month global figures from the Carbon Disclosure Project showed a 24% increase in business demanding that their suppliers publish environmental date about how their goods were transported.”


Quite which planet this idea originated upon is unclear. There are perhaps two or three canals in the UK – Aire and Calder, Don, and Manchester Ship, with dimensions fit for dredging to a reasonable profile for 100T+ loads. Most of the rest are either fit only for shallow draught pleasure boats or are out of use with just enough water to float a duck, and barely enough width for the bird to flap its wings. As for the feed reservoirs – remember the little problem at Whaley Bridge? – that is perhaps typical of the condition of canal water supplies today.

There is, of course, the little problem of fluid dynamics, which was one of the – several – reasons why canals never competed with coastal shipping, or with the lorry – demonise it as you will – when it put an end to inland waterway carrying sixty years ago.

Spend billions on putting canals back to the condition they were in when last fully maintained – in 1850 – and you will have a transport network fit for, er, 1830. With which the 19th century was very far from satisfied, as history records.

There are lots of really, really useful things canals can do in 21st century Britain – and are in places – as that metaphorical duck appreciates – doing. Competing with the truck is not one of them, and would destroy most of the current canal network’s present value.

owen jordan, 9 June 2020

Quicker the better is my view, we have an oil tanker come past our moorings weekly carrying 450 tons of oil, if the canal was dredged that would be increased to 600 tons. Moving freight by road is a pollution disaster using diesel because of NOX, so changes need to be made for peoples health

Peter Szczesiak, 9 June 2020

That plan was on the cards years ago

sheila, 9 June 2020

If the barges are on canals the could be horse drawn which would eliminate Nox emissions and increase fertiliser productivity

Marcus Zukas, 10 June 2020

As a member off the Supply Chain Sustainability School our awareness levels have been raised about progress being made by the construction industry towards achieving the Government’s zero carbon target. The case for using the UK’s waterways to speed up that process has clearly been made..

Mary Fannon, 10 June 2020

They,ve ,started sand transhipment from Hull toLeeds.So that has taken clean burning modern wagons off the road.The barges doing the carrying are 39 _40 year old bangers .With pribably the same age engines kicking out pollution into the countryside.How this is a move forward or greener I woould like to know.CRT need to decide if they want the wide canals for leisure as they have been for last 7 years or so or comnercial.If they want to go down the commercial route they need to be enviromentaly friendly green barges.Especially as they,re intent on cleaner greener leisure craft that dont put in the mileage tgat comnercial craft do .oh by the way this is nit a land person view ive worked at sea 48 years not yet retired

Neil epworth, 10 June 2020

I have read the comments with interest. No-one is suggesting large scale freight use of the smaller waterways which are mainly used for leisure though they do have potential for last mile deliveries (e.g. in Birmingham or London), and are already used in connection with construction site deliveries, and also niche loads, and fuel and other supplies to leisure boats, residential boats, waterside premises and boatyards (about 6000 tonnes a year).
The main potential is indeed on the large scale waterways radiating from the Thames, Severn, Mersey, and Humber. Millions of tonnes annually are carried on the Thames (and this could be more), while around 250,000 tonnes a year of aggregate is moved on the River Severn. There is great potential, too, for the Manchester Ship Canal and the north east waterways.
As regards the use of old barges – these are still in good condition and prolonged use eliminates embedded emissions from new construction. The same goes for the old diesel engines which although not as clean as modern lorry engines still provide a mode of transport which is up to 75% cleaner (taking into account all emissions and particulates from brake dust, road wear and tear etc) than road haulage.
That said, for the not too distant future we are looking at standardized new barges, built in quantity to lower investment cost.
Then using deck mounted diesel electricity generators ( air cooled as with trucks) allows the use of Euro stage 6 engines, to be replaced at a later date with other systems such as battery power – the first small battery ship (about the same dimensions as an Aire & Calder barge) is being developed in China. The propulsion engine would be electrical. A good hull design would reduce energy needs too .
The oil barge running to Rotherham could take a bigger tonnage but is restricted not by dredging needed but by the capacity of the storage tanks at the receiver.
The Aire & Calder alone was carrying many millions of tonnes a year in the recent past. We believe that the UK’s commercial waterways (approx 1000 km) could help to relieve our overcrowded roads, and reduce emissions and pollution significantly in the areas through which they run as well as providing colour, purpose and interest.

David Lowe, 12 June 2020