Central London's canal network and River Thames



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London’s canal network offers opportunity
for viable and sustainable freight transport

By Jonathan Rosenberg*

30 June 2008: Back in August 1981 three barges loaded with lime juice and pith in 45 gallon barrels made their way up the Thames. At the helm on that day was a colleague of mine, Gerry Heward. He was about to have a date with history. At Brentford in west London the tiny fleet passed through the tidal lock and onto the 200 year old Grand Union Canal. From here they travelled 50 kilometres north to Hemel Hempstead. At Rose’s factory, the barges unloaded their cargo so it could be processed into lime juice cordial and marmalade.

The journey was over, and so too was the carriage of freight on London’s canal network. For a whole generation, no freight moved on the capital’s canals. Gerry Heward, took up other work, eventually returning to operate barges for maintaining infrastructure such as bridges over the canals and the waterways themselves.

It wasn’t a change in English eating habits that extinguished the oldest of freight transport modes, but rather containerisation and the development of road based logistics and distribution systems. These freed the industries that had survived deindustrialisation from dependency on water transport and enabled them to relocate onto the major road network where they could export finished product as well as import raw materials.

The death of the ‘limejuice run’ illustrates this well. In that case the barrels were redesigned to stand up on pallets so they could be loaded and unloaded more economically on and off lorries. But this made them more difficult to load onto barges. The factory relocated away from the canal and the vacated site was converted to a hardware superstore – an operation that relies heavily on road access for the import and sales of goods.

London is not alone in having to adjust to the loss of city centre industry and the shift to containerisation and road based distribution. Capitals and ports all over the world are redeveloping the vast hearts of their cities where once were accommodated the docks and wharves that fed their economies. To gauge the scale of the decline in water transport you only have to visit MIPIM, the annual international property conference in Cannes. Here are showcased massive redevelopment schemes from Ireland to Greece, all located on sites that once relied on water transport.

In London, and no doubt other former ports in the western economies, the socio-economic impact of the collapse of inland water transport can be seen in the remarkably strong correlation between the waterways and deprivation. This relationship reflects the former employment of communities, particularly in East London, in the Docks, in water carriage generally and in water accessed industries.

Not surprisingly, there is an equally strong relationship between the waterways and development opportunity. Analysis shows that 76 per cent of the land in the areas of ‘opportunity and intensification’ identified by the London Plan, the spatial development strategy for the capital, is accessible from the waterway network. This reflects the former use of these now brownfield sites. This land is set to accommodate 80 per cent of all the new workspace and 71 per cent of all the new homes that are targeted for the development areas.

This presents a tremendous opportunity for the waterways to carry construction materials and waste to and from these sites during their development phase and later waste and recyclates away. This would help make the developments more sustainable by reducing their road use with all its consequences of congestion, accidents and pollution.

Shifting heavy lorry movements to waterways can reduce accidents, cut carbon emissions by 75 per cent, and improve the quality of life. Compared to lorries, barges use less than a third of the fuel per tonne of cargo and can carry more than five times as much payload (depending on the dimensions of the particular waterway). Increased barge traffic brings natural surveillance to routes perceived as unsafe for people walking or cycling along the waterways.

But until fairly recently, little was done to take advantage of the opportunities presented by London’s waterway network. Then, in 2000, London elected its first city-wide mayor. Ken Livingstone was sympathetic to the cause of waterways. They featured prominently in his London Plan and he promoted their use for transport, recreation and natural habitat. As road congestion increased and concern about the impact of carbon emissions on the environment mounted, water transport became attractive once more.

In 2004, freight traffic on the tidal Thames through the Port of London was 53.3 million tonnes, 11 per cent higher than four years previously. There are now 50 wharves on the Thames and its tributaries that are safeguarded by the mayor for water freight cargo-handling. With large tonnage capacities, the Thames is more economically viable for water freight than the canal network. But soaring fuel prices, increased road vehicle costs and unreliable lorry journey times have reached a point where freight traffic on the canal is now viable.

The capacity of the London canal network is in excess of 10 million tonnes, equivalent to around two million heavy lorry trips a year. Although this represents a small percentage of total London road freight, the canal routes access inner London where the damage, congestion and pollution caused by heavy vehicles is at its greatest. Were the canal network to be used to capacity it could rival the quantities of freight currently carried on the rail network.

The results of the 2004 mayoral elections left Livingstone dependent on support from Green Party assembly members to get his budget through. Jenny Jones, one of the Greens and a canal enthusiast, struck a deal to get money spent on canal infrastructure. The mayor funded some dredging of London’s canals and helped pay for the construction of a new wharf on the Grand Union canal in west London. There has also been investment in the development of a multi-modal refuse vehicle that can be used to collect municipal waste in containers which can be transferred to barges or rail wagons, along with a new type of skip carrying barge.

In 2007, 26 years after the end of the ‘limejuice run’, Gerry Heward had another date with history. This time he became the first to restore freight traffic to inner London’s canals, shifting 24,000 tonnes of spoil from a development on the Regent’s Canal in east London. Soon after he was importing construction materials by barge to a development in central London and taking out spoil from a development in west London.

Over the last few years barges out to the west of London have been moving 50,000 tonnes of sand and gravel a year. Now, some major developments such as the Olympics, Crossrail - the new underground railway through London, and the King’s Cross railway lands redevelopment are seriously investigating the movements of large quantities of materials by water. Two other big infrastructure tunnelling projects for sewerage and electricity challenge London’s capacity to shift and recycle enormous tonnages of materials. These too will need to use water transport if they are to avoid causing major congestion in the capital.

London’s waterway network represents many billions of pounds worth of transport infrastructure. The new mayor, Boris Johnson, has an opportunity to realise this historic investment. He has the authority to spearhead the drive to increase water traffic, using his planning powers on developers to require that access to the canal is provided, and it is used to carry construction materials whilst building, and waste and recyclates once occupied. Expenditure required to improve the canal is far less than for other transport infrastructures, and is essential if the canal network is to be re-integrated into the wider freight distribution network. Will the mayor seize this opportunity to revive London’s canals and rivers and to reduce congestion and carbon emissions?

*
Jonathan Rosenberg has contributed to the development of water freight policy for Transport for London and the Greater London Authority, is a member of the Mayor’s London Waterways Commission, and has worked closely with Gerry Heward to advise private and public sector clients on the use of water transport for freight. Earlier this year he produced a report for the Mayor, ‘Water freight: breaking through the barriers’, identifying opportunities and practical measures to increase the amount of waterborne freight in London.


Container barges on the River Thames


On other pages
London’s transport network suffers from under-investment and muddled strategy
A key element of the long awaited modernisation of London’s underground rail network, the so-called Private-Public-Partnership (PPP) deal has been behind many headlines, not least when Metronet, one of the consortiums set up to undertake the work, collapsed in July 2007. Designed to transfer risk to the private sector in exchange for much-needed improvement to London’s creaking underground infrastructure, the process has been roundly criticised since the world’s largest public private partnership deal was first mooted.

The London network clearly requires a massive injection of capital to fund desperately-needed modernisation after decades of under-investment, but few can agree on the best way to secure this. Those who prefer a bond issue or government funding are labelled unrealistic and politically inexpedient, while advocates of the PPP are rounded on for ‘dogmatically’ insisting on private sector involvement. It’s scarcely a question that vexes the public though, as few are ever interested in the mechanics of procurement, though everyone in the capital has an opinion on the tube’s reliability. Introduced to improve this, the evidence so far has pointed to a number of flaws in the contract, with routine disruption for commuters on a number of lines. More