Thursday, 14 August 2008

Waterways revival

As a river and canal enthusiast, I've always wondered why they fell out of favour as a means of transport. So I'm delighted by news that Britain's waterways are emjpoying a renaissance as some of the UK's biggest transport firms migrate from tarmac to water. Many of our major towns and cities are located on rivers or canals - indeed the canals were created to link major industrial centres during the industrial revolution - so there's a readymade infrastructure there. And thanks to the efforts of volunteers and enthusiasts, most of the canals that had fallen into neglect and decay have already been restored to a navigable state. Companies already moving some goods by water include Sainsbury, Tesco, DHL and even the nation's favourite trucker Eddie Stobart. Tesco expects to to have saved an estimated 3,500 lorry movements by the end of 2008.

However, the rejuventation of water freight won't all be plain sailing. A proposal to build a commercial wharf near Heathrow, which would have saved tens of thousands of lorry journeys around the M25 or through central London, was recently shelved. Meanwhile, former wharves are being sold off for waterfront homes. In fact, so many of London's wharves have been sold off to developers that those that do remain have protected status; a plan to extend this protection to the rest of the country is awaiting government's response. The regulatory body which oversees the canal network, British Waterways, was founded to support their use for leisure and heritage use and a revival of their use as a transport network would require a major change of its focus and remit. In short, whilst the freight companies recognise the opportunity to cut their carbon - and their costs - by moving goods on water, the government and regulatory bodies are not rising to the challenge. Whilst we continue to subsidise the road network, the potential to revive the waterways as a transport network will probably never be realised.

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