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Freight returns to waterways

  • Neil
  • 3 Jan 2012
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Britain's network of 18th century canals could once again play a major industrial role, in a revival driven by the demand for green energy.


There are hopes that inland waterways that are now the preserve of walkers, barge-owners and holidaymakers may finally undergo a rebirth as freight transport routes to meet the needs of power stations run on biomass plants, where electricity is produced from wood and waste byproducts.

A scheme by the energy services company Dalkia that uses the Aire and Calder Navigation canal system in Yorkshire to carry timber for the power industry is being repeated in other parts of the country, according to the Freight Transport Association (FTA).


"It is perhaps not right to call it a renaissance yet but there is huge potential for carrying biomass fuel, civic waste and building materials on the waterways. It can make commercial and environmental sense," said a spokesman for the FTA.


Biomass has become more important as the UK strives to meet aEuropean Union target of generating 15% of energy from renewable sources by 2020. But the moves come amid uncertainty over the future administration of the canal network as the government plans to disband the publicly owned British Waterways and transfer its work to a new Canal and River Trust.


The river Thames and Manchester Ship Canal are already in regular use but the narrow canal system – built largely in the latter part of the 18th century – has been out of favour for decades because vessels are slower than trains or trucks. However, according to British Waterways, which oversees 2,200 miles of canals and inland waterways, 1.5m tonnes of freight was carried last year and this figure is expected to rise. In their industrial heyday, canals carried nearly 40m tonnes a year.

British Waterways is currently working with the East Midlands Development Agency and others on a number of pilot schemes to see whether goods can be taken off the road and on to water.

Dalkia, owned by the French companies EDF and Veolia, has just announced plans to move 360,000 tonnes of wood products a year on the Aire and Calder to feed furnaces at a planned new biomass plant in Pollington, south of Leeds. The plant will provide renewable power to light and heat 60,000 homes.


A spokesman for Dalkia said that canals were a "cleaner" way of moving fuel than by road and the company wanted to make the wider £120m biomass scheme as environmentally friendly as possible.


Dalkia has already built 200 biomass facilities across continental Europe, where the wider canals were more obvious arteries for moving fuel around. Meanwhile British Waterways expects to be wound up by next summer and be relaunched as a charity with a reduced cash grant.

Britain's inland waterways are used mainly for leisure, with about 13m visitors a year. The canals were constructed largely in the late 18th century and flourished over the next 100 years until the coming of the railways.


The Aire and Calder Navigation Company made the River Aire navigable as far as Leeds in 1704 with the construction of locks. Two years later, the company made the River Calder navigable from Castleford to Wakefield. The Aire and Calder Canal still connects Leeds with Goole on the coast, 33 miles away, but in the past it allowed coal to be moved from the Yorkshire collieries for shipping overseas. Now coal tends to be brought from abroad and then carried by rail for use in big power stations such as Drax at Selby.


This article from the Guardian on 1st Jan 2012


• This article was corrected on 2 January 2012 because it dated Britain's narrow canal network to the Victorian period instead of to the 18th century. The phrase "narrow gauge canal system" was changed to narrow canal system.