14 December 2000 | Cathy Hayward
The government is looking to Britain's 3,000-mile canal network to carry more freight and ease the pressure on overburdened rail and road networks.
The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) set up the Freight Study Group to explore ways of encouraging companies to transport more cargo by canal. The study was among proposals in June's policy paper, Waterways for Tomorrow.
Around 22 per cent - nearly 60 billion tonnes - of the UK's freight is transported by ship, mostly along coastal routes and short distances up tidal rivers such as the Thames, according to government figures.
Currently, 200 million tonnes of freight (0.3 per cent of total water-borne levels) is transported along inland waterways. An improved target has not been set, said a DETR spokesman.
"Canals will invariably be for niche loads," he said. "Waterways will only ever be for small amounts that don't need to be anywhere quickly."
By the middle of 2001, the government hopes to extend the freight facilities grant scheme, which finances capital projects on inland waterways. Non-capital projects, such as financing access to the rail network, are a possibility, said the spokesperson. The scheme was set up in 1981 and £18 million has been given out, with around £13 million in the past three years.
Britain's 200-year-old canal system was originally built for freight, but lack of road access has been a problem. "We are right on the Liverpool-Leeds canal, so using the canal makes sense," said Peter Elliot, senior transport co-ordinator at fuel suppliers Bayford & Co. "But if you are a long way from a canal, it's not a good option. We trucked goods down the M62 until the government offered us a grant."
The company recently re-instated barge facilities on the Aire & Calder Navigation at Woodlesford in Leeds. Up to 40,000 tonnes of distillate oil is moved along the waterway from refineries on the east coast every year, saving 3,200 lorry journeys.
British Waterways, the UK's largest navigation authority, and the Freight Transport Association (FTA) welcomed the move. "We're always pleased to look at new ways of transport. It's important for British industry that goods are delivered to the right people, at the right time," said an FTA spokesman.
The DETR launch, at the end of last month, came within days of two more freight-train derailments, in Bristol and Northamptonshire, causing further delays to an already beleaguered rail system.