Freight Transport to return to inland waters

02/09/2011

The standard ISO shipping container has revolutionised international trade, with capacities at levels unthinkable 20 years ago. However, with current financial uncertainty and demands for the most efficient levels of logistics solutions, attention is turning to freight transport methods more commonly seen in the early years of industrial development.

In the US, asides from rail freight, inland water transport is becoming an increasingly popular concept for development.

While it is accepted that inland water transport is far from an express transport service, US Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood said ‘Shifting some of our freight from the highways to open inland waterways is a fuel-efficient, cost-effective way to move goods and reduce roadway congestion. The recommendations developed by the Marine Transportation System National Advisory Council will help us increase transportation efficiency, improve the environment and grow the economy.’

The problem for the US is that the idea of developing inland water transport has been under discussion for the last 10 years and has always been discarded in favour of other methods of transport. However, on a positive note, the government seems to be making a clear effort to make efficient use of the resources available with the potential for investment, where possible, to introduce new waterways.

In contrast to the US, the UK has often ignored the potential for improved commercial inland water transport or concluded it impossible to redevelop the canal systems.

While the UK currently benefits from improving links with mainland Europe through an expanding range of short sea container services, it has neglected to make the most of an infrastructure that was once responsible for its industrial success and wealth, its canal systems.

2 years ago it was considered that waterborne transport was back on the rise following the transportation of over 2 million tonnes of cargo over the river Thames and the use of inland water channels to assist in the transportation of basic materials for the construction of the Olympic Stadium.

However, the River Thames is almost certain to remain the only feasible inland water transport for such large projects.

British Waterways, the organization that cares for the 2200 miles of the UK’s canals and rivers, accepts that most of the canal system, despite its heritage, is unsuitable for freight transportation. Most of these water channels cannot contain any vessel larger than a traditional narrow barge. Although some parts of the network are large enough for the transportation of large quantities of freight, they have now been taken up by a number of leisure activity ventures including fishing and canoeing. The idea that the waterways could be shared between leisure groups and freight transporters would not be a popular decision with the leisure groups.

Freight by Water, an organization managed by the Freight Transport Association (FTA) who deals with freight enquiries given to British Waterways, will continue to promote and encourage more short sea, coastal and inland water freight in the UK. The idea is to promote the economic and environmental benefits possible for an island nation, which imports and exports 95% of produce by sea, to enjoy.