The Independent London Newspaper


Go with the flow... switch freight to canals

Published: 24th June, 2011

• I WAS pleased to see the article on canal under-utilisation because it is helping to raise public awareness of avoidable use of HGV lorries on our roads (Canal is a ‘wasted freight-moving asset’, June 10).

This is very topical because we are reaching the end of a public consultation in which the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is seeking views on setting up our canals as a charity or a trust, which could have a significant effect on canals for years to come.

Sadly, the impression is given in the consultation that the water freight industry is no longer viable, that it would interfere with leisure use and that it comes second to relentless waterside property development.

However, there is enough space on the waterways (unlike the roads) for freight carriers and leisure users to co-exist and complement each other. For example, when professional skippers meet leisure boaters at locks they can exchange advice and experiences; freight operators can provide extra revenue to the waterways using money they would otherwise have spent on road tax; and the presence of regular slow-moving traffic can offer natural surveillance.

The benefits of switching a certain amount of freight from road to water are obvious to most people. Waterways offer less pollution, little or no noise or vibration, reduced stress and danger. Often the journeys are more direct by water, and packaging requirements can be drastically reduced. 

One of the few drawbacks of water-borne freight is the lack of access points. But this is not the fault of the canals; instead, it is due to poor planning decisions that have allowed wharves and other entry points to be converted or sealed off. Town planners are now being urged to resist any designs that might harm the revival of freight by water.

In the Defra consultation, the emphasis is on the drawbacks rather than the benefits of using waterways for freight, and the explanations seem to be inadequate and defeatist. It is hardly surprising that most freight operators automatically choose to use the roads, because middle managers tend to take the line of least resistance when making decisions under pressure. Often they do not have the time, information or authority to explore other options. This could easily change if campaigners are able to educate them.

Current cost comparisons are unlikely to be future-proof because costs of road transport will rise steeply with fuel price increases. It is also worth considering that if HGV training and practice become ever more demanding then future drivers might want to train or re-train as boat skippers instead.

It is becoming increasingly common for consumers to challenge suppliers over trading practices, employment conditions and so on, so it is only a matter of time before environmentally-conscious consumers decide to switch suppliers on the basis of local transport modes. This might take a few years but the educational process has already begun.

The consultation ends on June 30. If anybody wants to contribute any comments then please refer to for further information.

Ian Shacklock
Chair, Friends of Regent’s Canal


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