Thursday, September 1, 2011

Freight Transport Returns to its Roots as Water Comes Into the Spotlight

US and UK Sometimes Have Different Agendas on Waterborne Logistics Movement
Shipping News Feature

US – UK – As we move further into the 21st Century the search for more ecological and economical modes of transport intensifies. The standard ISO shipping container has revolutionised world trade and amplified it to levels undreamed of a couple of decades ago. Now, in the bid to reach and promote ever more efficient levels of logistics, attention is turning to freight transport modes which were vital to our historical industrial development.

Rail freight is of course at the centre of attention but now, in the US at least, there is more interest in developing inland water transport. Last week U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood announced the names of the twenty nine members selected to staff the new Marine Transportation System National Advisory Council (MTSNAC). This body is one which the incumbent Secretary has referred to for well over a decade to examine specific situations or problems concerned with all waterborne transport.

The current make up of the Council includes a very wide spectrum of industry stakeholders ranging from Friends of the Earth and Port Authorities to manufacturers, trucking and container interests and Federal employees. Previous MTSNAC briefs have included studying the nation’s twelve largest ports causing a scandal after discovering a lamentable lack of security exposing unsecured waterfronts, a lack of criminal checks on employees and insecure perimeters etc.

This tranche of Council members, who were elected after nomination via a full and open process duly published, are to examine the possibility of new and more efficient transport via water and Ray LaHood commented:

“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 however, as with so many such august officially appointed bodies, is that previous Councils have been discussing just this matter for around a decade but at least there seems to be a cohesive effort by government to make efficient use of the resources available with the potential for investment where viable to introduce new waterways. In the UK the potential for commercial water transport is often largely ignored or has proved impossible to resurrect.

Britain now benefits from an expanding range of open water short sea container services linking it with the continent but, for a country once dependent on the most utilitarian canal system responsible in large part for its industrial wealth, the UK has been slow to capitalise on a built in advantage. We detailed two years ago how the Thames was seeing a rebirth of waterborne trade having seen the transfer of over two million tonnes of cargo in 2008 but, despite the use of inland waterways to assist in the development of the main Olympic venue, and the bulk of material being excavated to construct the Crossrail project travelling by water, the Thames is likely to remain just about the only truly viable aquatic inland transport route for such huge ventures.

British Waterways have dispensed with the role of Sustainable Transport Manager and now generally hand over freight enquiries to the specialists at Freight by Water, an organisation managed these days by the Freight Transport Association (FTA), which, given that body’s pedigree in all forms of logistics, may be the most prudent way to deal with potential custom. British Waterways itself will transfer ownership in April to a registered charity and only three of their twelve regional websites, London, Scotland and East Midlands carry any mention of commercial use.

The three areas represented still have practical commercial possibilities, in the East Midlands region in 2004 for example several transformers weighing upward of 280 tonnes were shipped to power stations in Nottinghamshire on barges up to 80 metres long and 16.5 metres wide and weighing in at well over 2200 tonnes and the Three Mills facility in London and some of the Scottish canals are capable of some massive bulk transfers.

Fern Read of British Waterways however confirmed that most of the canal system, despite its heritage, is now unsuitable for the carriage of large scale freight contracts, these waterways cannot accommodate anything larger than the traditional narrow barges and although some parts of the system are able to carry viable quantities of freight the traditional use of these countrywide arteries has now been largely abandoned and taken up by a host of leisure interests whose occupations, angling, canoeing etc. would not sit well with a reversion to prior activities on any worthwhile scale.

So whilst the American’s address the situation by Federal decree, no matter how ponderous, it is left to the private sector, in the guise of Freight by Water, to take up the challenge of promoting and encouraging more short sea, coastal and inland water freight in the UK. By way of regional conferences and seminars open to all it hopes to expand the economic and environmental benefits which an island nation which imports and exports over 95% of produce by sea should naturally enjoy.

The next Freight by Water event will take place in Scotland on the 7th September at the Garfield Hotel, Cumbernauld Road, Stepps, Glasgow G33 6HW and will have speakers who include representatives from MSC, Forth Ports and DFDS.

Any interested parties who wish to attend can register by e mail at

Photo:- Courtesy of the Angel Community Canal Boat Trust (registered charity 1103542). The Angel II of Islington is a 70 foot steel narrowboat available for overnight trips for up to 12 people.