Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by South Midland Water Transport Ltd (IW 01)


  This Company is actively involved in the transport of goods by narrow boat on the midlands network of the waterways system. Our craft regularly navigate the British Waterways system and the Thames and Nene Navigations of the Environmental Agency. As a Company we submitted our views on the waterways general freight potential to the DETR in 1997. I now submit our Potential Traffic details for Summer 2000. You will appreciate that details of the firms involved are confidential because negotiations are still going forward, but we have no objection to details being published with the names of the firms concerned omitted.

  The following traffics are being actively pursued at the present time.


  1.1  This traffic has been under consideration since the early months of 1999. M & S, like many other large retailers has a problem with the disposal and transport of paper and cardboard packaging and trade waste of a similar nature, such as showcards. It is no longer the practice for retail stores to have large stockrooms, so goods for retail are held at Distribution Depots until the local retail store computer indents for them. The packaging is broken down, sometimes at the Distribution Depot and sometimes at retail outlets, but is then disposed of in two ways:

    (a)  by being packaged into bales;

    (b)  by being put loose into skips.

  1.2  It so happens that M & S have a Distribution Depot at Hayes, West London, not far from the Grand Union Canal, and a temporary loading point can be arranged at Norwood, nearby, through the co-operation of British Waterways. Disposal has been a problem, the incinerator at Edmonton, East London has been considered, and a trial load was taken there in May 1999 using conventional narrow boats. Unfortunately, unloading arrangements made this an unsuitable destination in the present circumstances, but, given proper handlng equipment at the Edmonton incinerator, the traffic could be handled in skips loaded into Regents Canel-sized barges propelled by a pusher tug.

  1.3  In Summer 2000 a further destination was identified at the premises of Kappa Recycling Ltd, Saltley, Birmingham. These adjoin the Birmingham and Warwick Junction Canal and are on the site of an old canal dockyard. The recycling company is interested in accepting consignments from the canal, and very little needs to be done to arrange an unloading point, conceivably some dredging of the canal alongside might be required, a wall needs to be removed and replaced by gates, and some sort of lifting equipment provided. A trial load was taken to Kappa in July 2000 from the Hayes Depot, using conventional narrow boats, but it was discharged at Icknield Port BW depot and forwarded to Kappa's premises by BW lorry. The first trial was coincident with two public events, the first being the National Working Boat Gathering at Braunston, the second being the Inland Waterways Exhibition at the National Indoor Arena, Birmingham. The boats concerned attracted considerable favourable publicity in the media. A second trial is currently (August 2000) being undertaken with, hopefully, unloading taking place at an ad hoc site close to Kappa's premises. The cubic capacity of narrow boats can be used fully, and it can be shown that, properly loaded, a pair of boats can carry as much as five lorries. A meeting is taking place shortly with representatives of M & S, Kappa Recycling, BW and this Company with a view to progressing the matter and establishing exactly what traffics can be moved and where. If it is to develop further, it will be necessary for M & S to acquire a canalside storage depot for their recyclables so as to cut lorry movements to the minimum. Alternative destinations in the Birmingham area are canalside incinerators at Tyseley and Wolverhampton.

  1.4  It is our belief, which is shared by the persons at M & S with whom we are dealing, that where they lead, other large retailers will follow.

  1.5  There are further possibilities in South Yorkshire, taking advantage of the larger craft which use these waterways. Although this Company is not in a position to trade in this area, we have been able to direct M & S personnel towards suitable contacts.


  2.1  This Company has been in contact with Fenland District Council, now the authority for the Port of Wisbech. The Council is anxious to develop the Port business and has been hampered by the poor state of the roads which connect Wisbech with its hinterland. Since the rail connections with the port were removed any increase in business for the port means more traffic on the Fenland roads, unless the option of using the River Nene be taken. The main problem with the river is that it is currently tidal, with a considerable tidal range, generating strong currents and limiting the time each day that the river may be used. However a proposal was put forward in December 1999 to construct a half tide barrier downstream of Wisbech, which would go a long way towards solving this problem. If the barrier is put below Sutton Bridge, it will allow inland waterway craft regular access to both ports.

  2.2  The traffics which could be developed are mainly port-orientated and include Baltic timber, steel and fertiliser inwards and grain outwards. With the lengthening of the locks on the Middle Level Navigations it could be possible to tranship at Kings Lynne as well, while a proposal to connect the Nene with the Welland and Witham by making existing drains navigable would draw Boston and Foss Bridge into the traffic possibilities. Undoubtedly local traffic could proceed as far as Peterborough, or an interchange could be made with the A1 or East Coast Main Line. Additionally there is a potential internal traffic in bulk oil absorbent materials, currently from a waterside plant upstream to a Distribution Depot in Northamptonshire. See 2.4 below.

  2.3  This Company carried out a trial movement of timber for Messrs Travis Perkins Ltd in May 1999. The timber originated in Eastern Sweden and was packaged suitably for narrow boats at source. The result was that a satisfactory quantity was loaded, and it is realistic to suppose that a total of 50 cubic metres of packaged timber can be carried by one pair of boats. This compares with 20 cubic metres carried by a flatback lorry. A wide barge and pusher tug could, however, carry considerably more, and the length of the River Nene locks upstream as far as Northampton would allow for a barge to be 60 feet long, with the pusher unit being 20 feet long with a potential payload of 75 cubic metres. Travis Perkins Ltd have premises close to the river at Northampton, but currently there is nowhere to unload. The trial load was unloaded adjacent to the A508 into TP's own vehicles. A report of navigation conditions was duly submitted by this Company to Fenland District Council and the Environment Agency as Navigation Authority for the Nene. The quantity of timber imported by TP through the Wash ports is in the order of 8,000 tonnes per annum.

  2.4  The oil absorbent material mentioned in 2.2 above is processed by a company at a dockside plant in Wisbech. The basic raw material is imported from North America by means of a LASH barge to Ipswich. It is then road hauled across East Anglia to Wisbech. If the proposed improvements to the Nene Estuary are carried out, it should be possible to bring the LASH barges into Wisbech via The Wash and thus cut out the road haul across country. By using barges and pushers as outlined above in 2.3 the processed material could then be moved further inland to a storage depot adjacent to the main motorway system. This should be both cost-effective and environmentally friendly. This Company has had discussions with Northampton Council Planning Department and has identified a suitable site for a depot adjacent to the A45 at Northampton. The potential inland tonnage from this source is of the order of 4,000-6,000 tonnes per annum.

  2.5  The whole question of River Nene traffic needs looking into in depth (and see also 3 below). If a small company such as this is able to identify the potential traffics mentioned above, there is surely scope for a more formal inquiry. As one of the few operators with any recent experience of this waterway, we would be willing to assist in this both in an advisory and in a practical role.


  The carriage of aggregates by water has been one in which narrow boats have played a significant part in recent years, notably during the 1980s on a short haul traffic on the River Soar below Leicester. However this Company has not taken part in such operations, being doubtful as to the financial benefits since aggregate haulage can cause serious damage to conventional craft in the loading and unloading operations. Recently though we have looked at three possibilities in the Northamptonshire and North Buckinghamshire areas.

  3.1  Carriage for a company from Wellingborough to Wolverton. This Company has a processing plant adjacent to the canal at Wolverton and a pit adjoining the River Nene below Wellingborough. Whilst this would have to be carried by narrow boat because of the intervening flight of narrow locks connecting the Nene with the Grand Union Canal, it is a classic example of a waterside to waterside traffic over a comparatively short distance. The road traffic passes over crowded roads between Wellingborough and Milton Keynes in a series of vehicles carrying 20 tonnes, and performing two trips in a working day. The carriage cost would seem to be in the region of £6.25 per tonne using road haulage. It would be possible to match this rate with a two-handed pair of boats making two trips per week and loading 40 tonnes to the pair. Loading would be by gravity from a quarry tipper and unloading by a works hydraulic digger. Potential traffic is in the region of 5,000 tonnes per annum and would require the services of two fully crewed pairs plus a standby single motor boat. As a long term measure an increased traffic could be worked by purpose-built narrow barges of about 50 feet length and pusher tugs. These barges could be worked abreast on the Nene and through Grand Union wide locks, and singly through the Northampton Arm and Blisworth Tunnel. Trains of two loaded or empty barges could be made up above and below the Northampton Arm locks, with a dedicated tug shuttling the craft up and down the narrow lock flight.

  3.2  Carriage for another company from a proposed site near Yardley Gobion to Wolverton. The loading point in question is subject to planning restrictions because of the problems of removing the extracted gravel by means of the narrow roads in the area. The quantities are at present unknown and the whole proposal is some years in the future, but it is a traffic which could be worked by conventional pairs of boats, pushers and barges as outlined in 3.1 above, or wide barges either self-propelled or moved by tugs. It is a classic short-haul movement involving the passage of one lock (Cosgrove).

  3.3  Carriage for a third company from a proposed extraction site at Wolverton to Leighton Buzzard. This would involve a haul of 18 miles and six locks, so is on the fringes of economic viability, unless, as seems likely, the use of the water transport option is a condition of Planning Consent. The total tonnage would be 100,000 tonnes per annum over a five year period. British Waterways would undoubtedly require some form of recompense for such an intensive usage of the waterway, and this might be the subject of a Freight Facilities Grant. We have given Z Aggregates an estimate of the likely cost and the numbers of craft and crew required, and have advised them of the information which would be required in order to apply for an FFG. Because of the popularity of this stretch of the Grand Union Canal with pleasure craft, we have recommended that such traffic be worked with conventional narrow boats fitted with removable skips.

  As requested we enclose a disc containing the above information for your use. We would appreciate being represented on any Freight Consultation Group which might be set up, and are prepared to offer our full assistance, both theoretically and practically with any trials that might be made. We have at our disposal carrying capacity for a single lift of up to 175 tonnes, and can call on extra assistance if required.

David Blagrove

15 August 2000

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 5 April 2001