Transporting Freight by Waterway

The UK’s clean air strategy looks to reduce emissions from many sources with emissions from domestic homes, industry, farming all in the spotlight. But it is road transport and diesel in particular that is being singled out for criticism, with the sale of conventional petrol and diesel powered cars and vans to end by 2040. Diesel only trains will also be phased out by 2040.

Heavy Goods Vehicles

Heavy goods vehicle, Logistics

The one transport group which is notable by its absence is Heavy Goods Vehicles even though in London it is estimated that Heavy Goods Vehicles emit 12% of NOx emissions against 11% for diesel cars heavy goods vehicles are not included in the 2040 reforms. In addition, 76% of freight goods were carried on the road network in 2016. Of this freight the share of goods transported by heavy goods vehicle was split as follows.

  • Food products, beverages and tobacco – 25%
  • Metal, mineral and chemical products – 16%
  • Products from agriculture, forestry and raw materials – 16%
  • Textile, leather and wood products – 6%
  • Machinery and equipment – 6%
  • All others – 31%

The Heavy goods vehicles sector grew 1.2% to reach 17 billion vehicle miles in 2016 with light goods vehicles even higher at 22.7% increasing to 50.5 billion vehicle miles. The majority of heavy and light goods vehicles are diesel engined, so what can be done about them?

The Alternative

River Thames, water transport
Water transport

The data for domestic waterborne freight –

  • coastwise; around the coast from one port to another
  • one port; to and from offshore locations such as oil rigs
  • inland waters, rivers and canals

is expressed slightly differently to road transport. The tonnage of goods is multiplied by the distance travelled to give tonne-kilometres. In the ten years 2007 – 2017 the total goods moved via domestic waterborne freight dropped 51%.

There are over 2000 miles of navigable canal and river across England and Wales. The majority of canals were built during the industrial revolution for the movement of goods, most often textiles, coal and agricultural produce. Although mostly thought of as places of leisure today there are still 1.6 billion tonne-kilometres (bt-k) travelled annually. Of the 1.6bt-k travelled the River Thames accounts for the majority at 58%.

With over 2000 miles of inland waterway access can be made to many large urban areas such as:

  • York
  • Leeds
  • Liverpool
  • Manchester
  • Sheffield
  • Nottingham
  • Birmingham
  • Coventry
  • Oxford
  • Milton Keynes
  • Aylesbury
  • Reading
  • London

When you include all of the ports around the coast it would appear that the waterways could reduce the road miles covered by heavy goods vehicles dramatically with the main benefit, reduced pollution.

CO2 emissions emitted by freight transport quoted in g/tonne-km as stated by the European Commission makes interesting reading.

  • Air 1160-2150 CO2 g/t-km
  • Road 207-280 CO2 g/t-km
  • Inland waterway 40-66 CO2 g/t-km
  • Rail 39-48 CO2 g/t-km

If the government is serious about about reducing emissions then why are they not investing in the inland waterways infrastructure? Taking ‘land take’ into account, inland waterways are much more efficient than rail or road. The noise pollution is much less than road transport and investment in the waterways also brings benefits in flood control with flooding becoming more frequent and serious in recent years.

Then look at the quantity of goods that can be transported. The maximum gross weight for heavy goods vehicles in the UK is 44 tonnes (with some exceptions). In Germany, where money is invested into the waterways infrastructure, they have standardised the vessel size at 1000 tonnes – that is almost the equivalent of 23 fully loaded heavy goods vehicles. One vessel would replace 23 lorries.

The benefits of using water ways for freight transport is clear, the reason the government is not pursuing this line is not so clear. In my opinion it has to do with the usual government problem of short sightedness. They don’t want to invest money now, regardless of the benefits and cost savings in the long term.

With a maximum term of 5 years before a general election, parliament only ever thinks in the short term. Something many local councils are also guilty of. There needs to be a change in the constitution to ensure parliament always looks to the future. If the electorate votes to approve a scheme then that scheme should be managed by whatever parliament is sitting, fulfilling the wishes of the electorate.

Am I completely wrong? Do you agree? Let me know your thoughts, you never know your idea could be the solution to transport related pollution!

Thanks for reading

Justin – founder of

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *