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Freight by Water

IWA has long supported the carriage of freight by water as an environmentally conscious option.

An historic legacy

There is an historic legacy in the UK and elsewhere of investment in existing transport modes drying up once a new one comes along. The rapid decline of the canals in the UK in the 19th century reflected the movement of financial investment to the growing railway system.  During the 20th century, the UK rail network contracted progressively with the development of road transport.

The same trends occurred everywhere in Europe but some other countries took a more strategic approach than the UK. As long ago as 1876, a national waterway strategy was developed in France, providing for standard vessels of 350 tonnes cargo capacity.  From 1899, Germany adopted a standard vessel size of 1000 tonnes capacity.  Most UK inland waterway traffic at this time was being moved in vessels carrying less than 150 tonnes and, in contrast with the rest of Europe, Britain’s freight waterways have continued to suffer from a lack of strategic planning and investment and remained at a capacity below accepted European standards for modern barges and river-sea ships.

[Photo: Sand Barge on the River Severn – by John Pomfret]

What Traffic can go by water?

Here at the Carbon Dioxide (CO2) emission estimates for freight transport (g/tonne-km) [source European Commission (CEC), DG XI].

Inland Waterway40-66

It is true that loading and unloading waterway vessels for some cargoes is time consuming and expensive, although modern techniques and the move to containerisation are changing this. Nor would anyone suggest that waterways have a widespread role in local distribution. However, water transport is ideal for bulk, non-perishable cargoes and unitised loads. Examples include:

– Unitised cargoes (containers and swap bodies)
– Steel and other metal
– Forest products
– Heavy-lift and out-of-gauge project cargoes
– Bulk cargoes, e.g.: grain, aggregates, coal, petroleum products (to distribution depots & large users), chemicals (to depots and large users), waste and cement

Traffics using inland waterways may be inland, coastal (domestic), one-port (e.g. to offshore installations or for sea dredged aggregates), international or a combination of these categories.

[Photo: London aggregate traffic  –  by John Pomfret]

The Advantages of Water Transport

Waterways are Multifunctional

Well designed waterway track may be multifunctional, providing opportunities for landscape enhancement, wildlife conservation, recreation, pedestrian access, land drainage, flood protection, water transfer, and hydropower generation, some of which may contribute towards offsetting or sharing the costs involved.

Water Transport Means Less CO2

The greater fuel economy of waterborne freight transport means scarce resources are conserved and pollution is reduced. In the EU, transport accounts for about a quarter of all carbon dioxide CO2 emissions, about 40% of volatile organic carbons emissions and up to 90% of carbon monoxide emissions in some countries.  Road transport alone contributes 45% of emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx). Wider use of waterbome freight transport would contribute to reducing air pollution. For example, CO2 emissions can be reduced by at least 75% compared with road transport.

Water Transport Means Less Noise

About 65% of the European population is now exposed to average noise levels exceeding 55dB(A) and the greatest single contribution to this is road traffic – dominated by tyre/road noise (OECD & world Heath Organisation data). Waterway transport emits negligible noise by comparison.

Waterways Use Less Land

In terms of land-take in relation to carrying capacity, waterways are more efficient than rail or road.

Waterways Are More Cost-effective

Costs of providing infrastructure and vehicles are broadly similar between transport modes. Using large modem vessels, waterways can be more economical in terms of crew costs, with significantly lower environmental costs.

[Photo: Battlestone unloading aggregates at Whitwood Wharf, near Wakefield]

How much would it cost?

In some cases existing waterway capacity is grossly underused and traffic could be increased greatly at minimal cost by minor improvements such as dredging. Under the present administrative system, this is not addressed as a matter of routine, as it would be for a road or railway.  On some waterways, modest investment is required in improved or new wharves and inland port facilities to allow intermodal transfer.  It would also cost very little to implement organisational changes within Government departments and the planning system and to take steps to raise awareness in the business community.  These steps alone could go some way to meeting the Royal Commission targets for increases in water freight use in the UK.

Capital costs of new waterways and roads vary widely depending on terrain and land-use but are of a similar order of magnitude.

Annual costs of vehicles per unit of carrying capacity are also similar, taking account of the longer life of waterway vessels, compared with the smaller capacity and shorter life of heavy goods vehicles used for road transport.

Crew costs for each unit of transport depend on the relative capacities and speeds of the vehicle used. For water transport to compete with road in this respect, vessels must typically have cargo capacities exceeding 1000 tonnes, compared with a maximum lorry payload of about 25 tonnes.  Energy use (and therefore cost) is lower for water transport than for any other freight transport mode except pipeline.

Investment in new transport infrastructure should be assessed using common criteria, taking account of all costs and benefits. Waterway investment is long term, and benefits may not be assessed correctly using short-term methods of financial appraisal and cost benefit analysis.  Similarly, operational expenditure needs to be compared on an equitable basis, taking account of environmental and social costs and benefits (pollution, disturbance, loss of biodiversity, visual impacts, accident victim care, policing and so on). These are more difficult to assess but methods are currently being developed. Estimates in Germany of total external environmental costs of the different freight transport modes arrive at the conclusion that water transport has much lower environmental costs than competing modes.

[Photo: Farndale H loading sea dredged sand in Albert Dock, Hull, on a run to Leeds in September 2020  –  by Jonathan Mosse.  There is also video footage from a drone of the voyage on the Humber Estuary here.]


Many major industries in Britain generating bulk transport needs are now sited on the coast and already enjoy direct access to inland waterways in other European countries by use of modem river/sea ships. However, nationally there is still a huge amount moving inland, mostly by road. Some of this could go by water if parts of the UK freight waterway system were upgraded, thus reducing road traffic and its attendant problems.  Other European countries accept the principle of long-term transport planning – why not the UK?  Our freight waterways should be developed as an extension of the freight waterway system of continental Europe. At the same time, changes are urgently needed in policy and organisation of freight transport and the development of new water transport technologies in the UK.

[Photo: Battlestone and Fossdale H loading on the River Trent under the conveyor at Besthorpe, just below Cromwell lock]

IWA and Freight

The Inland Waterways Association has supported the carriage of freight by water since its founding in 1946.  IWA maintains an Inland Waterways Freight Group, which reports to IWA’s Navigation Committee, and trustees regularly review and affirm IWA’s policy on waterways freight.

Jonathan Mosse and the IWA Sustainable Boating Group have contributed to an academic paper: Review of UK Inland Waterways Transportation From the Hydrodynamics Point of View, which was published in April 2023 and is available to download.

[Photo: Containerised freight for Tesco on the Manchester Ship Canal – photo by Harry Arnold, © Waterway Images]

Waterways Freight in Scotland

Jonathan Mosse, IWA’s lead in Scotland, is campaigning to get freight in Scotland off the roads and onto the waterways – and there are some clear opportunities which he demonstrates in these four articles that were originally published in Towpath Talk, and are republished here with kind permission of the editor:

[Photo: Loading timber on Marlin at Ardrisaig  –  by Jonathan Mosse]