A lorry crosses the Union Canal in Edinburgh. The road haulage lobby doubts whether investing money in the canal network will make much difference to road use. Picture: David Moir

A lorry crosses the Union Canal in Edinburgh.
The road haulage lobby doubts whether
investing money in the canal network
will make much difference to road use.
Picture: David Moir

James Reynolds, Environment Correspondent, & Peter Ranscombe
The Scotsman, Tuesday, 22nd March, 2005

MORE than a century after losing out to the train, Scotland's canals will once again be used to transport thousands of tonnes of freight around the country, ministers announced yesterday.

Inland waterways will play a central role in the Executive's £44 million programme to take lorries off the road and transfer their loads to boats and ships.

Even though canal boats go barely faster than walking pace, ministers believe companies can be persuaded to move bulky, heavy goods by water.

Nicol Stephen, the transport minister, said the funds from the Waterborne Freight Grant would be available for canal, inland waterways and short sea shipping operators.

Scotland is the first area in the UK to introduce this scheme, which came one day before the re-opening of Edinburgh's Lochrin Basin at Fountainbridge today.

Following the completion of the first phase of the £60 million Edinburgh Quay, the 260 metre stretch of canal has now been re-flooded, creating a navigable water space and allowing boats to go through the Leamington Lift Bridge to the terminus of the Union Canal in the heart of the city.

The re-flooding of the basin at the start of the new boating season is the latest in a series of recent canal works across Scotland. The canal reconnection at Port Dundas on the Forth & Clyde in Glasgow is progressing well and extended maintenance has been undertaken on other waterways during the winter.

Steve Hounsham, a spokesman for Transport 2000, the environmental transport campaign, said the multi-million pound grant to get freight off the roads was "good news".

He said: "In an island surrounded with water, and with a comprehensive, although narrow, canal-based water network on land, there is tremendous potential to take freight off road and put it on water. This is without doubt the right and proper direction to go in.

"If you go to European countries, for example if you sit by the side of the Rhine on a Sunday afternoon, you will see countless barges and freight vessels journeying up and down the river. You will not, however, see that if you go to the Thames or the canals of Scotland."

He believed that the comparatively slow speed of delivery on water against road or rail "does not matter for non-perishable products".

He added: "In this country we're far too road-focused for all our transport needs. We did have all the infrastructure to put more freight on the waterways, just as we could on rail, but we elected to run both down to the point of collapse."

Part of the £44 million will be available for freight facilities to improve logistical infrastructure at ports, canal junctions and railheads and make sure that the freight can be moved without delays and hold-ups.

Mr Stephen said: "The Executive is committed to taking freight off our roads and this scheme will encourage companies to carry their goods by water instead. With Scotland's roads getting more congested, operators will now get more help to start shipping services by water. We already help towards capital costs at ports. This scheme goes further and helps with the shipping route's operating cost, making waterways an increasingly attractive and competitive choice."

The grant reinforces a general effort to regenerate Scotland's inland waterways. In February this year the Scottish Executive gave British Waterways £3.7 million to repair and restore the Caledonian Canal and the Crinan Canal, which links Ardrishaig on Loch Fyne to Crinan on the Sound of Jura. A further £2m will be spent on the sea locks in Inverness.

The scheme will remove two million lorry miles annually from Scottish roads.

Jim Stirling, British Waterways' director in Scotland, said: "Scotland's canals are undergoing a transformation which is seeing increased activity on both water and towpath. Although the primary use of the water space is for leisure we are keen to look at other commercial opportunities, including the transport of freight.

"The volume of timber handled at Ardrishaig on the Crinan Canal has increased significantly over the past few years. We are hopeful that this type of transfer of freight from road to water will increase still further as a result of this latest announcement."

Phil Flanders, director of the Road Haulage Association in Scotland, sounded a dissenting note. He said: "Any goods have to get to a canal on a lorry. At the other end it will go on another lorry and this will lead to an escalation in costs.

"People keep talking about getting freight off the roads, and there is maybe a need for other modes of transport like the railways to be used more, but they would be better spending money getting cars off the road, as it is cars that cause congestion. There are 425,000 trucks and 27 million cars."


The ingenuous Falkirk wheel

THE history of Scotland's canals dates back to 1768, when construction of the 35-mile Forth and Clyde Canal began. Due to funding problems, it was not completed until 1790.

The amount of freight traffic using it began to fall as the railway network grew, and the Forth and Clyde Canal was mainly used by fishing and pleasure craft after 1918. The decision to close it completely came in 1962, but it was reopened in 2001 as part of the Millennium Link project.

The Union Canal, which links Edinburgh to the Forth and Clyde Canal at Falkirk, was opened in 1822, four years after construction began.

It was built to transport coal into Edinburgh, but the 1842 opening of the Glasgow to Edinburgh railway spelled the end for the canal, and sections were filled in during the 1920s. It gained a new lease of life with the Millennium Link project and the opening of the Falkirk Wheel in May 2002, which again linked the Union and the Forth and Clyde canals.

The Monkland Canal, which opened in 1793, runs from Glasgow to Calderbank. Again, competition from the railways sounded its death knell and it was abandoned in the 1950s, with the Glasgow section buried beneath the M8.

At 60 miles, the Caledonian Canal is the longest waterway in Scotland, linking Inverness and Fort William. Designed by Thomas Telford and finished in 1822, it was Britain's first state-funded transport link.

Originally built as a safe route for naval frigates during the Napoleonic War, it didn't actually take military traffic until the First World War.

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