Quietly flows the freight revolution from truck to canal barge

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The Independent Online

As motorists suffered the daily grind of navigating the Heathrow section of the M25 yesterday, a few miles to the east a quiet environmental revolution was beginning. A barge laden with quarry materials was slipping silently though the still, green waters of the Grand Union Canal.

The consignment of sand and gravel was completing a nearly traffic-free, seven-mile stretch of water in Buckinghamshire, signalling the end of the road for tens of thousands of lorry journeys every year.

The canal, which runs from the Thames in west London through the Chilterns to the heart of Birmingham, has reopened to freight for the first time in 30 years.

Lured by almost £500,000 of government grants, the aggregates company Harleyford Hanson has switched modes of transport. Its decision, involving 450,000 tons of aggregates, is expected to remove the equivalent of 45,000 lorry journeys from the congested motorway between Denham and West Drayton back on to the water over the next seven years.

It was hailed as a significant step in a campaign by state-owned British Waterways to maximise the freight potential of the 2,000 miles of canals and rivers it controls. Canals and rivers carried 3.5 million tons of freight last year, equivalent to 1 per cent market share, but British Waterways aims to double this by 2010 with further grants. A marketing campaign will compare the benefits of waterways to rail and especially road, which is unattractive due to fuel taxes, a shortage of lorry drivers and congestion.

Their main targets are companies with freight where speed is not of the essence, such as movement of aggregates and domestic waste for which short canal trips are ideal. The Government's anti-congestion policies have benefited mainly rail, carrying goods at up to 125mph. Tonnage carried on the rail network increased by 50 per cent since 1995, thanks mainly to express parcels, supermarket produce and automotive parts and cars.

In the British Waterways blueprint for industrial use of inland waterways, planners see a perfect dovetail of canals and rivers. Oil tankers weighing 600 tons make their way inland via the Humber before their load is discharged into barges on the Aire and Calder canal which carries the load to refineries. In the Black Country, an increasing proportion of domestic waste is moved to landfill sites and incinerators in accordance with European Union regulations.

"We have the capacity and we are safe, reliable and environmentally sensitive," said Tony Plews, British Waterways' head of freight development.

Transport 2000, the pro-public transport pressure group, said the initiative will reduce the "external cost" of freight which is higher on road and rail. The group's freight expert, Philippa Edmunds, said some companies were forced to turn to waterways. After the Hatfield rail crash in 2000, one Norfolk fertiliser manufacturer started shipping its goods around the south coast into the Bristol Channel, and has not turned back to rail since.

Tony Bosworth, a Friends of the Earth transport campaigner, added: "Road congestion has caused people to look more creatively at freight."