It's hard to imagine, as you sip espresso and watch swans float serenely by, that only a decade or so ago many of the nation's canals were little more than the last resting place for abandoned shopping trolleys. There's still work to be done, but their transformation has been remarkable. Projects such as Castlefield in Manchester and Brindley Place in Birmingham have transformed city-centre canals from stagnant reminders of a fading industrial past to the epitome of urban cool.
But 21st-century priorities dictate that the rehabilitation of this 18th-century motorway system cannot stop there. Canals and navigable rivers form a major transport network, in need of only piecemeal investment, and with the spare capacity to take away the need for hundreds of thousands of lorry journeys. In the second half of the 18th century, canals drove the industrial revolution. Today, authorities want them to drive congestion off the roads. Last month, for example, the European Commission proposed a seven-year plan to shift large amounts of freight from roads to inland waterways.
Europe's enthusiasm comes as no surprise. Freight traffic is expected to grow by a third in the next decade. The cost of pollution and congestion is set to swallow one per cent of Europe's entire GDP by 2010. "With a fleet of 11,000 vessels and a capacity equalling 10,000 trains or 440,000 trucks, inland waterways can make transport in Europe more efficient, reliable and environmental friendly," says Jacques Barrot, vice-president of the European Commission in charge of transport. "Europe cannot afford to leave that potential untapped."
Mainland Europe has never, in fairness, left it completely untapped. The canals of the low countries and the rivers of central and eastern Europe buzzed with the sound of freight barges long after British industry had thrown in its lot with railways and roads. Attempts to revive freight on British canals have been hampered by the fact that their heyday lasted barely 60 years, and they were first considered obsolete 150 years ago. For much of the intervening period, many have simply been left to rot.
"Our network was in decline for a long time compared to much of Europe," says Eugene Baston of British Waterways. "Whereas other countries developed road and rail transport but carried on using their waterways as well, our canals were neglected. In fact many European countries actually enlarged their canals 100 years ago."
But that decline in Britain has been reversed, first by leisure seekers and more recently by industry. Boaters, anglers, walkers and cyclists now benefit from around 4,000 miles of navigable waterways and the paths and trails that run alongside them. Waterside living is fashionable, and city-centre canals have been a focus for urban renewal. And, despite our obsession with road transport, environmental considerations are forcing government and business to turn the clock back 200 years and - at least in a minor way - get our waterways working again.
In fact, industrial goods such as coal, steel, aggregates and petroleum have never completely disappeared from large rivers such as the Thames and the Trent and designated commercial waterways such as the Aire and Calder Navigation. Barges on the river Severn, meanwhile, have recently started carrying the equivalent of 34,000 lorry loads of aggregates each year, the first freight traffic on the river for a decade. British Waterways, which owns about half of the country's navigable inland waterways, carried the equivalent of 64,000 25-ton lorry loads of freight in 2004.
The organisation says these figures are certain to increase as new schemes start, and environmentalists hope they will. Carrying freight by water uses about a quarter of the energy of an equivalent road journey. In comparison to lorries, barges produce low emissions, low noise and are visually unobtrusive. "We think that anything that can take freight off the roads needs to be fully explored," says Tony Bosworth, transport campaigner for Friends of the Earth. "Canals can do that. They can help cut the pollution that causes climate change."
There is a limit to what canals can carry. The slow pace of water travel does not fit well with the limited shelf-life of fresh produce. But if supermarkets won't trust their cherry tomatoes to water, they might trust the waste paper and plastic that protects them. Many of the proposals to utilise Britain's waterways are based around waste management and recycling schemes.
For example, a pilot scheme in Hackney, east London, has seen municipal waste collected by truck and transferred to barge for transportation to a reprocessing plant. In the future, the scheme could remove 300,000 dustcart miles from the borough's streets every year. But current arrangements could be just the tip of the iceberg.
Planning permission has been given for a Powerday recycling plant at Willesden Junction, a site that sits on the intersection of road, rail and canal networks. "The plant will have the capacity to handle a million and a half tons of waste every year, but the amount carried by road will be capped at 500,000 ton," says Ed Fox of British Waterways London. "If they want to grow the business, they will have to work with us."
Fox says getting freight back on the canals has been "a nice idea" for 50 years, but until recently little more than an idea. "The Powerday project, on the other hand, is proof of what really can be done."
And though details have yet to be decided, British Waterways believes the most appropriate way to transport some of the building materials destined for London's giant Olympic construction project is by the network of waterways that links the Thames and east London. The Olympic Delivery Authority says: "It's being looked at and the final solution could well involve some transportation by water. What exactly we do will be based on a range of factors, but one of those will be sustainability."
Their gentle pace will always make canals a niche player in a busy world, but after 200 years of neglect, the tide is starting to turn.
The rise and fall of Britain's canal system
The first canal of the Industrial Revolution was the Bridgewater Canal, near Manchester, completed in 1761. It was the catalyst for half a century of "canal mania".
By the mid 19th-century, rail was king. Some canals fell into disuse. Others were bought by railway companies to reduce competition and allow them to put up rates.
In the 1950s and 1960s, there were calls for canals to be drained and closed: many were seen as derelict and a danger to children. But they survived because of their appeal to boat enthusiasts, anglers and walkers.
Today, some estimates suggest that 3.5 per cent of all road freight could eventually be transferred to Britain's navigable inland waterways.
According to recent studies, the total external costs of inland navigation (in terms of accidents, congestion, noise emissions, air pollution and other environmental impacts) are seven times lower than those of road transport. A 600-ton barge is powered by the same size engine as a 25-ton lorry.
In Europe as a whole, inland waterway transport has grown by 17 per cent over the last 10 years. Freight transport by inland waterways now accounts for seven per cent of total inland transport.
A recent contract to move aggregates on the Grand Union Canal is taking 450,000 tons of freight off the congested roads of west London - the equivalent of 45,000 lorry movements - over seven years.
The infrastructure to carry building materials for Olympic projects is already in place. In 2001, British Waterways carried 1.2 million tons of material for Docklands and Canary Wharf construction work.
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