Central London's canal network and River Thames

About us

London canals for freight
London transport and PPP
Britain's community railways
UK light rail schemes
Car parking Europe
London Underground
Barcelona Metro
New York City Subway
Paris Métro
Sao Paulo Metro
Tokyo Metro
Road traffic kills children
Traffic congestion in the US
London congestion charge

City Mayors reports news from towns and cities around the world. Worldwide | Elections | North America | Latin America | Europe | Asia | Africa | Events |

Mayors from The Americas, Europe. Asia, Australia and Africa are competing for the annual World Mayor Award. More

City Mayors ranks the world’s largest as well as richest cities and urban areas. It also ranks the cities in individual countries, and provides a list of the capital cities of some 200 sovereign countries. More

City Mayors reports political events, analyses the issues and depicts the main players. More

City Mayors describes and explains the structures and workings of local government in Europe, The Americas, Asia, Australia and Africa. More

City Mayors profiles city leaders from around the world and questions them about their achievements, policies and aims. More

City Mayors deals with economic and investment issues affecting towns and cities. More

City Mayors reports on how business developments impact on cities and examines cooperation between cities and the private sector. More

City Mayors describes and explains financial issues affecting local government. More

City Mayors lists and features urban events, conferences and conventions aimed at urban decision makers and those with an interst in cities worldwide. More

City Mayors reports urban environmental developments and examines the challenges faced by cities worldwide. More

City Mayors reports on and discusses urban development issues in developed and developing countries. More

City Mayors reports on developments in urban society and behaviour and reviews relevant research. More

City Mayors deals with urban transport issues in developed and developing countries and features the world’s greatest metro systems. More

City Mayors examines education issues and policies affecting children and adults in urban areas. More

City Mayors investigates health issues affecting urban areas with an emphasis on health in cities in developing countries. More

City Mayors examines the importance of urban tourism to city economies. More

City Mayors examines the contributions history and culture make to urban society and environment. More

City Mayors describes the history, architecture and politics of the greatest city halls in the world. More

City Mayors invites readers to write short stories about people in cities around the world. More

City Mayors questions those who govern the world’s cities and talks to men and women who contribute to urban society and environment. More

City Mayors profiles national and international organisations representing cities as well as those dealing with urban issues. More

City Mayors reports on major national and international sporting events and their impact on cities. More

City Mayors lists cities and city organisations, profiles individual mayors and provides information on hundreds of urban events. More

London’s canal network offers opportunity
for viable and sustainable freight transport

By Jonathan Rosenberg*

30 June 2008: Back in August 1981 three barges loaded with lime juice and pith in 45 gallon barrels made their way up the Thames. At the helm on that day was a colleague of mine, Gerry Heward. He was about to have a date with history. At Brentford in west London the tiny fleet passed through the tidal lock and onto the 200 year old Grand Union Canal. From here they travelled 50 kilometres north to Hemel Hempstead. At Rose’s factory, the barges unloaded their cargo so it could be processed into lime juice cordial and marmalade.

The journey was over, and so too was the carriage of freight on London’s canal network. For a whole generation, no freight moved on the capital’s canals. Gerry Heward, took up other work, eventually returning to operate barges for maintaining infrastructure such as bridges over the canals and the waterways themselves.

It wasn’t a change in English eating habits that extinguished the oldest of freight transport modes, but rather containerisation and the development of road based logistics and distribution systems. These freed the industries that had survived deindustrialisation from dependency on water transport and enabled them to relocate onto the major road network where they could export finished product as well as import raw materials.

The death of the ‘limejuice run’ illustrates this well. In that case the barrels were redesigned to stand up on pallets so they could be loaded and unloaded more economically on and off lorries. But this made them more difficult to load onto barges. The factory relocated away from the canal and the vacated site was converted to a hardware superstore – an operation that relies heavily on road access for the import and sales of goods.

London is not alone in having to adjust to the loss of city centre industry and the shift to containerisation and road based distribution. Capitals and ports all over the world are redeveloping the vast hearts of their cities where once were accommodated the docks and wharves that fed their economies. To gauge the scale of the decline in water transport you only have to visit MIPIM, the annual international property conference in Cannes. Here are showcased massive redevelopment schemes from Ireland to Greece, all located on sites that once relied on water transport.

In London, and no doubt other former ports in the western economies, the socio-economic impact of the collapse of inland water transport can be seen in the remarkably strong correlation between the waterways and deprivation. This relationship reflects the former employment of communities, particularly in East London, in the Docks, in water carriage generally and in water accessed industries.

Not surprisingly, there is an equally strong relationship between the waterways and development opportunity. Analysis shows that 76 per cent of the land in the areas of ‘opportunity and intensification’ identified by the London Plan, the spatial development strategy for the capital, is accessible from the waterway network. This reflects the former use of these now brownfield sites. This land is set to accommodate 80 per cent of all the new workspace and 71 per cent of all the new homes that are targeted for the development areas.

This presents a tremendous opportunity for the waterways to carry construction materials and waste to and from these sites during their development phase and later waste and recyclates away. This would help make the developments more sustainable by reducing their road use with all its consequences of congestion, accidents and pollution.

Shifting heavy lorry movements to waterways can reduce accidents, cut carbon emissions by 75 per cent, and improve the quality of life. Compared to lorries, barges use less than a third of the fuel per tonne of cargo and can carry more than five times as much payload (depending on the dimensions of the particular waterway). Increased barge traffic brings natural surveillance to routes perceived as unsafe for people walking or cycling along the waterways.

But until fairly recently, little was done to take advantage of the opportunities presented by London’s waterway network. Then, in 2000, London elected its first city-wide mayor. Ken Livingstone was sympathetic to the cause of waterways. They featured prominently in his London Plan and he promoted their use for transport, recreation and natural habitat. As road congestion increased and concern about the impact of carbon emissions on the environment mounted, water transport became attractive once more.

In 2004, freight traffic on the tidal Thames through the Port of London was 53.3 million tonnes, 11 per cent higher than four years previously. There are now 50 wharves on the Thames and its tributaries that are safeguarded by the mayor for water freight cargo-handling. With large tonnage capacities, the Thames is more economically viable for water freight than the canal network. But soaring fuel prices, increased road vehicle costs and unreliable lorry journey times have reached a point where freight traffic on the canal is now viable.

The capacity of the London canal network is in excess of 10 million tonnes, equivalent to around two million heavy lorry trips a year. Although this represents a small percentage of total London road freight, the canal routes access inner London where the damage, congestion and pollution caused by heavy vehicles is at its greatest. Were the canal network to be used to capacity it could rival the quantities of freight currently carried on the rail network.

The results of the 2004 mayoral elections left Livingstone dependent on support from Green Party assembly members to get his budget through. Jenny Jones, one of the Greens and a canal enthusiast, struck a deal to get money spent on canal infrastructure. The mayor funded some dredging of London’s canals and helped pay for the construction of a new wharf on the Grand Union canal in west London. There has also been investment in the development of a multi-modal refuse vehicle that can be used to collect municipal waste in containers which can be transferred to barges or rail wagons, along with a new type of skip carrying barge.

In 2007, 26 years after the end of the ‘limejuice run’, Gerry Heward had another date with history. This time he became the first to restore freight traffic to inner London’s canals, shifting 24,000 tonnes of spoil from a development on the Regent’s Canal in east London. Soon after he was importing construction materials by barge to a development in central London and taking out spoil from a development in west London.

Over the last few years barges out to the west of London have been moving 50,000 tonnes of sand and gravel a year. Now, some major developments such as the Olympics, Crossrail - the new underground railway through London, and the King’s Cross railway lands redevelopment are seriously investigating the movements of large quantities of materials by water. Two other big infrastructure tunnelling projects for sewerage and electricity challenge London’s capacity to shift and recycle enormous tonnages of materials. These too will need to use water transport if they are to avoid causing major congestion in the capital.

London’s waterway network represents many billions of pounds worth of transport infrastructure. The new mayor, Boris Johnson, has an opportunity to realise this historic investment. He has the authority to spearhead the drive to increase water traffic, using his planning powers on developers to require that access to the canal is provided, and it is used to carry construction materials whilst building, and waste and recyclates once occupied. Expenditure required to improve the canal is far less than for other transport infrastructures, and is essential if the canal network is to be re-integrated into the wider freight distribution network. Will the mayor seize this opportunity to revive London’s canals and rivers and to reduce congestion and carbon emissions?

Jonathan Rosenberg has contributed to the development of water freight policy for Transport for London and the Greater London Authority, is a member of the Mayor’s London Waterways Commission, and has worked closely with Gerry Heward to advise private and public sector clients on the use of water transport for freight. Earlier this year he produced a report for the Mayor, ‘Water freight: breaking through the barriers’, identifying opportunities and practical measures to increase the amount of waterborne freight in London.

World Mayor 2023