Not Messing About On The River

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One of the disappointments of the Olympic’s construction phase has been the failure to spark a revival of water borne freight promised by the works on the Bow Back River and the River Lea. However, it would appear that all is not lost. In London, Crossrail has put out to tender a contract involving the construction of new river wharves. Elsewhere in the United Kingdom, a feeder container barge service now operates between Liverpool and Manchester. Are there lessons to be learnt here?


Our thanks and copyright acknowledgements to Steve Rafferty, a Flickrist based in Essex for this atmospheric shot taken from Wallasea Island.

As part of their busy 2010 schedule Crossrail has invited bids for spoil removal.

During the construction of Crossrail, a total of 7.3 million m³ of material will be excavated – the equivalent of covering the whole of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens with a three metre layer of soil. Close to 100% all of the 7.3 million m³ of excavated material is expected to be clean and uncontaminated and thus can be reused elsewhere.

Over 4 million m³ of the excavated material generated from construction of the new tunnels will be used by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) to create a nature reserve at Wallasea Island in Essex.

The proposals, which have been approved by Central Government and Essex County Council, will create one of the largest new wetland nature reserves in Europe for some 50 years.

The mud flat and salt marsh habitats created at Wallasea Island will act as a carbon sink and will soak up 2.2 tonnes of carbon per hectare per year. In the region of 400 hectares of this habitat will be created

Aaron Moresby writing in the Construction Enquirer reports:

Crossrail has invited firms to bid for a massive muck shifting job by barges along the Thames to form a 1,500 acre nature reserve at Wallasea Island in Kent. (Unless there has been a Falklands style invasion by the residents of Whitstable and Herne Bay, the island stands in the River Crouch opposite Burnham where the flag of Essex flies)).

The job involves shipping more than 4 million tonnes of Crossrail tunnel waste material from three Thames-side wharves to the island.

It is also understood to include extensive earthmoving works at Wallasea Island to create hillocks and dips into which seawater will ebb and flow to attract rare birds such as spoonbills and black-winged stilts.

The successful firm will be expected to construct the wharves, which will carry enough capacity to handle a steady stream of tunneling waste.

Transporting tunnel waste by water amounts to a quarter of the carbon cost of road transport.

Meanwhile, Elaine Knutt, writing in the February 2010 edition of Construction Manager, reported how the Olympic Park struggles to make full use of its waterways, and how interest could be rekindled in water borne sustainable transport both in London and elsewhere.

This is a truly excellent article, worthy of much wider circulation and therefore we are taking the liberty of quoting it extensively:

The Ursula Katherine is a lonely pioneer. The barge makes a weekly trip to collect waste packaging from the Olympic site for transport to Tilbury in Essex, passing through the new Three Mills Lock. Purpose-built to turn the previously tidal Bow Back Rivers into a navigable transport artery linked to the Thames, the £23m facility opened last August.


The Ursula Catherine passing through the Three Mills Lock. Our thanks and copyright acknowledgements to Oliver Knight.


Three Mills Lock as captured by our chum, Mat Coleman to whom our thanks and copyright acknowledgements. The lock is part of the Prescott Channel and was designed by Volker Stevin Engineering, who are probably better known for their work on the Thames Barrier and the Gateshead Millennium Bridge. Three Mills was completed in 2009 and uses rotating steel gates rather than traditional sets of doors.

But the automated lock gates will open and close just for her, the crew won’t be hailing other bargees on the route, and she’ll make the return trip upriver with only ballast in her hold. In the past six months, just 5,000 tonnes of Olympic waste and materials have moved through the lock, while up to 8,000 tonnes arrive by train every day. As is widely known, the Olympic Delivery Authority’s (ODA) sustainable transport strategy targeted moving 50% of materials in and out of the park by rail or water. In fact, an impressive 63.5% has so far been shifted off the roads.

But the Olympic contractors’ enthusiasm for rail freight has starved the waterways of the attention needed to get to grips with its lead times and logistics. The A12 is congestion free and carbon emissions have been cut – but it’s hard to argue that the long-term interests of sustainable transport have been served.

To the water freight industry, keen to demonstrate that the UK’s inland waterways can return to their historic role as construction freight motorways, it’s a familiar tale of promises dispelled. In the past decade, a string of prominent waterside developments, such as Paddington Basin, have turned their back on the sustainable transport assets that adorn their marketing brochures. “We needed a big, credible organisation to do it for everyone else to think that it’s okay,” says Gerald Hewden, commercial director of barge operator Wood, Hall & Heward. “We hoped the Olympics would do that, but it hasn’t fulfilled that role.”

The arguments for a “modal shift” onto inland waterways combine the environmental and the emotional, hard facts on carbon emissions and softer issues such as the promise of revitalising once-vibrant waterways. Water freight is “sustainable” as a less carbon-intensive alternative to road freight (in terms of tonne per km), with the emissions benefits rising with the length of the journey, and also reduces congestion on our roads. And it’s also sustainable in terms of national resource efficiency: clearly it makes sense to use the capacity of an existing transport infrastructure before we think about building new roads.

To some extent, the Olympic contractors’ reluctance to take up the water freight option is linked to specific difficulties on the local waterways. Most critically, Three Mills Lock was delivered 10 months late by British Waterways, allowing a road-and-rail mindset to become entrenched. The ODA did dredge the waterway upstream of the lock and complete a wharf on the Olympic Park, but only after the lock had opened. Meanwhile, a sewage pipe elevated above the canal restricts the height of the loaded barges, and a tricky tight corner restricts their size to 100 tonnes.

Cultural resistance

But in other regards, the failure of a sustainable waterside Olympics to promote sustainable waterborne transport is linked to the same cultural resistance that has stood in the way elsewhere. Where the necessary loading and marshalling infrastructure exists – as at the Olympics – there tends to be cost neutrality between water and road transport, and little economic incentive to switch. And although the sustainability advantages are clear, these aren’t yet enshrined in the Building Research Establishment’s Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) assessments, contractual terms or client expectations.

Ray Payne, the ODA’s head of logistics, admits it is a “shame” that the Olympic construction programme has so far failed to leverage the kind of shift that would ripple down the Thames to the Trent, Severn and Mersey. “We’ve had industry days, we’ve advertised the advantages to Tier One contractors of using water, but it’s up to them to decide. It has to be a balance between reducing the carbon content of the transport route and the economics. To a large extent, the construction is driven by economic factors, because the taxpayer is paying for the Olympics.”

And he defends the “rail or water” policy, arguing that the ODA could not have incentivised water without upsetting the level competitive playing field that rail and road freight operators are entitled to enjoy. “We can’t support any one sector with incentives for fairly obvious reasons,” he says.

British Waterways’ sustainable transport manager Kim Milnes hopes the final chapter on water freight at the Olympic Park has still to be written. “People aren’t prepared to take risks with a waterway that isn’t proven. But people will become more aware of the waterways, and will start to look into it,” he predicts.
Towards the end of this year, the beginning of the fit-out phase will coincide with a reduction in capacity at the DB Schenker rail terminal, as part of its site is destined to be incorporated into the Olympic Village. Payne also predicts an upturn in water freight, although he cites a fairly modest traffic level of perhaps two barges a week of materials going in. Realistically, however, the multiple smaller palletised loads ordered by contractors for the fit-out stages will fit more easily on the back of a lorry.

If the Olympics have fumbled the baton on promoting a water freight revival, all eyes are now on the next big publicly-funded project off the blocks. The Crossrail tunnelling team has the task of shifting approximately 7.3m m3 of excavated material for recycling as aggregate or to regeneration sites in Essex and Kent. Then it has to deliver thousands of concrete tunnel sections to line the newly-formed tunnels to two tunnelling sites, in Westbourne Park and Docklands. The client’s logistics team, headed by Simon Phillips, has drafted outline plans to fulfil a commitment in the Crossrail Bill to minimise road congestion and maximise rail and water freight. Phillips has also commissioned a feasibility study from consultant Peter Brett Associates to use the Slough-to-London Grand Union Canal to transport tunnel linings to Westbourne Park. However, the final decision on this aspect of the scheme depends on where the linings are cast, which in turn is the decision of the yet-to-be-appointed tunnelling consortium.

Natural synergies

So far, at least, it looks as if Crossrail has recognised the natural synergies that often exist between water freight and construction. Where construction is preceded by demolition or excavation, water freight is clearly an appealing alternative to putting multiple HGVs of muck-away on the roads. Much of the industry’s imported materials – such as cladding from the continent, or stone from China – already arrive at one of the UK’s 100 coastal ports. From there, loading onto a river-barge is no more problematic than to an HGV.

Construction shifts bulk loads of sand and aggregate, heavy loads of steel and timber, all readily accommodated on river freight barges with a capacity of between 100 and 1,000 tonnes. And where storage capacity is a problem holding materials, on the water until needed, can be a cost-effective option.

While water freight is clearly slower than the alternatives, it’s no less reliable. “In terms of predictability, we’re better – there’s no congestion,” says Heward.

And while canals did freeze in the recent post-Christmas cold snap, it’s not as if the road and rail industries can claim superiority. As a further inducement, the water freight industry is currently dealing with an increase in capacity due to the decrease in municipal waste. In London, the barge fleets that have been carrying the capital’s waste from Battersea to landfill in Essex now have plenty of spare capacity.

But as a £16bn heavyweight, Crossrail also has a major advantage over smaller projects, according to Gary Sullivan, managing director of logistics company Wilson James. Sullivan has looked at the water freight option for several clients planning waterside developments in London, but always concluded that the financial barriers were just too high.

“Whilst it’s a fantastic idea, it’s hugely expensive in terms of building a jetty or wharf,” says Sullivan. “On a mega-project, you can absorb the costs, but it’s not so easy if you’re building houses. If it’s difficult to make it financially viable in the good years, it’ll be a major struggle now.”

As Sullivan says, building or upgrading the necessary infrastructure can represent a high cost. The goods’ journey may originate at a port, in which case a fee will be charged for using its loading facilities. If the freight is to be assembled elsewhere, as with Crossrail, then a suitable waterside loading wharf must be found, built or leased from a private company. At the destination, there must also be suitable unloading facilities. “There is military hardware that allows you to unload without a wharf or jetty, but it’s not so easy for a Balfour Beatty to get hold of,” adds Sullivan.

But decades of under-use of the inland waterways, followed by a decade of enthusiastic waterside residential development, mean that the inland waterways network has only a fraction of the wharves, jetties and marshalling areas it once had. “Land space is at such a premium, the places where we used to load have gradually got built on, so we’re being squeezed out,” says Heward. (Hence no doubt for the requirement that the successful Crossrail Contractor has to build wharves.)
To help bridge that gap, there are two forms of government funding available. First, the capital costs of building or upgrading a wharf may attract a grant. Three Mills Lock benefited from this, as did waste recycling firm Powerday when it built its canal side facilities at Willesden in North West London. Then there’s the Freight Facilities Grant, operated by the Department for Transport. “If the cost by road is £10 a tonne, and the cost by barge is £11.50, you can apply for a top-up grant of £1.50 a tonne,” says John Dodwell, chief executive of the Commercial Boat Operators Association (CBOA). “It’s a useful step forward, but the government doesn’t seem to be publicising it,” he adds.

But for today’s construction sector, the carbon-based arguments are likely to be most compelling. Tugs and barges run on diesel engines, just like the HGV wagons clogging our roads. “Barge engines are roughly 30-40 horsepower, and a modern lorry is around 350hp, so fuel consumption and carbon emissions are proportionately much less,” says Heward. In one example cited by lobby group Freight by Water, an HGV carrying 25 tonnes burns 0.5 litres of diesel per kilometre. A river barge capable of carrying up to 1,000 tonnes – or 40 lorry loads – burns 5 litres of diesel. Expressed against freight capacity, the river barge is 2.5 times more fuel efficient.
However, these advantages aren’t yet reflected in BREEAM, the Code for Sustainable Homes, construction contracts or public sector tender documents. As for BREEAM 2008, BRE marketing manager Simon Guy explains that projects using water freight could apply for an “innovation” credit. However, the timing could be right to revisit the issue. “We update BREEAM bi-annually, and the next review starts at Ecobuild. If people are saying we need to address the issue of transport to and from sites, then that’s the purpose of having regular feedback.”

But the CBOA’s Dodwell believes it is local authorities that really have the power to shift behaviour, as happened with micro-generation and the Merton Rule. For instance, the London Borough of Tower Hamlets has stipulated in the planning permission for the Wood Wharf mixed-use development in Docklands that aggregates for the concrete frame must be shipped by barge. “Some ask for a feasibility study but then clients commission a study to prove it’s not economic. We need more than just lip-service,” says Dodwell. Milnes agrees.

“If government wishes people to use water, they should write that into the tender documents for public sector projects – in other words, show the way. Just as people have had to price and understand rail freight, they’ll learn to understand water.”

Local Container Delivery – Where the Manchester Ship Canal leads – will London Gateway follow?

However, there are projects where all the barriers have come down and barges have sailed smoothly through. Paul Eccles, project manager for Bovis Lend Lease on MediaCityUK, the BBC’s new Salford home, describes bringing 400 containers of stonework and other materials up the Manchester Ship Canal from Liverpool as cost-effective. “To make it viable, we needed about ten 25-tonne containers on each barge. The day rate for a mobile crane to unload them was £1,000, but hiring an HGV for the round trip by road would be £200 per container,” he says. When Bovis studied the carbon footprint of water versus road, the saving worked out at 53 tonnes of CO2 per container.

Each stage of the logistics journey is bound by constraints – from container length and weight down to the working hours an HGV driver can operate. Direct comparison is often complicated by switching costs – if you have already invested in a rail or HGV fleet opportunities to change mode only arise when asset renewal is required – a new fleet of container flats. Industry wide these costs tend to raise barriers to entry to new competitor modes. By way of context a full length 775 metre freight train can carry roughly sixty 40 foot long containers – allowing for varying gauge heights and lengths. 9 feet 6 inch high containers carried in pocket well wagons reduce capacity by about a third. Loading weights also affect train loadings. There is a general international imbalance in containers with full boxes leaving Asia and a significant number of empty boxes being taken back to the Far East. Two 20 foot containers will fit on the back of a truck. Loading weights also affect capacity.

The client for MediaCityUK is Peel Media, a subsidiary of Peel Group, the company which in fact owns Mersey Docks and the Manchester Ship Canal. It was already running a regular freight service along the canal, meaning that Bovis did not have to contract its own barge operator. “They gave us the right cost [for haulage]. They want to use the canal more, it’s in their interests to keep it competitive,” says Eccles. As fit-out progresses, he will be looking at bringing more materials in by barge. “The governing factor is where the materials originate, but with most imported goods, there is a [water freight] opportunity.”


Peel Holdings, owners of the Port of Liverpool and the Manchester Ship Canal have started a thrice weekly shuttle service from the Seaforth Container Terminal in Liverpool to Manchester. As can be seen from this picture they are able to exceed the 25 container target. This type of operation will be the backbone of the proposed Port Salford development next to the M60 at Barton Bridge. Could this model be applied in London?.

In London, contractor Sir Robert McAlpine used barge company Wood Hall & Heward and the Regent’s Canal to deliver and store materials for the award-winning King’s Place development after the London Borough of Camden refused it a licence to unload from the road. Originally, the arrangement was set up to deliver steel beams for the superstructure. “But after McAlpine set up the system, each subsequent contractor followed suit,” says Hewden.

As Crossrail gets under way, there are other riverside projects in the pipeline that could help shift the industry’s mindset from its default “road” setting. Three Mills Lock could yet deliver a return on the public investment by facilitating water freight traffic linked to the Thames Tideway Tunnel project, the legacy phase of the Olympic Park, and the 15-year mixed-use development programme at Stratford City.

Thames Water’s Thames Tideway Tunnel project was approved in March 2007. The purpose of the tunnel is to stop the discharge of sewer overflow into the Thames during peak flows (new EU directives govern the cleanliness of river water, and untreated sewer water must be prevented from entering the Thames). The tunnel will be 7.2 metres in diameter 30.2 km long, travelling from Hammersmith in the West to Beckton in the East. At present there are 34 sewer overflows, which will connect to the tunnel and go to a new treatment plant in Beckton. At worksites shafts of 25 metres in diameter will be required for the 6 tunnel boring machines. The programme for the main tunnel is scheduled to start in 2012, post Olympics, and will be complete in 2020, at a cost £4 billion. The major issue for both Crossrail and the local Highways Authorities is with spoil removal. Thames Water is proposing to use 1000 tonne barges to remove spoil, which will create a new interface on the river.

At King’s Cross, Argent is said to be looking at emulating the experience at nearby King’s Place. Further in the future, a usable wharf already exists at Battersea Power station.

It won’t be easy for construction and the water freight industry to forge a sustainable partnership in the future. Underlying the problems at the Olympic Park – and threatening the vision of a watery future for Crossrail – is the lack of communication between the two industries and a lack of policy and legislative drivers. But if it can be done, the construction industry could squeeze more carbon out of the sector, contribute to the long-term sustainability of our transport infrastructure, and help return the waterways to the vibrancy they used to know. If the upfront cost is a just feasibility study, surely it’s a price worth paying?

Hobby Horse time – this is yet another opportunity for learning from the experience of others that should not be missed. [Steady! – JB].

Written by Mwmbwls