Europe has more than 30,000 kilometres of waterways that connect hundreds of cities and industrial regions across a mix of 19th century canal networks and navigable rivers such as the Rhine or the Elbe. However, the dominance of road transport is even greater. Take Germany, for instance: 58 billion tonne-kilometres in 2003 by inland waterway, compared with 291 billion for roads and 79 billion for rail.
In Britain, the number for inland waterways was just 0.2. Inland waterway transport accounts for just 6.5% of total inland transport in the EU, and 3.9% for the whole of Europe. Numbers like this prompted the European Conference of Ministers of Transport (ECMT) to meet recently to discuss a renewed effort to exploit the rivers and canals across Europe. Reasons to promote a shift are not hard to find.
First is efficiency. For every litre of fuel burned, a barge can carry a tonne of cargo for 127 km, compared to 97 km for a train and a truck for 50 km. Lower energy consumption, high reliability, fewer accidents, savings on storage facilities and the ability to deliver cargo to otherwise inaccessible areas make environmentally-friendly barges an attractive shipping choice.
The cargo capacity of a barge is 15 times that of a rail car and 60 times greater than that of a semi-trailer truck. No wonder Airbus chose canals to ship the large parts of its new 555-seat aircraft to Toulouse, France, using inland waterways from Pauillac to Langon. As the ECMT reports in Strengthening Inland Waterway Transport: Pan-European Co-operation for Progress, the creation of a pan-European inland waterway market is far from reality.
In addition to its slower speed and the need to create more infrastructure by dredging rivers and building locks, it also means having to harmonise regulations and procedures across borders and regions. And it demands creating a level playing field for business, with a freer market based on fair competition, rather than the highly regulated quasi-monopolistic situation several countries face at present.
Boosting waterway transport is not all good news and opening canals can be politically controversial. Proposals to build a canal link for freight from the Rhine across France to the Rhone via the Saone river were shelved after a public outcry–including from towns on route–as the prospect of large barges ploughing through unspoilt country calm became an election issue. The outcry was not without foundation: water traffic causes water contamination, air pollution and noise.
It competes with leisure uses, from boating and water skiing to fishing, which all have a bearing on property values, land uses, tourism, and so on. And shipping freight hurts ecosystems. As another ECMT book, Inland Waterways and Environmental Protection points out, dams, weirs, locks and dredging may induce changes in water levels, discharge regimes and river bed geomorphology, and could affect sedimentation and erosion.
Despite all this, inland waterway transport remains more environmentally friendly than other land transport modes in terms of total cost, particularly road. The second report says that if the 440 million tonnes of cargo shipped by inland waterways were carried by road, emissions to air in Europe would be at least 10% higher. Shifting the balance back towards inland waterways would be a challenge, and further adapting the network to meet the environmental concerns of today would help.
Strengthening Inland Waterway Transport: ISBN 928211354X
Inland Waterways and Environmental Protection: ISBN 9282113469
©OECD Observer No 257, October 2006