Opening up London’s ‘Blue Ribbon Network’ – building freight capacity on the capital’s canals

A working canal network has the potential to efficiently ship construction materials into the heart of the Eastend as London gears up for the Olympics - and perhaps more importantly, to get rid of the waste. TfL's Paul Dumble, Richard Rutter of British Waterways and Phil Wright of Peter Brett Associates considered the issues.

Bringing together the diverse partnerships to develop the necessary sustainable transport infrastructure that will support a growing capital’s needs for goods and services and reduce freight transports carbon footprint is a clear goal of the London Freight Plan.

London’s projected growth by 2026 of 0.9 million people plus 12 to 15% freight traffic increase required to support and regenerate parts of the capital will create great challenges.

Currently freight constitutes 14% of all modes of transport in London and provides 23% of London’s transport emissions. Further, 88% of freight is carried on London’s roads. However, the bulk of freight vehicles over 3.5 tonnes are concentrated on London’s strategic road network, the TLRN and SRN (1100km in total) which represents only 8.5% of the total road space.

So the day to day experience of individual road users in terms of the visual impact of the numbers of freight vehicles on strategic roads is much greater. The environmentally sustainable alternatives to road transport are rail and water.

Increases in freight rail traffic within London, which currently has a 40% share of the Capitals construction materials market, will be limited by pressures to increase passenger capacity in excess of 30% by 2025 to accommodate London’s growth and deal with a greater modal shift away from car use.

Water freight challenge

The impact of a 15% freight traffic increase on London’s roads over the next 20 years is likely to be severe with higher levels of congestion that is more sensitive to accidents, road works, major developments and the merging of peak traffic flows.

Table 2.1: Freight lifted by mode in London, 2005

  Million Tonnes Percent
Road 137.0 88.0%
Rail 7.8 5.0%
Water (Thames inside Greater London) 8.7 5.6%
Water (Other waterways in Greater London) 0.3 0.2%
Air 1.8 1.2%


Road: only goods vehicles over 3.5 tonnes gross weight included.

Rail: 2000 estimate by Ove Arup.

Water (Other waterways): 2002/3 data from British Waterways

Air: All London area airports (Heathrow, Gatwick, Stanstead, Southend and Luton).

Dest: DfT, 2006a; CAA, 2006; PLA, 2006; British Waterways, 2006a; Ove Arup, 2003.

If 10 to15% of the annual freight road traffic of 137 million tonnes (see Table 1) could be moved from London’s road onto the canal and river network, freight levels on strategic roads would remain roughly as they are today. This would also require some supply chain reconfiguration based on scheduling deliveries from the new canal based consolidation centres that will receive and sustainably distribute the materials and freight.

Table 2 provides and overview of road and rail freight movements in and out of the Capital. Road transport greenhouse gas emissions within London could see a relative reduction of up to 9.8% on the CO2 levels from the projected increased freight traffic volumes. More significant CO2 savings could be made if 10 to 20% (4.4 to 8.8m tonnes) of long distance traffic from the North of England and Scotland was transported by ship into major London ports and distributed via a revitalised London canal system.

  Road 2001(¹) Rail 2000(²)
Lifted and delivered in London 55.0 1.1
Received from other regions 44.0 4.7
Sent to other regions 31.0 2.0
Total 130.0 7.8

(¹) Continuing Survey of Road Goods Transport (CSRGT)

(²) Estimates produced for SRA, quoted in SRA analysis of rail freight in London and SE

Business Case

The business case is changing in favour of water transport mainly due to congestion impacts and increases in the costs of fossil fuels. Recent studies indicate that there is parity between road and barge transport costs in certain circumstances and this situation will improve with as fossil fuel prices continue to be affected by global pressures, as road charging is introduced and operator’s road costs increase.

However, the existing infrastructure on the Capitals canal network to support water freight transport is poor and requires significant development and wharfs in Central London fall into disuse and or fall prey to alternative leisure, commercial and housing developments.

Major developments such as Cross Rail, major TFL projects, the Olympics, the Thames Gateway, where water transport could add value in terms of cost reductions, efficiency and environmental sustainability are opportunities for further development of London’s waterways.

Recent developments on the West London Canal Network at the Powerday site have sparked interest in the commercial movement of an expected 500,000 tonnes per annum of materials and wastes to and from sites in the Capital by barge. The strategic links of the West London Canal Network and River Lee Navigation with the M25 offers unique opportunities for satellite consolidation centres which will serve the capital, major developments and reduce the numbers of HGV’s needing to travel into London.

Many of the planned major projects in the next 6 years will impact in or around the River Lee Navigation and this represents a key focus and opportunity to continue to make significant infrastructure improvements to the canal network.

Lee Navigation

The River Lee is one of Britain’s oldest navigations and stretches 28 miles from London’s tidal Thames to Hertford where the non-navigable River Lea continues to Luton. In its hey day, the River Lee Navigation carried over 2 million tonnes of cargo per annum including timber, copper and coal.

The Lee Navigation is no longer semi tidal since work was completed at Bow Locks in c 2000. From Bow Locks to Picketts Lock the distance is 8 ½ miles. From Bow Locks to Rammey Marsh Lock (lock closest to the M25) the distance is 12 ½ miles.

The pound above Old Ford to Tottenham Lock is approximately 5 miles at a constant height of c 8metres above sea level. There are no locks from Limehouse Basin to Old Ford Lock c. 3 miles which is the Lock closest to the Olympic Park on the River Lee.

The relatively few locks from Bow Locks to Picketts Lock (Old Ford, Tottenham Lock and Stonebridge Lock), the wide waterway and locks which could take barges carrying c.120 tonnes. Larger loads may be possible with new barge designs increasing the prospects of commercial viability along this stretch of the River Lee.

The tidal waterways (Bow Creek, Prescott Channel, Three Mills Wall River and the Waterworks River) can accommodate much larger barges (typically carrying 350 tonnes), but are these waterways only useable twice a day, for a maximum period of six hours depending on the type of tide.

Infrastructure requirements

The River Lee is designated a Commercial River and as such conditions of freight carrying are made under Sec 43 of the Transport Act 1962 and under British Waterways Bye Laws.

The River has carried very little freight for almost half a century. As freight use declined, maintenance was reduced to an appropriate standard to accommodate leisure traffic only. Wide scale dredging was stopped, some redundant lock chambers and back pumps and by pass weirs were decommissioned.

To create the infra structure necessary to encourage a 21st Century transport use for the River Lee Navigation, assessment of the current infrastructure and improvements must be considered:

  • Improved dredging to facilitate freight barges

  • Development and creation of Wharves at key sources and destinations

  • Development of freight handling and transfer facilities

  • Impacts on freight of current lock and bridge dimensions

  • Re-commissioning of second lock chambers where appropriate

  • Automation of locks

  • Assessment of water resources (re-introduction of back pumping and by pass weirs where necessary)

  • Improvement to water quality (to prevent weed growth)

    It is also necessary to understand the needs for supporting infrastructure (roads, bridges, business parks, etc.) and necessary changes to the supply chain configuration that will support sustainable distribution.


    Over the next ten to fifteen years, the Lower Lea Valley in East London will undergo massive development, partly as a result of the decision to site the 2012 Olympic Games, but also because it is identified within strategic London planning as an area in need of regeneration.

    Consequently, the area will experience exceptional levels of construction activity, requiring the import of huge quantities of construction materials and export of building and demolition waste, potentially giving rise to traffic congestion and other associated problems.

    The main construction projects in the area that will demand very large quantities of materials include:

  • Stratford City

  • London Olympic Park

  • Cross Rail – northern route

  • Three Mills

  • Hackney Wick

  • Poplar Riverside

  • Cody Road

  • Bromley by Bow

    Key sources and destinations for waterborne freight are already available under development or are proposed along the River Lee. Many private sector businesses along the canal network are waking up to these new opportunities.

    Other developments such as the Multimodal Refuse Collection Vehicle (MMRCV) currently being trialled in Hackney and Haringey. Adoption of the MMRCV technology by London Borough waste fleets bordering canal and river sites will open up options for increased utilisation of water transport.

    Partnerships necessary to develop this infrastructure will cover a wide range of organisations and will include the DfT, GLA, LDA, ODA, TFL, London Boroughs, British Waterways, PLA, Environment Agency, London Thames Gateway Development Corporation, BRE, Constructing Excellence, WRAP and other trade and industry bodies.


    Undoubtedly there is an opportunity to move materials by barge along the River Lee; however 19th and 20th century infrastructure requires assessment to determine investment required to build the necessary infrastructure that will bring the waterway back into general use for freight.

    The need and demand for such a transport route requires full appraisal in terms of value for money and environmental benefit. British Waterways have suggested that a Green Book Appraisal is undertaken once infrastructure requirements and demand is assessed.

    The likely costs for the development of the Lee into a strategic freight highway for the capital will be significant and will require the support of an all encompassing partnership; not only to create and develop funding for the necessary infrastructure, but to support the wider needs of the supply chain that will start to adopt this modal as the economic conditions become favourable.

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