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Getting heavy transport off the roads and onto the waterways

Getting heavy transport off the roads and onto the waterways
No matter how much we agree with the message, we are somewhat conditioned to hearing ports, terminals and inland waterway operators talk up the idea of moving more freight by water. How much more impact, then, to hear some startling enthusiasm – or, to use an overused word, passion – for the “freight by water” idea from a non-port person.

Tideway is the £4.2 bn, 25 km ‘super sewer’ tunnel that is to be excavated underneath the River Thames to prevent raw sewage flowing into the Thames. It will have an internal diameter of up to 7.2 metres – the equivalent to the width of three London buses. Excavation by three tunnel boring machines, due to start in January 2017, will generate at least 4m tonnes of spoil which will need to be taken out of the city. Heading the other way, into central London will be cranes, tunnel boring machines, tunnel segments, construction materials. Work on the main drive sites will start early next year, generating the first volumes of spoil.

And how will all this move? The Development Consent Order for this extraordinary project requires 90% of the heavy transport to be by river. But that’s not enough, says Tideway ceo Andy Mitchell. He wants more.

“I am saying: if you have a river frontage, explain to me why anything goes by road,” he says. “We are telling our contractors: if anything goes by road, you have to justify it. Every barge carrying 1,000 tonnes should have a big sign on it saying: ‘Another 50 trucks off the road’.”

This, he says, is about reconnecting London with the river. “We are not just talking about big aggregate barges but we are talking about the whole range of materials – right down to the light bulbs. We will crack this and we will use the river to the extent that after three to four years we will have demonstrated to London that here is a totally viable mission-critical logistics solution.

“That an important part of the legacy for the Thames. The big question is: what is that going to be used for afterwards? If the use of the Thames just falls back to volume aggregates, surely London will have missed a trick? Arguably, we at Tideway have no choice. But we want to show the river is there and has an important role to play.”

First, he says, there is the safety point of view: the roads are not getting any quieter and there are more and more cyclists in London. “There have been eight cyclist fatalities in London already this year and of these, seven involved HGVs. As long as you have vulnerable road users and big trucks using the same roads, there is that risk. Second, you don’t get traffic jams on the river – it makes commercial sense to use it.”

So, at its peak, this project will generate unprecedented volumes of barge and tug traffic on the Thames, right through central London – and that brings with it another rather predictable challenge, that of ensuring there are enough skilled and trained people to operate all these vessels. It is the usual story of an ageing workforce, difficulty encouraging youngsters into the industry, and a lack of training historically.

To tackle this, the Port of London Authority, in partnership with Tideway, is to set up a new Thames Skills Academy to provide the training and up-skilling required for the resurgent river traffic. Due to open in September 2016, the Academy will provide ancillary safety training and other courses, as well as Boat Master’s Licence training.

As Mitchell neatly puts it: “We want to leave a legacy greater than ‘no sewage in the river’. Not only will we have created that legacy of a logistics boost for the river but we will also have created hundreds of trained people to take that legacy forward.”