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With concerns growing over air pollution and traffic congestion, Britain's canal network is now being primed to take some of the strain of carrying freight. Not before time argues Barbara Panvel.

What contributes to road congestion, danger and delays on narrow rural roads through villages, air pollution, roads crumbling, buildings affected by vibration and 22% of cyclist deaths? In 2006 the large lorry or heavy goods vehicle [HGV] was involved in 13,000 HGV injury accidents in which over 300 died, and the longer goods vehicle [LGV] - currently on trial in this country - was involved in over 17,000 injury accidents in which over 500 died.

Time for change? MP Lynne Jones thinks so. She advocates the transfer of freight to rail and the use of waterways to carry goods.

Tesco has started to ferry wine by barge from Liverpool to Manchester on the Manchester Ship Canal, taking 50 lorries off congested roads every week and cutting carbon emissions by 80%. Tesco intends to use similar waterborne freight routes across Britain.

Studies agree that waterborne transport is quieter, cleaner & more fuel efficient, reducing CO2 emissions by 75-80% compared with road transport. TV's Waterworld programme made the startling claim that in one day a lorry used more fuel than a working barge would use in a year.

The Inland Waterways Association freight document adds that minor improvements, such as dredging, could be made at minimal cost to enable increased traffic to use the waterways.

Any bulky non-perishable load can be carried by water, including municipal and demolition waste, recycling, paper and catering supplies. After the first journey, deliveries can be as frequent as needed.

1300 tonnes of milling wheat were carried on one voyage from the Isle of Wight to Allied Mills Coronet Mill alongside the Ship Canal, saving over 200 lorry journeys.

To prevent traffic disruption, a 135-tonne transformer was loaded on to a tanker barge, using a specially constructed crane, and travelled from Nottinghamshire to Manchester by canal and river.

In Scotland, for a trial period, a specialised freight barge transported several tonnes of electronic and electrical waste at a time from Glasgow and Bishopbriggs to Twechar. Each boat movement represented the equivalent of 12 lorry journeys.

These are pilot projects but some regular deliveries are made. Irish barges ply from Drumnear to Limerick laden with either 10 tons of bricks or 50 kegs of beer.

Restored wharves in Barking, Newham, Tower Hamlets and Hammersmith/Fulham, are now enabling metal scrap to be carried on waterways saving more than 150,000 lorry journeys a year.

The Grand Union Canal has been given its first commercial freight contract in more than 30 years. A seven year, 450,000-ton contract, which arranges for nearly half a million tonnes of sand and gravel to be transported from Denham and West Drayton, will take 43,000 lorry journeys off the road network.

Though the sector does not have the financial support enjoyed by road and rail, there is a government award - a Freight Facilities Grant. RMC Materials was given this grant so that it could start carrying 2.75 million tonnes of aggregates from Ryall quarry along the River Severn to Gloucester, taking an estimated 340,000 lorry journeys off Worcestershire roads.

But what of Birmingham and the West Midlands? Any information about canal freight sent in by the Stirrer's readers would be a welcome addition to next week's column on this subject.

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