Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by Dr Merv Rowlinson, London Guildhall University (TYP 58)


  This evidence seeks to address the problem of increasing use of the water option for freight movements around the British Isles and to both Ireland and Continental Europe. The point of contention is that Britain lags someway behind Northern European trading partners—France, Belgium, Holland, Germany in the utilisation of coastal and river shipping. However, within the context of the 10 Year Plan, the role of coastal, short-sea and inland shipping in achieving a modal shift from roads to water is currently being enhanced by two complementary forces:

    (1)  the renaissance of British Shipping; and

    (2)  the success of the Freight Facility Grant.

  From this perspective, the aim of British Shipping Charting a New Course (DETR 1998) to enhance coastal and short-sea shipping is being realised. Likewise, the aim of Waterways For Tomorrow (DETR 2000), to promote inland shipping. The success of the Tonnage Tax and associated initiatives has significant implications for coastal shipping. At least five UK coastal shipping firms are now well placed, with new tonnage and highly professional crews, to participate in growth. The encouraging take-up of Freight Facility Grants in the last four years proves the entrepreneurial vitality of the coastal-inland sector. Also, the interdependence of coastal/shortsea and inland routes, as served by sea-river ships, adds a vital competitive edge to water transport. Building on these two complementary factors, the evidence submitted here points to the possibilities of shipping achieving growth, given a supportive transport policy. The approach advocated here is of a specific, incrementalist nature as opposed to the mega strategies of the Trans European Networks. The contention is that any revisions of the 10 Year Plan will need to specifically focus on five critical areas in order to facilitate shipping growth:

    —  the disguised decline of coastal shipping;

    —  the detrimental rise of road haulage;

    —  haulage barriers to new shipping services;

    —  the detrimental impact of ro-ro shipping on shortsea shipping; and

    —  the detrimental impact of "gentrified" port areas and river systems.


  Although the UK's domestic tonnage figures for coastal shipping are by far the highest in Europe, the overwhelming influence of large tanker crude oil movements from the North Sea oil fields needs to be recognised. Coastwise and one-port oil and petroleum movements—primarily from Scottish oil fields—account for around 80 per cent of total UK waterborne freight. Britain's oil resources provide for a unique European opportunity for tanker shipping. Other than pipeline there is no alternative to tanker shipping in linking the oil fields with the refineries. However, when oil movements are taken out of the statistics a vastly different picture emerges, pointing to the low use of coastal shipping for dry cargo coastal and inland movements. In the 1990s, comparative European tonne-kilometre figures for inland shipping illustrated the relatively weak position weak position of the UK with its annual average of 0.2 billion tonne-kilometres dwarfed by Germany's 64.0 billion tonne-kilometres. Whilst road journeys in the congested regions of Britain suffer increased transit times (resulting in declining vehicle and driver productivity) the shipping alternative has largely been ignored.


  Coastal shipping declined in the 1960-70 period as a result of the emerging motorway age. Since that period the utilisation of shipping on such intensive routes as London-Newcastle has not seriously been considered. The dramatic rise of road haulage in the post 1945 period eclipsed both rail and shipping as the premier freight transport mode. Increases in the size and speed of lorries, accompanied by fuel efficiency gains and a comprehensive road building programme, have all increased the attraction of the road mode. The enduring levels of competition stimulated by the relative ease of market entry has ensured that price competition is always vigorous. The trunk trades between North and South Britain have increased at the expense of railfreight and coastal shipping. Reliability, flexibility and just-in-time logistics has helped to facilitate road's dominance. In the 1960s a round trip between Dundee and London would require at least seven days to complete by road. By the 1980s it would have been possible to make the round trip in 2.5 days.

  Road improvement schemes have proved conducive to improving road efficiency and served to the detriment of shipping. For example, road upgrades on the South West side of Bristol made it feasible for road tankers to complete a round trip, within the permitted ten hours driving, between the Bristol Channel's oil installations and the petrol stations of Somerset and North Devon. This factor was instrumental in the closure of the coastal shipping served petroleum distribution depot at Yelland (Somerset). The steady increase in vehicle payloads and improvements in fuel efficiency has also improved road haulage efficiency and competitiveness. It has also become evident in the high unemployment years of the 1980s and early 1990s that the supply of drivers, boosted by stocks of temporary "agency" staff, had brought about a fiercely cost competitive and highly flexible labour force.


  The economic pressure of a dynamic road haulage sector has in several instances stifled new shipping initiatives in recent years. The ability of hauliers to adjust their rates downwards has served as a barrier to new coastal shipping services. In June 1994 optimism was reported for a new feeder service linking the West Country port, Falmouth with the deepsea hub, Thamesport. The intention was for a weekly service to integrate with the round the world container liner services of the major Taiwanese carrier, Evergreen Line. Falmouth port director, Mike Deeks, heralded the initiative, claiming that the service

    "has enormous potential in Cornwall and Devon, which for many years have been disadvantaged by the very high costs of transporting containers by road to the deepsea ports." (Lloyd's List 13.6.94)

  Two staple Cornish export traffics were identified as the core for the estimated break-even point of 30 containers: Powdered China Clay and Bottled Steam Beer from the Redruth Brewery. Despite the apparent demand the service failed after only six weeks; the required traffic levels had failed to materialise. Partly this was as a result of hauliers reducing their rates in order to stifle the new competition. The short-lived Southampton-Grangemouth container service suffered a similar fate at around the same time. It is evident that a predatory pricing "piranha" effect occurs with lorry operators reducing rates in a spontaneous reaction to a new shipping service.


  Somewhat complementary to the growth of haulage is the rise of shortsea ro-ro shipping on the Irish Sea, North Sea and Channel routes. The impact of ro-ro shipping is that it has totally re-shaped the pattern of business between Continental Europe, the British Isles and Ireland. The success of ro-ro shipping, however, has proved detrimental to shortsea break-bulk shipping in the Continental trades. At its most intense the Dover-Calais schedule offers a turn and go service at 30 minute intervals. This gave road haulage operators the ultimate flexibility in combining their schedules with ferry sailings. The pattern of ro-ro ferry development has been one of concentration on the shortest crossing route, a factor that maximises the road haulage length. As a consequence, such short-sea routes as Dover-Calais and Stranraer-Larne have prospered at the expense of lo-lo shortsea shipping. An early casualty of the switch to ro-ro activity was the Manchester-Paris express liner service. The linking of these two inland ports by small vessels had been a successful example of sea-river shipping. However, the development of large ro-ro ferries and the complementary growth of motorway networks on both sides of the Channel contributed to the demise of the service. An extreme form of this pattern became evident in the early 1999s in the trades between the Irish Republic and Continental Europe. The 1992 publication, Green Links to Europe, (Rowlinson and Salveson) reported that thousands of trucks were making the long UK landbridge passage to Continental per year. The 1998 failure of the short-lived East Coast Ferries venture shows the difficulties facing operators offering an alternative to the shortest crossing route. The venture attempted the operation of a scheduled ro-ro freight service between the Hull and Dunkerque. The harsh reality discovered by the operator was that hauliers preferred to maximise the road leg and minimise the sea leg, not the opposite! Loadings were poor and the new venture quickly ran into irredeemable cash flow difficulties. A number of factors have contributed to the rise of the intensive shortsea ro-ro routes. Initially it was the vertical integration of the vessels into the railway timetable. Gradually as the development in ro-ro technology matched the inexorable rise in road transport the rail oriented business evolved. The ability to combine the foot passengers emanating from the rail system with cars, coaches and heavy goods vehicles provided a lucrative business opportunity for the ferry companies. Competition with the British Rail ferries, Sealink, only served to intensify this trend. Road development and up-grade schemes such as the Anglo-Scottish M6 motorway and A75 trunk road have served to intensify this trend. Similar road schemes in Ulster and the Irish Republic have served to increase road haulage's tonne-mileage.

  The net result of the growth of shortsea ferry linkages to and from Ulster/Eire, France, Belgium and the Netherlands has been to reduce the tonne-mileage of lo-lo shipping. Examples include the transfer of traffics between West Coast UK and the Netherlands from coastal liner services to road ro-ro linkages utilising the Dover Straits crossing. Economic growth in the Irish Republic has induced a surge in shortsea ro-ro shipping to Dublin. It was reported in July 2000 that "The port's buoyant transformation has been a result of the booming Irish economy which as seen a massive surge in unitised traffic. This now accounts for 74 per cent of total throughput, with ro-ro handling accounting for 52 per cent of the overall volumes. The capacity utilisation rate for ro ro traffic, is, according to a KPMG study prepared for the Dublin Chamber of Commerce, projected to increase to 110 per cent by 2007..."[29]

Sailings Per Day
Stena Line
Irish Ferries
P&O Irish Sea Ferries
Merchant Ferries
Merchant Ferries

  One shortsea tanker service to ruined by the rise of ro ro shipping was the bulk movement of Guinness beer from Dublin to the Runcorn bottling and canning plant. The purpose built 1732 dwt, Miranda Guinness, was replaced in the early 1990s by road tankers using the ro-ro service to Liverpool, generating at least 260 weekly round road trips over the congested Widnes-Runcorn bridge.

  The upsurge in ro-ro traffic in the Dover Straits and such East Coast ports as Harwich, Ipswich, Hull and Immingham, can be seen very much in correlation with the shift in the direction of trade brought about by European integration. The problem for shortsea shipping in the Continental and Irish trades is that ro-ro shipping normally promotes the shortest sea crossing and ergo the longest road journey leg.


  One unexpected outcome of the mix of de-industrialisation and industrial relocation processes, post 1970s, has been the transformation of port areas into desirable residential quarters. The marketing of properties, accompanied by rising prices, has forced a reassessment of the waterfront, its use and its valuation. On the Thames, Manchester Ship Canal and at Gloucester Basin the property interest has developed an often haughty and unsympathetic stance towards shipping. The process of "gentrification" that has occurred on the London Borough of Greenwich's once industrial waterfront has led to opposition to the continued handling of grain traffics in the close proximity of the new housing. Likewise it is highly apparent the Manchester Ship Canal Company (before its buy-out by Peel Holdings) had been more enthusiastic about developing such prestigious projects as the Trafford Centre along its banks than pursuing new shipping businesses.

  A similar effect has been felt by the rise of the water leisure business. As canals, rivers have attracted leisure seekers in large numbers, the dependence on commercial shipping has diminished. A particular criticism of the waterways custodian, British Waterways, has been the focus on leisure and environment at the expense of shipping. Pleasure boating is popular, brings in considerable revenues and does not require the high level of infrastructure expenditure that shipping requires, obviating much of the cost of dredging. The deterioration of the River Weaver's water level has jeopardised coastal tanker services to the chemical industries of Mid-Cheshire. By the late 1990s the tanker vessel, St Kearan, which was purpose built for the river, was finding it increasingly difficult to load beyond 50 per cent capacity. Draft restrictions forced loading from road tankers to take place some 15 miles downstream. The additional delay and expense that this transhipment process necessitated eventually destroyed any advantages that the coastal tanker option enjoyed over road haulage for bulk deliveries to the Scottish West Coast.

  The condition of the River Weaver, which links the industrial Mid-Cheshire area with the Manchester Ship Canal (ultimately the River Mersey and the Irish Sea) became the subject of the Parliamentary Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs (2000-1). Evidence submitted referred to the neglected state of the River, leading to the loss of traffic. The evidence was taken from a number of interested parties including two shipowners, the River Pilot and the transport manager of one of the Mid-Cheshire areas chemical industries[30]. Concern expressed by these stakeholders was that British Waterways was not fulfilling its obligation to dredge the river. The River Pilot was particularly concerned by the risk of doing serious damage to the St. Kearan due to constant groundings on the loaded outward voyage. Although these allegations were refuted by British Waterways, the evidence does suggest that leisure and environmental targets are taking precedence over commercial activity.


  This paper has sought to identify areas where policy can best serve the objective achieving a modal shift from road to water. Whilst it recognised that initially modest results can be anticipated, it is also contended that an incrementalist approach, capable of recognising the barriers to this modal shift, will produce long-term results.

29   "Traffic surge pressure on Dublin", Lloyd's List. 20.7.00. p. 11. Back

30   Evidence given to the Environment and Regional affairs Committee.... Back

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