A step in the right direction

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Waiting for official action on water freight transport is like waiting on the proverbial London double decker bus. None appear for ages, then all at once along comes a convoy. Similarly nothing much has happened on the promotion of water freight transport, then suddenly a plethora of reports spring forth on the subject – the short sea shipping actions originating from Brussels, featured in last month’s Logistics Manager, and the latest moves from the Department for Transport (DfT).

In July the DfT launched the Short Sea & Waterways Forum (SSWF), funded by £360,000 of public money, which resulted from the 2002 DfT Waterways for Tomorrow report’s conclusion that there is a good opportunity for water freight and that a strong representative body should be established.

The SSWF’s objectives are to actively promote water freight transport; act as a co-ordinating body for all UK water freight interest groups; provide a direct line of communication between the water freight industry and all levels of Government in order to formulate strategy and influence policy; to be the definitive source of information for enquiries in the regional, national and international arena; to construct and support a network and information system to facilitate the integration of water freight into the wider logistics chain; and to be an active member of the appropriate European networks for short sea and inland waterways freight movement. The SSWF, is intended to be a one-stop shop for information on water freight transport and how it can link into the wider supply chain.

Shipping minister David Jamieson, in launching the SSWF, stated: “There is a real opportunity for water freight as a vital sustainable integrated transport mode in the UK.” I sincerely hope he believes that.

Unfortunately, a great many at the sharp end of the logistics industry may not share the same beliefs, which is understandable given the fact that the water freight industry has not over-sold itself to the market in recent years. A main reason for this has been the lack of cohesion within the industry, too much fragmentation and too little knowledge disseminated on the benefits and services water could provide for the logistics market.

Unlike, our European counterparts, who long ago established water freight information and promotion centres, we in the UK have been slow off the mark. Hopefully, that is about to change with the launch of a UK-based water freight promotion centre and the industry having, at last, an effective industry representative body. This is long overdue and definitely a step in the right direction.

Needless to say, as with the launch of any new organisation, there are initial challenges to be confronted. The first challenge for the SSWF will be overcoming the many industry misconceptions that water freight is old fashioned, slow, unreliable and just not available and, above all, not suitable for JIT operations. Serious thought needs to be given to address these issues. Attention needs to be focused on the JIT aspect, which contrary to common opinion does not necessarily mean delivery within the next five minutes. In reality, JIT requirements can be factored into an operation having a long lead-time. For example, this may be no problem for a customer in the North-west, expecting a container of goods from the Far East. If the customer’s container arrives in Southampton on a Saturday, after a month-long voyage, and is delivered by coastal feeder ship on Monday morning, say, Liverpool or Manchester, this could be quite acceptable – if built into that specific lead time. Given the state of road congestion, waiting time at docks and possible road tolls then freight movement by water could just be as quick, and cheaper, than by road.

Another challenge is getting across the message that water freight can complement and integrate with other transport modes, such as rail and road, to produce tomorrow’s seamless logistics supply chains. Water should play an essential role in the development of the large tri-modal freight hubs, which not only serve the UK market, but also more importantly have the capability to plug into the wider pan-European intermodal hubs.

Finally, success for the SSWF will be getting, and maintaining the momentum on the role of water freight towards a more sustainable logistics industry. I wish them every success.

Frank Worsford works in the transport studies group at the University of Westminster.

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