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As Birmingham develops canalside flats and offices, the potential for passenger transport – already flourishing on the Thames in London – is greater than for carrying freight. The city also has a great need to improve its air quality.

The city of Utrecht in the Netherlands uses a zero emission electric boat to make deliveries in the city centre. Owned and run by the city and known as the ‘Beer Boat’, the vessel makes six trips, four days a week supplying more than 60 catering businesses along the canal front. Funding for the boat came from the city’s air quality improvement budget.

The advantages of water transport include:

  • greater safety: separated from pedestrians, cyclists and motorists,
  • lower emissions,
  • lower fuel costs,
  • less need for road and track maintenance,
  • less road traffic congestion
  • less noise and vibration,
  • improved quality of life and urban environment.

The Passenger Transport Executive Group – pteg – which brings together and promotes the interests of the six transport bodies serving the largest city regions outside London, published a report in February. To enable more use of the canals, the report recommended ‘network capacity enhancements’, including the development of more support for ongoing maintenance of waterways.

ross barlow city backgroundAs Professor Rex Harris once wrote, our canals and the emission-less hydrogen fuel cell boat, the Ross Barlow, designed by a team at the university of Birmingham, provide a pointer to the future.

One reader pointed out that electricity powered boats should be preferred because the technology is tried and tested, but so is the Ross Barlow prototype (left). Hydrogen has been generated and stored safely and reversibly for long periods as a metal hydride on the boat – storing energy to be converted into electricity by means of a hydrogen/oxygen fuel cell which produces ultra-pure water as the only by-product.

Both electricity and hydrogen-driven vessels will stand or fall by the source of their power: electricity or hydrogen generated by renewable resources. The price of renewable energy is becoming more competitive and Denmark is developing technology to produce hydrogen at the tanking station from wind energy. Their goal is low costs hydrogen with a high conversion efficiency. It is also reported that in Germany hydrogen is already being pumped into its grid, and electrolyzers are storing excess wind energy as hydrogen gas for long periods.

Birmingham’s canals are a neglected and underused resource; clean waterway transport should be integrated into plans for canalside residential, retail and office developments.

canalside ariel mailbox

One precedent is the dedicated waterbus service (above, pink) operated by Sherborne Wharf Heritage Narrow Boats, stopping at Brindleyplace, King Edwards Wharf, Gas Street Basin and The Mailbox. However, like most waterway vessels currently used, they cause both noise and air pollution.

Proposals for the use of clean hydrogen-powered barges in Birmingham, include:

  • transport from the City Centre to the Soho Foundry associated with Boulton and Watt, becoming a major tourist feature and source of employment and income for the City and the Black Country;
  • a reconsideration by Sainsburys, leading to the restoration of the Lapal canal link at Selly Oak, incorporating a mooring site for the Ross Barlow. The old pump-house could serve as a visitors centre and the trip into town would take in the new aqueduct over the Selly Oak by-pass;
  • a hydrogen powered water-bus to provide a city-centre service for the long-delayed development at Icknield Port. As city-based architect and urban planner Joe Holyoak says in the Post, the site has an unusually high ratio of canal frontage, more typical of Amsterdam or Bruges than of Birmingham.

One reader responded to an earlier article on the Ross Barlow, emailing that the emphasis should be on walking and cycling rather than vehicular transport. This writer is also a walker and cyclist, but ecologically sound public transport will always be needed for longer distances or quicker journeys, for people constrained by age, disability – and those who have wanted to move to a better form of transport but have found cycling too frightening after years driving a car.

canalside cafe brum

Hopefully, canal passenger transport policy will focus not only on leisure canal traffic, enjoyable though that can be (above) and will learn from Sustrans who years ago used the large funding awarded to them to build leisure cycling tracks in rural tourist areas instead of prioritising dedicated urban cycle paths to take thousands of people to their daily workplaces.

Birmingham has been named and shamed by the World Health Organisation for breaching safety levels for air pollution. Noting that the funding for its zero emission boat came from Utrecht’s air quality improvement budget, the city council should do all it can to encourage low and no emission transport of goods and passengers.