So how does a canal boat travel uphill?

Canal boats on the Grand Union Canal near Watford. Image: Roger Kidd/creative commons.

Sea-faring boats face many challenges, but uphills are not one of them. They have to deal with up-waves, of course, but that’s mostly easy because they just have to float and not flip over, which is a pretty low bar to set for a boat. Unique to canal boats is the need to drastically change elevation.

Coal-carrying boats, the original users of many of the UK’s canals, had to travel from the high coal-rich hinterlands down to the city and back again to keep the city dwellers warm and the factory fires burning. The altitude difference involved in doing so is pretty huge across the UK with the highest canal, Huddersfield Narrow at 654ft contiguously connected to waterways below sea level.

A canal is essentially a very long, very thin lake, meaning any incline will cause water to do its thing: flow downhill and flood the lower reaches. So, instead, different kinds of locks are used to lift boats from one level to the next.

While this works well when dealing with small inclines, locks can’t be too deep because each use would waste too much water. The alternative is what’s called a ‘lock flight’, which is essentially a staircase of locks that can be insanely time consuming to traverse. The Tardebigge Flight in Worcestershire, the longest in the UK, raises the waterway by 220 feet over the course of 30 locks. It takes an experienced crew a whopping four hours to navigate.

So boat lifts are the final piece in this weird puzzle. These are just what you imagine: a way of taking a boat, and the section of canal it’s on, from one level to the next. Lifts have the advantage of being far faster to use than lock flights, while also wasting much less water. Funnily enough the precursors to these feats of modern engineering far predate the relatively simple locks – the ancient Egyptians used crude lifts to get boats round waterfalls on the Nile.

 

The Falkirk Wheel connects the Forth and Clyde Canal with the Union Canal. Credit: Wikipedia/creative commons.

As is the case for most triumphs of engineering, Victorian Britain led the way. The Anderton Boat Lift in Cheshire has been taking water traffic the 50ft between the River Weaver and the Trent and Mersey Canal since its construction in 1875. Far grander boat lifts have since been built in other parts of the world, but little-Englander-waterway-enthusiast types can hang onto the fact the UK got there first. The most impressive modern example is the lift that gets ships over China’s Three Gorge Dam, which is simultaneously the highest and most powerful in world. Not nearly the same size but at least closer to home, the Falkirk Wheel in Scotland is incredible for looking like something out of Star Trek whilst still being a fully functional lift.

So that’s the briefest of outlines for all your boat-raising queries. If want to get more technical, try to wrap your head around the hydraulic systems beneath boat lifts such as Canada’s Peterborough Lift Lock. But if you really want a challenge try to square in your head how it can be that each lift weighs the same whether a boat is in it or not. It times like this I wish I had a bath; not for cleanliness’ sake but to conduct experiments with my rubber ducks. 


 

 
 
 
 

Joe Anderson: Why I resigned from the Northern Powerhouse Partnership

Liverpool Lime Street station, 2008. Image: Getty.

The Labour mayor of Liverpool has a few choice words for Chris Grayling.

I resigned from the board of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership this week. I just didn’t see the point of continuing when it is now crystal clear the government isn’t committed to delivering the step-change in rail investment in the North that we so desperately need. Without it, the Northern Powerhouse will remain a pipedream.

Local government leaders like me have been left standing at the altar for the past three years. The research is done. The case has been made. Time and again we’ve been told to be patient – the money is coming.

Well, we’ve waited long enough.

The only thing left is for the transport secretary to come up with the cash. I’m not holding my breath, so I’m getting on with my day job.

There’s a broader point here. Rail policy has been like a roller-coaster in recent years. It soars and loops, twisting and turning, without a clear, committed trajectory. There is no consistency – or fairness. When London makes the case for Crossrail, it’s green-lit. When we make the same case for HS3 – linking the key Northern cities – we are left in Whitehall limbo.

Just look at the last week. First we had the protracted resignation of Sir Terry Morgan as Chairman of HS2 Ltd. Just when we need to see firm leadership and focus we have instead been offered confusion and division. His successor, Allan Cooke, said that HS2 Ltd is “working to deliver” services from London to Birmingham – the first phase of the line – from 2026, “in line with the targeted delivery date”. (“In line?”)

Just when HS2 finally looked like a done deal, we have another change at the top and promises about delivery are sounding vaguer. Rumours of delays and cost over-runs abound.

Some would like to see the case for HS2 lose out to HS3, the cross-Pennine east-west line. This is a bit like asking which part of a train is more important: its engine, or its wheels. We need both HS2 and HS3. We are currently left trying to build the fourth industrial revolution on infrastructure from the first.

If we are ever to equip our country with the ability to meet rising customer and freight demand, improve connectivity between our major conurbations and deliver the vision of the Northern Powerhouse, then we need the key infrastructure in place to do that.


There are no shortcuts. Ministers clearly believe there are. The second piece of disappointing news is that officials at the Department for Transport have already confirmed to the freight industry that any HS3 line will not be electrified, the Yorkshire Post reports.

This is a classic false economy. The renaissance of the Liverpool Dockside – now called Superport – is undergoing a £1bn investment, enabling it to service 95 per cent  of the world’s largest container ships, opening up faster supply chain transit for at least 50 per cent  of the existing UK container market. Why squander this immense opportunity with a cut-price rail system?

Without the proper infrastructure, the North of England will never fulfil its potential, leaving our economy lop-sided and under-utilised for another generation. This is not provincial jealousy. Building a rail network that’s fit for purpose for both passenger and freight will remove millions of car journeys from the road and make our national economy more productive. It will also be cleaner, cheaper and more reliable. Our European neighbours have long understood the catalytic effect of proper connectivity between cities.

Similarly, linking together towns and key cities across the North of England is a massive prize that will boost growth, create jobs and provide a counterweight to Greater London, easing pressures on the capital and building resilience into our national economy.

To realise this vision, we need the finance and political commitment. Confirmation that the government is pushing ahead with HS3 – as well as HS2 – is now sorely needed.

With Brexit looming and all the uncertainly it brings in its wake, it is even more pressing to have clarity around long-term investment decisions about our critical infrastructure. Given the investment, the North will seize the chance.

But until ministers are serious, I have a city to run.

Joe Anderson is the elected Labour mayor of Liverpool.