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Restore the canal network to glory

Autonomous canal boats carrying palletised cargo by night
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England, and to a lesser extent Scotland and Wales, is crisscrossed with canals that provided the key transport infrastructure for the first industrial revolution. Unfortunately, following the rise of the railways, and later motorways, the canals were no longer viable, and closed to freight traffic.

Recently, however, there has been much buzz about the prospect for autonomous vehicles. It is envisaged that trucking would be able to save the cost of drivers and transport goods using fleets of driverless lorries at night. But why should such technology only be applied to road traffic?

Re-enter the canals. I propose the development of an autonomous canal boat, perhaps around three metres wide (narrow enough for most canals), powered by diesel-electric motors, and carrying initially a cargo of fifteen tonnes, in the form of pallets for ease of handling. These boats would travel by night, allowing the current leisure uses of the network to be preserved for the time being. They would be loaded and unloaded by day. Later improvements, should it prove viable, could be deepening the canals, lengthening locks, and using articulated boats to improve the cargo capacity. Additionally, it would provide a business case for re-opening closed canals.

I also propose that Lancaster Canal be used for the trial run. We have a small port connected to the network (Glasson Dock) and businesses along it that could be served, whilst being isolated from the wider network.

Selky, Jun 30 2020

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       Seems ecologically correct.
RayfordSteele, Jul 01 2020
  

       According to my British documentaries hosted by the actress from Fawlty Towers, canal boats average just 4 miles an hour and can't open their own locks. This would be the very definition of a slow stop, made worse possibly by pirates on foot.
4and20, Jul 01 2020
  

       [4and20] locks are, admittedly, a slight problem, though it depends on the canal chosen - Lancaster Canal for example on has locks at Glasson Dock, so boats could be worked through the flight during the day time. Other contour canals should be similar. Initially, we may need lock-keepers to be ready to operate them, which definitely puts a crimp on the potential profitability... in time I would want to replace them with automated incline lifts.   

       As for speed, I still don't know whether the 4mph speed limit is to do with protecting the canals structure, or for another reason. Still, over 12 hours that's almost 50 miles travelled. Slow, but (hopefully) cheap and energy efficient.
Selky, Jul 01 2020
  

       Interesting idea. Rather than replacing old and historically interesting locks, as they are clearly not easily automated, how about having a small automated crane at each lockside to move the pallets between boats at higher and lower level. Each canal section between locks could then have one or more automated narrow boats, and the water reserves needed for lock operation could still build up during the night.
Lemon, Jul 01 2020
  

       Brilliant idea - we had a huge amount of early industrial-revolution era infrastructure that cost the lives of literally thousands that's just serving as a crumbling canvas for outdoor spray-paint artistes.   

       It makes sense to reinvigorate this under-utilised resource - though what with CV-19 and Brexit, maybe forget the autonomous part, and start handing out a few jobs for real people to do.
zen_tom, Jul 01 2020
  

       Another solution to the lock problem, should the cargo be secured tightly enough, would be to move boats between canal sections on ramps. Not so viable for leisure boats, since it would make a mess inside. Wheels could be attached to the side of them, the boats would navigate to the ramps, lock on, and be hauled up or lowered down.   

       For ease of cargo transshipment between boats and vans (last mile transport), it would make sense for the cargo to be stored on wheeled racks that can be pulled out of the boat and wheeled straight into a van, and off at the destination. That way, there wouldn't be a lot of time spent unloading goods, loading them onto a van, driving for a few hundred metres to the destination, and unloading them again.
Selky, Jul 01 2020
  

       Better still, bring back slave ships and have otherwise idle lazy prisoners 'volunteering' to propel the barges and that way save on fuel.
xenzag, Jul 01 2020
  

       [xenzag] Slaves are false economy. Oil fed to a human can be converted to mechanical energy at 25% efficiency. Oil fed to a suitable diesel engine can be converted to mechanical energy at 50% efficiency.
Selky, Jul 01 2020
  

       Yes but humans can be fed lower-grade nutritional substances than diesel engines.
pocmloc, Jul 01 2020
  

       50% efficiency? Really? Who invented that? What's their secret? The best diesels I'm aware of only get about 37%.
RayfordSteele, Jul 01 2020
  

       A lot of the extremely large ship diesel engines sit at around 50%. Not cheap, small or light though.
bs0u0155, Jul 01 2020
  

       Narrowboats could conceivably be automated, the speeds and consequences of a crash are fairly amenable to that. The boats themselves are not great candidates for cargo movement however. 6'10' wide and 56-72' long with a shallow draught mean MAYBE 20 tons of cargo. Which is half a big truck at 1/10th the average speed. The worst part is the incompatibility of the boats with standard shipping containers, which means they can't mesh in with the exiting cargo network.
bs0u0155, Jul 01 2020
  
      
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