Electrifying Waterways

Having recently read both Robert Aickman's The River Flows Uphill and David Bolton's Race Against Time, which deal with the early days of the Inland Waterways Association, I have been keeping my eye out for old copies of the IWA Bulletin. Both books draw heavily on Bulletins for their source material. Indeed the Aickman's book quotes liberally from them. At the recent Stoke Bruerne Gala Day I found a small collection of early Bulletins for sale and sought out the most interesting of them from the pile.

The most interesting Bulletin turned out also to be the oldest; number 57 from October 1958. It covered the likely impact of the Bowes report on the future of the inland waterways and included pictures and a report from the IWA Annual Dinner where Leslie Bowes, Robert Aickman and John Smith were among the speakers. I have seen these pictures reproduced elsewhere, notably in Waterways World. Nevertheless, the booklet is fascinating and no doubt I will develop more posts from it during the coming months.

However, the section that struck me as being the most noteworthy was a short article written by an engineer from Birmingham, Andrew Allison, on a scheme to electrify the waterways. The article definitely smacks of the "white heat of technology"; a phrase that was coined a few years later by Harold Wilson. It describes in some detail, but without economic justification, how electricity could be used to move "barges" along the canals. The author points out the Britain has The Grid which he describes as being ubiquitous and if it were used there would be no smoke. As he puts it "In the nuclear days to come we should be ashamed of every puff of smoke from oil fuel that fouls the countryside"!

The scheme describes how sections of canal could be served by overhead power lines transformed down from the 11 kV of the grid to just 380 V three-phase. Above the canal there would be two power lines and an earth (or ground) line, with the latter being the closest to the ground. All catenary or supporting wires would also be earthed. The drawing below from the article shows how Allison envisaged the system could be laid out. Power would be picked up by boats using either a shoe or roller sprung against the overhead line. Ten boats at a time could occupy any powered section.

Allison's sketches of a system for providing overhead electric power to canals

Safety was discussed. The motive power system and "driver" would be enclosed in a ironclad enclosure or cab ". The driver would be able to watch the operation of the power pick-up system in his mirror! There is talk of a "driver's seat" and the "bargee" using electricity for heating, cooking and pumping at 110 volts.  Electricity could also be used to rapidly pump water at locks using large (30 inch diameter) submersible pumps and electric controls - no mention of water supplies. I don't  think he was thinking of using back-pumping.

Allison also discusses how there would be a waterways Highway Code to prevent operational problems such as could occur when "barges" pass each other. He discusses how tunnels and bridges would be accommodated. There could be protection for the wires as they pass under bridges (see Fig. 3 above); maybe he had seen how small boys often misbehaved near canal bridges. However, with a minimum specified height of 7ft for an unloaded barge you can't help feeling that there would been lots of local problems associated with modernising what was then a 150 year-old system. Did he envisage two sets of wires under narrow bridges?

There had been, of course,  examples of electric power used on waterways before but not on the scale envisaged by Allison. Harecastle tunnel tug was, for example, was for many years powered using a system similar to a trolley bus or tram. But Allison is thinking on a grand scale. He estimates that electrifying 1,000 miles and modifying 400 pairs of narrow boats would have cost in 1958 around £18.6 million. He was certainly using "blue skies" thinking. However, I can't help concluding that although he had been discussing his ideas with BICC, the major cable manufacturer who had expressed interest, he probably hadn't seen many narrow boats operate on the narrow canals in Birmingham, or discussed his ideas with boat operators.  The editorial notes attached to the article pointed out that he wasn't the only one advocating this kind of approach. Letters advocating similar approaches had been sent to the Nottingham Evening Post and the Kidderminster Shuttle and were quoted by the Bulletin editor, Robert Aickman.

Maggie's view of this is that it would have made boating very lively!