Leeds Inland Port

Three miles outside Leeds at Stourton, the Aire & Calder Navigation is going back to the future.

Illustration of three boats.

Illustration by Neil Webb

Words by Peter Watts

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This summer, construction will begin on an inland port – the first inland port to be built on our inland waterways for decades – and 12 months later barges laden with aggregate will start transporting freight along the canal. It’s a return to the origins of our waterways, which were first constructed to transport freight up and down the country before becoming superseded by rail and then road in the 1950s.

“There have been any number of new coastal port developments over recent years but this to my knowledge will be the first truly inland port,” explains Stuart McKenzie, Canal & River Trust’s Freight Operations Planner and Harbour Master. “Goole Docks is often quoted as being the most inland port in the country. We will beat this by about 50 km.”

In its heyday, the British canal system handled millions of tonnes of freight each day but by 2014, this was reduced to just 500,000 tonnes per year. That’s what makes the Leeds Inland Port so significant. Initially, it will handle around 200,000 tons of freight per annum but when the project is complete and a second wharf constructed, Canal & River Trust hope to be moving up to one million tonnes a year along this waterway – not far short of the 1.5m tonnes of coal than the Aire & Calder carried at its peak. This will make a significant contribution towards improving air quality and reducing road congestion in the area, with one barge able to carry the equivalent of 17 lorry loads. It’s this environmental aspect that makes the canals a viable prospect for freight once more.

“We felt there was a future for freight even though it’s seen as an outdated form of transport,” explains McKenzie. “We were getting a lot of enquiries about freight and there’s a big demand for those in waste and recycling. Councils are tasked with reducing emissions, improving air quality and reducing road congestion and as time goes by we feel more and more people will be interested in our operations.”

McKenzie cites the importance of regulators in helping this shift back to water. When a company wants to construct a new factory or warehouse, they need to get planning permission and that means local councils, environmental bodies and planning authorities have the power to demand that those seeking planning consent should find sustainable transport solutions such as canals and rivers. Leeds City Council have supported the construction of Stourton Wharf for this very reason: a transference from road to canal will help the council meet their air pollution targets and reduce traffic to the benefit of the local population.

The port needs to be constructed from scratch as it is currently empty land with no existing infrastructure. The Trust acquired the land many years ago and always hoped to construct an inland port here but have been waiting for the right moment to make such a sizable investment – the port will require more than £3m in external funding and it’s not expected to be profitable for some years.

In 2012, a Freight Advisory Group began to explore the potential of freight transport returning to the waterways, and their report formed the Trust’s policy for the future of freight on the network. It deemed the North East waterways as those best suited for freight because of their larger size and their location close to the Humber ports, with access to the North Sea as well as the rest of the British coast. There’s also significant demand in this part of the country, with a need for 2m tonnes of aggregates per year in Leeds alone for construction and road work. These are the factors that have kept the Aire & Calder in the freight-carrying business throughout the decades, albeit in much reduced numbers than during its Victorian peak.

All the same, the Trust is progressing carefully. While planning permission has been acquired for two wharfs on the nine-acre site, the Trust will initially only build one as they carefully build up operations.

“We are adopting a cautious approach,” says McKenzie. “The plan at first is to use existing vessels and infrastructure. As the loads increase we will have to improve the infrastructure resilience to make the waterway more efficient. We can probably handle 200,000 tonnes per annum without much trouble but above that we will need to work on the infrastructure. We have an outline plan over five and six years to incrementally increase our capacity, then once we build that second wharf we will widen some locks, straight bends and bring in larger Euro Class II vessels.”

Keep an eye on our website for more news on Leeds Inland Port .You might also like ‘The Missing Mile: Rejoining the Cotswold Canal System to the main network will require some radical engineering – and may mean that motorists will one day enjoy the surreal sight of boats travelling below the middle of a roundabout.’

Posted on 17/01/2020