British canal system modernised and widened as per that of Germany, Netherlands and France

The British canal system never got the modernisation and widening that the canal systems of Germany, Netherland and France did but what would be the effects if they did and what canals are most likely to be modernsied and widened?

Note, was originally in before 1900 but moved as its effects are likely to be felt later on and it is just possible there may be additional modernisation post 1900.
 

Easily one of the more consequential what-if's for the British economy in the 20th century, especially if it is completed when it was first proposed in the 40s. Widening the canal system would allow barges to move goods from the industrial centres in the Midlands and North to large swathes of Continental Europe. This replaces multiple choke points (loading onto rail, unloading, loading onto ships) with a smooth distribution system.

It also has the added benefit of weakening the monopoly power of the unions (railway, dockers), and gives companies options for transporting goods. A strike in one sector would not have the ability to strangle the British economy in the way that it did (the 1970 dockers strike being a good example).

As it happens, contrary to popular opinion, I think a post-1900 departure makes the most sense. If you get a pre-1840s expansion, those canals are going to be irrelevant a century later. After rail comes onto the scene, it is the most cost effective method of transport within the British Isles throughout the Victorian era, and the British economy is geared towards the Empire much more than Europe at that point. I don't see the Victorians building canals on a huge scale.
 

DougM

Donor
Being as many of the canals still exist but are used primarily for recreational use this is an interesting question.
There are a huge number of looks on the canal system and these would all need to be replaced. There are also more bridges then i want to think about a good number of aqueducts and a fair number of tunnels.
And this is just on the parts that are still in use. Take a look at the Narrow Boat videos on YouTube.
So I doubt if during the 20th century you would ever see more then a partail widening as it simply is to big a system with to many locks, bridges and such to rebuild. But tryouts could see a fair number of them updated.
As for which canals thatcis more problematic as it will vary a lot by when you do it. As the canals only make sense when the traffic is high enough to benefit. And that changes by decade as business changes.
Keep in mind you are radically changing the use of the canals. In England they were designed for internal transportation and often reasonablely short trips. The canal system was not designed for long distance travel . It was a series of relatively short canals that ultimately were inter connected to all long distance travel. But with all the locks it makes travel pretty slow. (Faster when the locks were manned but still slow). And sets of 10-12 looks in a few miles are depressingly common. So it is alwas going to be a complicated system
And it is going to get very expensive if for no other reason then the extra water needed to fill all these newly widened locks is going to take an very large system to support it.
Oddly enough I think that if you widened a few key canals that we would see LESS canals in existence today then we have. As I think the narrow boat canals would have been abandoned before recreational use could get popular enough to save them. So you would end up with only the wide commercial canals left.
Which would be a shame as the canals as they exist today truly appear to be historic gems.
 

Easily one of the more consequential what-if's for the British economy in the 20th century, especially if it is completed when it was first proposed in the 40s. Widening the canal system would allow barges to move goods from the industrial centres in the Midlands and North to large swathes of Continental Europe. This replaces multiple choke points (loading onto rail, unloading, loading onto ships) with a smooth distribution system.

It also has the added benefit of weakening the monopoly power of the unions (railway, dockers), and gives companies options for transporting goods. A strike in one sector would not have the ability to strangle the British economy in the way that it did (the 1970 dockers strike being a good example).

As it happens, contrary to popular opinion, I think a post-1900 departure makes the most sense. If you get a pre-1840s expansion, those canals are going to be irrelevant a century later. After rail comes onto the scene, it is the most cost effective method of transport within the British Isles throughout the Victorian era, and the British economy is geared towards the Empire much more than Europe at that point. I don't see the Victorians building canals on a huge scale.

The Grand Contour is one of the ones that I immediately thought of but probably at least 100 years too late with rail and road having sewn up the market though the water transfer part may make it attractive.

Anyone want to hazard a guess as to the earliest this could actually be built given the engineering and equipment available?

Anyone know what the largest size barge that could be towed effectively by horse or horses would be?
 
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Devvy

Donor
Would it be useful? England is pretty urban and coated in rail, and later road. Would canals be offer greater efficiency? My gut says no, but I also think that might be a biased point of view. But I just can't see canals offering cheap enough transit for freight to overcome the challenges from more direct rail and road competitors. The water distribution aspect is interesting, but I guess that's only really useful in the later 20th century?
 
Presumably more modern technology can replace lots of smaller locks with some individual gargantuan ones.
 
Would it be useful? England is pretty urban and coated in rail, and later road. Would canals be offer greater efficiency? My gut says no, but I also think that might be a biased point of view. But I just can't see canals offering cheap enough transit for freight to overcome the challenges from more direct rail and road competitors. The water distribution aspect is interesting, but I guess that's only really useful in the later 20th century?

These are figures from a UK government study into the feasibility of canal expansion in the mid-1970s. I can't find the original link, but will look later.
 

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Presumably more modern technology can replace lots of smaller locks with some individual gargantuan ones.

The Mid Scotland Ship Canal was looked at several times from the 1880's, its last gasp was around 1917.

Take a look at the proposed lock dimensions.

Mid Scotland ship canal 1917 dimensions.png
 
The British canal system has 2 widths and a number of lock lengths. If there was a programme to enlarge many of the smallest locks to maybe the biggest size that would energise the system by allowing the biggest barges free reign.

In another note which may be relevant the coastal shipping sector provided a large part of Britain domestic transport task in 1914. However compared to the railways even the largest coastal shipping company had a market capitalization a mere fraction of the smallest railway company., so lacked the raw power to invest. Perhaps this applies to canals and canal boat companies too.
 
The British canal system has 2 widths and a number of lock lengths. If there was a programme to enlarge many of the smallest locks to maybe the biggest size that would energise the system by allowing the biggest barges free reign.

In another note which may be relevant the coastal shipping sector provided a large part of Britain domestic transport task in 1914. However compared to the railways even the largest coastal shipping company had a market capitalization a mere fraction of the smallest railway company., so lacked the raw power to invest. Perhaps this applies to canals and canal boat companies too.

On the subject of coastal shipping, how useful would a large capacity canal following Brindley's Grand Cross be?

2021-05-04 21_19_22-Boathorse Road, Harecastle, Goldenhill, Stoke-on-Trent — Mozilla Firefox.png


 
Would it be useful? England is pretty urban and coated in rail, and later road. Would canals be offer greater efficiency? My gut says no, but I also think that might be a biased point of view. But I just can't see canals offering cheap enough transit for freight to overcome the challenges from more direct rail and road competitors. The water distribution aspect is interesting, but I guess that's only really useful in the later 20th century?
Yeah, thats the reason I originally had it in pre 1900 as its likely it needs to get the go ahead before rail coats the land.....then i thought, well any expanded network is likley to still be around post 1900 and I was wondering what effect that would have.
 
The British canal system has 2 widths and a number of lock lengths. If there was a programme to enlarge many of the smallest locks to maybe the biggest size that would energise the system by allowing the biggest barges free reign.

In another note which may be relevant the coastal shipping sector provided a large part of Britain domestic transport task in 1914. However compared to the railways even the largest coastal shipping company had a market capitalization a mere fraction of the smallest railway company., so lacked the raw power to invest. Perhaps this applies to canals and canal boat companies too.
How about a combined rail/shipping company? I had one in a dream I turned into a story
 
How about a combined rail/shipping company? I had one in a dream I turned into a story

Sure, if the railway company was willing to use canals instead of closing them to reduce competition. Another angle might be a canal and coastal shipping company , especially if such a company could also access local international trade in France and the low countries.
 
The Grand Contour is one of the ones that I immediately thought of but probably at least 100 years too late…
One suggestion that I've seen proposed previously on the board was for it to be built in the 1930s utilising the maximum amount of human labour feasible as a way of boosting employment.


… with rail and road having sewn up the market though the water transfer part may make it attractive.
Canals are still in use on the continent nowadays so perhaps not wholly sown up. For large bulk goods like coal where you have a regular and ongoing flow of goods suitably sized rivers or canals can be cheaper than rail IIRC.
 
Canals are still in use on the continent nowadays so perhaps not wholly sown up. For large bulk goods like coal where you have a regular and ongoing flow of goods suitably sized rivers or canals can be cheaper than rail IIRC.

How dense was/is the UK rail network compared to that on the continent?
 
I am against this idea because my local pub will be demolished if the canal is widened!
 

Devvy

Donor
How dense was/is the UK rail network compared to that on the continent?
Just some quick stats from Wiki and calculated for early 1910s:
France: 1,550 km per 1m inhabitants
Germany: 880 km per 1m inhabitants
Great Britain: 920km per 1m inhabitants
 
This may be a dumb question, but would the canal expansion scheme described here (or in the link for the Great Contour Canal) allow for direct international connections between the industrial cities in the Midlands and Continental Europe? Or would the barges/ships on the canals be too small to cross the Channel/North Sea with a decent cargo thus necessitating a cargo transfer from the barges to a blue water freighter in Liverpool or another deepwater port?

I’m not familiar with the seaworthiness of the barges seen in the larger European canals. I’m aware that they’re not like the big “Lakers” on the Great Lakes, but do I assume correctly they’re more like the oceangoing tug-barge combos I see here in San Francisco Bay than the riverine versions on the Mississippi and Intracoastal Waterway where I grew up, much less the Rhine River barges planned for Unmentionable Sea Mammal?
 
Just some quick stats from Wiki and calculated for early 1910s:
France: 1,550 km per 1m inhabitants
Germany: 880 km per 1m inhabitants
Great Britain: 920km per 1m inhabitants

What are the stats per km per square km of land area?
 
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