Watertruck opens up Europe’s small waterways to freight transport

The Watertruck project has boosted the efficient transport of goods across the North-West Europe region by introducing a new and environmentally friendly way to deploy small barges of up to 1500 tonnes that are pushed by small ‘pusher’ vessels. The project demonstrated that pushed barges on small waterways are a viable way to replace big vessels and transport goods on Europe’s inland waterways.

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Watertruck has developed a new and environmentally friendly navigation concept that has ensured the future of small inland waterway transport of goods. © Watertruck Watertruck has developed a new and environmentally friendly navigation concept that has ensured the future of small inland waterway transport of goods. © Watertruck

" The strength of the Watertruck project has been proved by the launch of its successor, the TEN-T/CEF project Watertruck+. This project aims to provide the market with the tools for the construction of a fleet of 500 vessels, rolling out the Watertruck concept across various European regions. "

Nicole Van Doninck, Watertruck project beneficiary

The project’s barge-pusher system aims to tackle some of the main current threats to inland waterway transportation – the rapid reduction of small inland vessels available for moving freight and the difficulty in finding enough skippers to pilot them.

The new pusher-barge system opens up the use of smaller waterways for transporting freight, making the modal shift of freight transport from road to waterways more feasible and reducing road congestion and pollution. The project’s concept is also seen as a potential sustainable solution for distributing goods in and around metropolitan areas.

The pusher-barge concept brought to life

The project’s navigation concept is based on adapting small barges and pusher boats (tugboats) for use on Europe’s smaller waterways. The pushers were adapted by removing accommodation on board for the skipper. Instead, the skipper of a small pusher can return home every day after a shift using a small vehicle that fits on the boat – he or she no longer has the obligation to live permanently on board – while the cargo loaded on the barge continues on its journey. The project believes the new service will in turn make the profession of skippering the small pushers more attractive.

The system of loading and unloading the barges has been separated from the entire transportation process and shippers can now load and unload their cargo at will, using the barges as temporary storage premises. The disadvantage of tight schedules and time windows (a few hours) for loading and unloading the barges is thus overcome.

Additionally, pre- and post- transport by road can be organised in an optimal way as the pusher can remain in place as long as necessary ¬– up to a few days. This will be an advantage especially in large city centres and seaports where traffic by road often faces congestion, and could result in the opening up of new markets for shippers. The approach could also lead to a reduction in costs for freight transport, the project states.

Business model to unlock the economic potential of the region

Because of its flexibility, the Watertruck concept is also able to unlock new shippers' markets and successfully operate in existing ones. The project has identified a potential market for the concept within the regional waste industry, where small push barges are filled at a specific rate, picked up and replaced by empty ones.

Companies from the small waterways sector have also expressed their interest in implementing the Watertruck solution: some inland navigation companies have started investing in Watertruck infrastructure. Pilot tests of the concept in France, the Netherlands and Belgium have demonstrated that the two most suited capacities for Watertruck’s push barges are 300 and 700 tonnes.

To confirm the concept’s market readiness, the project has demonstrated its business case both in terms of its economic and social impacts. A business case for a specific intermodal container route, which may be implemented in the future, has also been prepared. The Watertruck business case has also been benchmarked against traditional inland navigation models.

A total of 17 companies also provided feedback and vision on how Watertruck could help overcome their transport challenges. Other achievements include six pilot projects in Brussels, Gistel, Meerhout, North-Brabant and Maubeuge to highlight the added values of the Watertruck concept to a transnational audience. Several companies that took part in Watertruck’s pilot projects are now looking into the concept as a long-term solution to move more goods transport from the road to small waterways.

Based on Watertruck’s demonstration of the economic feasibility of the concept, a new European project Watertruck+ has been launched for the Flanders region of Belgium. The new project aims to establish a master plan for the future of inland waterway transport on smaller waterways in Europe.

Watertruck+ also aims to provide the market with business cases for a large European fleet of vessels, rolling out the Watertruck concept across Europe.

Total investment and EU funding

Total investment for the project “Watertruck, a flexible and environmentally friendly pusher/barge water transport concept for freight transport on small waterways, complementary to traditional navigation” is EUR 2 140 949, with the EU’s European Regional Development Fund contributing       EUR 1 070 474 through the “North-West Europe” Operational Programme for the 2007-2013 programming period. The investment falls under the priority “Transport”.

Draft date