TECHKNOW: Pushing the envelope - Canals

TECHKNOW: Pushing the envelope - Canals - Before the railway boom of the 1850s, our canals were the pulsating commercial arteries of the industrial revolution. But by the 1980s they were severely sclerotic. Dirty and dangerous, their towpaths had become t

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Before the railway boom of the 1850s, our canals were the pulsating commercial arteries of the industrial revolution. But by the 1980s they were severely sclerotic. Dirty and dangerous, their towpaths had become the haunts of muggers and their waters were clogged with abandoned supermarket trolleys.

But the enlightened management of British Waterways has put all that in the past. For 220 miles of canals will have been built or restored by the end of the year - more than at any time since Victoria was on the throne. And that's only a start - BW has another pounds 500 million to splash out over the next few years.

At the centre of the turnaround is the Falkirk Wheel, the world's only rotating boat lift, which raised its sluices for business on 1 May.

THE CHALLENGE

The Forth & Clyde and Union canals meet at Falkirk, halfway between Edinburgh and Glasgow. Until the 1930s the 34-metre height difference between these two major waterways was spanned by a run of 11 locks, which took experienced bargees the best part of half a day to traverse. These fell into disrepair, and barge traffic between Scotland's two main cities ceased. Plans to re-open the link were mooted in 1999, driven this time by pleasure rather than business. Two million boaters took to the water last year, and newly restored canals make desirable residential areas too. A waterside plot can command a premium of 20%, and 500 miles of fibre-optic cable has been laid along towpaths, bringing high-speed web access to life in the slow lane.

THE SOLUTION

The pounds 17 million Wheel's revolutionary design (by local architects RMJM, also responsible for the controversial Scottish Assembly building) is said to have been inspired by a fish's backbone and has won architectural as well as engineering plaudits. It's a high-tech concrete and steel seesaw so advanced, say experts, that it could not have been built even five years ago. The two 30m long caissons (water tanks) at either end take four boats each and rotate around a hydraulically actuated axle. The wheel is kept balanced by computers controlling the water level in the caissons, so that despite its 600 tonne payload, relatively little force is required to move it. Once it is in place at top or bottom, watertight gates open to allow boats to continue on their journey.

The Wheel is serviced by two new aqueducts, a tunnel and a basin, and the traverse time is just 15 minutes. That's 10 times faster per vertical metre than a lock, and much less hard work. As well as earning its keep by keeping boat traffic moving, the wheel has impressive looks, which should make it a tourist magnet. There's a visitor centre on site and up to 200,000 gawpers a year are expected.

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