Will river transport be reborn on the Garonne Canal?

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For more than three years public and private actors have been mobilizing to revive river transport along the lateral canal of the Garonne. An ambitious project, which combines economic and ecological advantages, and which would restore the canal to its original function.

The study started a year and a half ago ended last February. At the origin of the project are the metropolis of Bordeaux, the community of communes of Confluence and Coteaux de Prayssas, the region of New Aquitaine and the prefect Voies Naviguable de France (VNF, owner of the management of the lateral canal of the Garonne) and the port of Bordeaux. Everyone wants to revive river transport on the side channel of the Garonne. For more than three years, actions and collectives have followed one another to achieve this goal with ecological and economic benefits.

“We need more traffic for the project to be economically viable,” explains Michel Masset. The mayor of Damazan explains that they are looking for customers before looking for transporters”. Christophe Delpino, of Biocoop Bordeaux, claims that the cost of a journey by barge between Damazan and Bordeaux is four times higher than the same journey made by truck A Freycinet Freight transport can carry the equivalent of ten trucks (for the smallest barges), the economic gain seems obvious, especially when we know that the risk of accidents is lower on the river than on the road.According to the study, river transport can save €440,000 per year, only if the barges are full.

The collectives want to bet on the construction and agriculture sectors. Currently, 36,000 trucks a year transport aggregates to Bordeaux or leave the Gironde capital with excavated material. With the agricultural sector, that’s more than 961 kilotonnes per year of cargo that can be affected. Only, even if these two sectors used river transport, there would be a significant gap between Bordeaux’s imports (79%) and exports (21%) by river transport. However, the barges must also be used on the way back for the system to be viable.

Limits already visible

Another black point that emerges from the use of freight transport is the weather. A barge can take up to ten hours to complete the Damazan – Bordeaux trip. The other question that arises is that of the famous “last kilometres”. If there are several construction or agribusiness companies along the canal, for the others it is necessary to develop a plan to get the goods to the canal and from the canal to the delivery points. From this question arises that of infrastructure.

The introduction of river transport requires a whole development, or rather a redevelopment. If more goods can be transported less quickly, it may become more profitable for some companies to store more before shipping their products. As regards the loading and unloading areas, numerous infrastructures are still present along the canal, converted for tourism purposes. The competition between goods and tourism does not arise for Michel Masset. “Tourism would not be disturbed, there is room for everyone,” said the mayor of Damazan. VNF will be responsible for coordinating the various activities of the channel.

At the heart of the project is the ecological question, and this is where the results are most promising. For every ton transported over 100 km, river transport consumes four times less energy than road transport and emits five times less CO². River transport also allows for the reduction of acoustic, olfactory and visual pollution inherent in road transport.

Goods, historic channel business

It was in 2000 that the “Babette”, the last barge to have transported goods on the Canal des Deux-Mers, ceased its activity. However, the Garonne canal was initially intended for freight transport.

Built in addition to the Canal du Midi with which it forms the Canal des Deux-Mers, the Canal de Garonne provides a more navigable route between Toulouse and Bordeaux, the Garonne itself being too unstable at times. It was inaugurated in 1856, almost two centuries after the Canal du Midi.

The advent of the railway, and in particular of the line between Bordeaux and Sète inaugurated in 1857, led to a gradual decline in river transport. In 1874 the canal carried 18,000 tons of goods against 47,000 in 1856.

However, at the beginning of the twentiethAnd, following the acquisition of the canal by the State, river freight transport is experiencing a recovery in activity. In 1963, 455,000 tons of cargo were carried by more than 250 vessels across the canal. Except that, with the competition from trains and trucks, which are faster, river freight transport is gradually disappearing from the canal to make way exclusively for tourist activities.

Transportation is already possible

Two delivery experiences between Damazan and Bordeaux have shown that the return of cargo is already possible.

In 2021, the Manger Bio Sud-Ouest company and the Garonne Fertile collective want to demonstrate that freight transport on the lateral canal of the Garonne is possible. The Damascus-based company wishes to supply its customers in Bordeaux and invites Biocop stores to join the project, whose regional platform is also located in Damazan. It is on board Jean-Marc Samuel’s “Tourmente” that the goods are transported to Bordeaux. Once they arrive at the docks, the pallets are delivered using cargo bikes to keep them as clean as possible.

In 2022, Christophe Delpino, director of the Biocop des Chartrons in Bordeaux, wants to relaunch the project and organizes a second trip. Jean-Marc Samuel’s barge “le Tourmente” will be reused, loaded with 25 pallets from Biocop and 10 from Manger Bio Sud-Ouest. During the two-day journey to Bordeaux, the barge stops twice to deliver to the Biocoop stores in Marmande and Langon. Once arrived on the Richelieu quay, the Remuménage workshop takes care of the last kilometers by delivering the customers of Manger Bio Sud-Ouest with cargo bikes and of the Biocop shops with trucks powered by biogas.

“How to put it into practice to sustain it”

For Christophe Delpino, the goal goes beyond demonstrating that river freight transport is possible on the lateral canal of the Garonne. He wants these deliveries to become regular, first monthly and then bimonthly. The deliveries were to begin in February but, without the consent of some authorities, the Bordeaux had to postpone the third delivery. “I’m confident, but it will take some time.” Christophe Delpino hopes to be able to carry the transport in September and October before the canal closes for maintenance from November to February.

With one or two deliveries a month, the river won’t be replacing the road anytime soon. Christophe Delpino knows it: “We can’t make a 100% postponement”. Given Biocop’s current demand, “a truck is a barge” the manager specifies. However, the cost of transport by ship is four times higher for a journey time twice as slow. “Here we start from scratch, he explains, and on a smaller economic model”. For Christophe Delpino, the cost of transport can be reduced if loads are more optimized. On her 2022 voyage, the barge was not fully loaded on the outward journey and returned empty from Bordeaux. Christophe Delpino imagines a system in which the barge goes back and forth between Bordeaux and Toulouse to deliver the Biocops stores in the departments crossed by the lateral canal of the Garonne, stopping to reload in Damazan.

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