Navigating France

Responsible for managing the majority of France’s inland waterway network and associated facilities, Voies Navigables de France (VNF) has over 6,000km of canals, navigable rivers, dams, locks, aqueducts, and reservoirs under its wing.

Keen to find out how inland waterways are performing and developing in France, at the end of 2015 Passion4Transport put some questions to Guillaume Dury, head of business development, VNF.

Navigating France_portrait GD

In October 2015, VNF published its environmental brochure ‘Réseau navigable, réseau vivant‘. Just how ‘green’ are the French waterways today?

GD: After adopting an environmental strategy in 2001, VNF has since certified five regional branches charged with monitoring and reducing the negative environmental impacts of the waterways across French territories.

The waterways are the only transport infrastructure comprising a natural resource. Hence the controlled management of its water, i.e. optimising its use as an integral part of the network operations, is a major preoccupation at VNF. By gradually equipping the waterway system and establishing the technical regulations governing hydraulic management of the associated structures, we are gaining expertise and know-how in this field.

We are also aware of the importance of anticipating the impacts of climate change, i.e. impacts on water regimes, and are actively working on this issue.

Furthermore, VNF is actively committed to conserving biodiversity, notably by encouraging the restoration of banksides through ecological engineering, banning the use of pesticides around inland waters, and participating in action to restore fish species to rivers and streams.

In France, the waterways have a special place in the hearts of the public: given the size of the network [over 6,500km of navigable – Ed.] and how it links up municipalities [communes], many local inhabitants and users greatly appreciate the environmental and tourism benefits delivered. River tourism, through the development of bike paths, nautical activities, and sailing, offers a wide range of leisure pursuits.

“The more waterways are part and parcel of a landscape, the more strongly people feel about them.”

The felling of plane trees along Canal du Midi [due to a canker stain plague] since 2006 is an example of how high these feelings can run among the public, tourists, and territorial stakeholders: the unprecedented support to restore this unique waterscape to its former glory demonstrates just how much people care about it.

Which sectors of activity use the waterways the most, and why?

GD: In decreasing order, cereals 30% (in 2014); construction materials 29%; energy products such as petroleum and coal 12%; containers 12%; and lastly, metallurgical and chemical products – each 9%.

For these sectors, integration of the logistics chain has the greatest impact on the competitiveness of the goods themselves. Opting to transport them by water is a decision not based on the mode of transport, but above all on industrial considerations. This is why VNF approaches the big industry actors that are seeking a price, a quality service, and significant potential for massification [consolidation of loads].

For some sectors, e.g. chemical or petroleum products in particular, safety aspects must, of course, be examined too.

What are the barriers to transporting goods by water?

GD: Mainly the distance to/from the network, and the type of freight to be carried. If the pre-/post-shipment by road is over a certain distance, it is more cost effective for the loader in question to use another mode. This is why it’s vital the latter reviews access to the waterways when seeking a site for its plant or industrial unit.

Furthermore, for certain high value goods or those that can’t be massified, the waterways are quite simply not the right choice. Having said that, we have noticed that development of container traffic and urban logistics by water tends to open up waterway logistics solutions, or ones in which this mode of transport plays a part, to a wider range of goods.

The supermarket chain Franprix launched a freight operation along the river Seine in 2012. How has this initiative developed? Are other retail groups following suit?

Franprix recently decided to double the number of swap bodies it transports on the river Seine between Bonneuil-sur-Marne [18km from Paris] and Quai La Bourdonnais (heart of the city). Other supermarket chains are in talks with VNF and/or Ports de Paris (when a question of supplying stores in the city centre), but they are not yet ready to go public about these plans.

Don’t forget that other retail businesses such as Monoprix, Leroy-Merlin, Castorama, Auchan, and Ikea already transport part of their containers by water –  both on the river Rhône, the Nord-Pas-de-Calais and Belgian networks, as well as the Seine.

How important are the links between navigable waterways and ports?

They are absolutely vital. Ports and massification go hand in hand. The efficiency gained by concentrating volumes of goods at ports greatly impacts the efficiency of the logistics chain in its entirety. The strictly water-related percentage of the total cost of a logistics chain rarely exceeds 40%.

We pay close attention to both developments within the port network and the links between inland waterways and sea ports.  For instance, VNF has been behind the introduction of blueprints for port docks. It’s a question of adhering over the long term so as to preserve the land holdings, expand road and rail access, obtain the necessary funding, develop specialist hubs, and so forth.

Is VNF exploring new technologies to improve the performance and appeal of its assets?

GD: For many years VNF has embraced new technologies, with groups of European experts actively involved in drawing up and harmonising the technical standards for information systems used by the waterways. In parallel, we have, and continue to participate in European initiatives encouraging innovation; the aim being to boost the appeal of water – as a destination for sailing and for goods and passenger transport professionals.

By way of example, this engagement led to the creation of electronic navigation cards – to improve safety for freight vessels – for all wide-gauge waterways.

Notices to skippers are shared electronically (email, web) to keep users informed of the availability of facilities and announce any events that might have an impact on navigation, e.g. weather conditions or nautical events.

Using the ‘Cahier de l’Eclusier’ application, vessels only have to ‘present’ themselves at the first lock on their journey; the tool automatically sends this information to those following so as to optimise the passing of vessels, of course in line with all the relevant safety measures, e.g. dangerous goods and passenger vessels never together in a lock.

The wide-gauge network is fully covered by an AIS monitoring system, so that at any given moment the traffic managers can locate vessels exceeding 20 metres in length. Using this system, logistics partners can also find out, again at any time, the current location of their goods. Between 2012 and 2014, VNF provided every owner of this type of vessel (on request) with funding to equip themselves with the AIS transponder.

“All freight shipping companies, both public and private, must pay a toll when using VNF’s network. To help them make their declarations, we have created a web app called VELI.”

In sectors of the network where the bridge clearance impacts navigation when water levels are high, e.g. Paris and Lyon, VNF’s dedicated websites provide the necessary hydraulic information, in real time, for optimising the loading of goods.

Lastly, for amateur sailors there is the PoGo mobile app, which provides information about the river they are using, its characteristics and attractions.

We are also exploring other means of sharing traffic and hydraulic information – both current and predicted – with professionals.

More than 80% of inland freight volumes in Europe are carried by the roads. Can the waterways expect to take market share from trucks in the years to come?

GD: Yes they can, although trucks do remain a given for much traffic that cannot be massified.  The challenge lies in organising a transport system whereby each mode is put to optimal use in its relevant field.

The waterways offer many social benefits:

  • low levels of air and noise pollution
  • vessels operate on dedicated infrastructure, thus limiting the risks of accidents involving third parties
  • the infrastructure is not congested and its activities also contribute towards reducing saturation on other types of infrastructure; and last but not least,
  • considering the volumes carried, waterways are energy efficient – a ratio of 1 to 4 compared to the roads

Real success will come when loaders fully grasp the link between massification and industrialisation.

When well organised, the first benefits of the waterways are direct transport cost savings. At the same time, the whole logistics chain is then optimised, helping drive down costs (up-/and/or/downstream) of the production/distribution chain. These are the key wins for sectors such as chemicals, agro-industry, or containers.

So there are undoubtedly social factors in favour of developing inland goods transport by water.  But don’t forget economic and industrial influences too, which themselves underpin clients’ decisions.

Related links:

‘Waterborne public transport: big investments, happy passengers’

‘Signature d’une convention de partenariat entre VNF et Veolia’



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