The rise of the railway and the fall of the canals
The latter half of the eighteenth century was the great age of the canals, when transporting goods by waterway took off and investors made great profits from canals running through areas of heavy industry.
Sadly (for the waterways and the people who had invested their savings in them) the advent of the railways in the nineteenth century was to have a massive impact on the waterway transport network. Profits dropped and many canals fell into neglect and disreppair.
Why did the canal network loose out to the railways?
Transporting goods by railway was much faster and more efficient than by canal boat. Plus, the canal system at this time was very fragmented, with different stretches of canals owned by different companies and no standard size for locks – or even canal width.
Some canal owners bought into the new trade, infilled their canals and built a railway line on top. Others, unable to compete, sold up to the local railway company who were keen to reduce competition and push up their own prices. It was not long before the canal network became even more fragmented, with some canals falling into disreppair and the railway companies charging more for use of their canals in order to discourage waterway traffic.
The end of canal freight?
Depsite their obvious advantages, railways did not end canal freight and the waterway technology that was developed as early as the 18th century continued to be used for commercial purposes right up until the 1960s. By this time, most boats had been fitted with engines, but horses were still a common sight on many towpaths – particularly along the narrow canals.
Today, our canals are used for leisure, by holiday boaters, walkers and cyclists and nature lovers. Not forgetting the thousands of people who live on the canals aboard their own narrowboat or cruiser. Yet even now, there are occasions when our 200 year old network is used for the purpose it originally fulfilled, the carriage of freight.