The Park Canal 03: sinking the waterbus

A waterbus

In order to simplify the discussion, let us make the following assumptions:

  • that it has been shown that there is a demand for water transport between Clare Street or Lock Quay and the University of Limerick
  • that the would-be travellers can get to the canal harbour by public transport or on foot or that they can find safe places to leave their cars and bicycles near the harbour while they travel by boat
  • that the operators have devised security systems to prevent thugs and vandals (a) throwing stones at the boat during its trips and (b) setting fire to and sinking it at night (as was done to a hire boat at Blanchardstown on the Royal Canal in Dublin some years ago)
  • that a quay with floating pontoons (to cater for changing water levels) can be built at Plassey
  • that the river between Plassey and the upper end of the canal has been dredged and marked appropriately
  • that the operators of the boat have raised enough funding to buy and equip a suitable vessel, to meet the standards of the Marine Survey Office of the Maritime Safety Directorate of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and to run and market the service safely and profitably.

The size of the vessel is limited by the width of the canal at the turning point.

The turning point, which would have to be dredged

The vessel will need a crew of at least two.

Princess Marcel, which provided trips on the Grand Canal some years ago

River Queen, which provides trips on the mid-Shannon

A round trip from the canal harbour to the university will involve:

  • loading passengers and collecting fares
  • travelling roughly half a mile from the harbour to Park Lock

Park Lock

  • passing through the lock
  • travelling roughly another half mile from Park Lock to the junction with the river
  • travelling about a mile on the river
  • letting passengers off at Plassey and taking on new passengers
  • turning the boat in the river
  • returning along one mile of river and one mile of canal with one lock
  • turning at the turning point
  • letting passengers off.

Folk unfamiliar with canal travel may not be aware that the usual maximum speed of boats on a canal is between three and four miles an hour. Indeed the speed limit for the Grand Canal (for which Waterways Ireland is the navigation authority, as it is for the Shannon) is 6 km/h, which is about 3.75 mph. Deep-draughted vessels sometimes struggle to make even one mile an hour on a canal.

Furthermore, the Park Canal has particularly steep sides and is thus particularly vulnerable to damage caused by the draw or the wake of powered boats: an even lower speed limit might be necessary.

Dredging in March 2007. Note the steep sides of the canal

Then there are the locks: a standard rule of thumb is to allow fifteen minutes per lock, although a skilful crew might work faster.

So, on the trip from the canal harbour to the university, the elapsed time might be:

  • twenty minutes for the one mile of canal (during which the boat will have to accelerate from rest twice)
  • fifteen minutes for the lock
  • say another fifteen minutes for the one mile of river, depending on engine, current and depth of water
  • five minutes for turning and tying up at each end.

Add it all up and you find that the trip could very well take an hour each way.

Serving commuters

These practical matters have some implications for the provision of services on the route. The use of the term “waterbus” suggests that the proponents of the idea envisage a service to commuters, principally (I imagine) staff and students of the University of Limerick. I do not know what number of such potential commuters lives close to the canal harbour and might take advantage of the service, but it is not clear that the service would be very attractive.

First, it would have a single fixed point of departure. If you were to commute to the university on foot or by car or bicycle, you could start at your house and go straight to the university. Even if you went by bus, you could choose from several pick-up points. But by boat, you would have to go first to the canal harbour. And then you might have to find (and pay for) safe storage for a car or bicycle.

The canal harbour

Second, it would be unpredictably unreliable. The service could be run safely only when the flow in the river was not too strong. Part of that flow is controlled by the ESB at Parteen Villa Weir. The ESB told me some years ago that it would not take account of the safety of any boat in the modern (Ardnacrusha) navigation channel; I cannot imagine that it would alter its decisions on releases through the weir to cater for boats on the old navigation. And then, as well as the flow of the Shannon itself, there would be additions from the Groody, the Blackwater and the Mulcair. In a wet winter, peak season for commuters, it might be impossible to provide a service for weeks at a time.

The milestone near the junction of canal and river

Third, it would be slow. The distance from the canal harbour to Plassey by the towing-path is two Irish miles, about two and a half statute miles. A walker could easily travel the distance in less than the hour that the boat would take; a cyclist would be much faster.

Furthermore, with a two-hour cycle time (the time required for a round trip), there would be only six trips in each direction within a twelve-hour service day (which is the longest allowed for the Spirit of Docklands: see below).

Fourth, it would be expensive. Providing a boat, crewing it, keeping it up to the required standards: it all costs money. So what would the fares be? Let us take, as an example, the Spirit of Docklands on the Liffey in Dublin. Its scheduled trips are 45 minutes long, slightly shorter than would be required in Limerick. And the fare?

€14.

Admittedly, the student fare is only €12. The River Queen, shown above, charges €10 for a one-way trip from Shannonbridge to Clonmacnois; return fares are good value at €12. But at least one bus company offers trips from Limerick to Plassey for only €1.20.

I do not believe that there will be any commuter business for a waterbus.

Serving tourists

So what about the tourists? Wouldn’t they like to have a nice boat trip up to Plassey and back, even at €24 for the two-hour trip? They could look at the nice scenery ….

Here are some photos taken from a boat on the canal and river between Park Lock and Plassey.

The bridge at Park Lock

The bank

The Park Canal has very high banks and there is little to be seen from water level. From the canal up to Plassey, the towing-path blocks the view on the boater’s right: it too is high, having been built to cater for water levels much higher than those that prevail since Ardnacrusha was built.

The Guinness bridge from the river

A walker

Steps from the towing-path to the river

A tourist who wants to see anything — and there are many interesting waterways artefacts on the way — would be better off walking. The view from the towing-path is much better and the walk would be faster and cheaper than the boat journey.

In short, I think the waterbus idea will not work.

The other potential tourists are those who would visit Limerick on their own boats. The construction of the new weir in 2001 was intended to make it easier to navigate through Limerick and thus to attract more visiting boats. Was it worth it? See The Park Canal 04: the Limerick weir.

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