Tag Archives: Lough Allen

Shannon–Erne Waterway traffic

I have reported regularly on Shannon traffic figures [most recently here] but I have paid relatively little attention to the Shannon–Erne Waterway [SEW]. I am therefore grateful to Waterways Ireland for supplying me with the last five years’ monthly traffic figures for Locks 1 and 16 on the SEW. I had some queries about the figures for certain months and I have put them to Waterways Ireland, but I presume that the annual figures are OK.

Shannon–Erne Waterway traffic 2010–2014

Shannon–Erne Waterway traffic 2010–2014

Clearly, not all boats go all the way through: if they did, the figures for Locks 1 and 16 might be the same. The hire bases for Locaboat, Riversdale and Corraquill were all on the Erne side of the summit level; does Lock 1’s excess of traffic over Lock 16 suggest that hirers, perhaps wishing to minimise the number of locks they passed through, headed for the Erne rather than the Shannon? The figures, which I presume are gathered automatically, do not distinguish between private and hired boats.

The other point that strikes me is that the level of traffic is actually quite low. I put in the figures for Pollboy and Athlone locks to allow comparison. SEW traffic is greater than that on the Lough Allen Canal, but it is not much greater than that on the River Suck to Ballinasloe. In that case, WI is [according to its Business Plan 2015] considering automating Pollboy Lock to reduce costs.

Pollboy lock passages 2005–2014

Pollboy lock passages 2005–2014

The SEW locks are already automated, but the costs and benefits may have to be re-examined, especially now that Locaboat has moved from Ballinamore to Quigleys Marina at Killinure on Lough Ree: I presume that that will result in less traffic on the SEW.

Pollboy and the CLones Sheugh

In 2006 Pollboy traffic was used as the basis for estimating likely traffic to Clones on the Ulster Canal’s “SW section”:

The total number of boat parties/groups for the SW section is assumed to be 600. This is based on a comparison with another “offshoot” like the Suck Navigation which had around 1,250 boat parties/groups in 2005 (obtained by dividing the passages through Pollboy Lock by 2) in a much busier section of the whole system. So, for the SW section, a level of around 50% (ie. 600) is regarded as a reasonable assumption.

Waterways Ireland Socio economic Summary Report for the NE and SW Sections of the Ulster Canal Final Report February 2006

Now that Pollboy’s traffic is half what it was in 2005, no doubt the estimate for the number of boats that would visit Clones, if a canal ever reached it, has likewise been halved, which would give an average of about ten boats a week over a seven-month season: four boats every Saturday and one a day for the rest of the week. Folk intending to build restaurants to cater for the cruiser traffic might be wise to reassess their investment plans:

In overall terms, the benefits of waterway restoration derive from the fact that these can facilitate a variety of leisure and recreational activity, that the users will benefit from this activity, and that there will also be wider spin-off benefits in the areas, e.g. facilities such as restaurants etc built to service canal traffic.

Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Restoring the Ulster Canal from Lough Erne to Clones Updated Business Case February 2015

There’s not enough business there for a burger van, never mind a restaurant.

The magic of the Shannon–Erne Waterway

But if Pollboy, the River Suck and Ballinasloe are no longer cited as support for the construction of a Clones Sheugh, the Shannon–Erne Waterway is still used as an example, in that and in other contexts. Take, for example, this:

Shannon–Erne Waterway magic

Shannon–Erne Waterway magic

I’ve nicked that from a slide show called Economic, Recreational and Social Benefits of Rural Waterways in Ireland, which was to be delivered [PDF] by Garret McGrath of Waterways Ireland at the World Canals Conference [PDF] in Milan in 2014.

Now, if the Shannon–Erne Waterway had caused all that construction activity, we’d have to drag Waterways Ireland before the Irish banking enquiry. Skipping lightly over the question of the ghost estates, and the departure of Locaboat from Ballinamore, we come to the real problem with this sort of stuff: the post hoc fallacy. We are invited to believe that

  • a waterway was built
  • prosperity followed
  • so the waterway must have caused the prosperity.

Well, maybe it did and maybe it didn’t, but the argument presented in the slide show isn’t sufficient to prove it. You would have to check to see whether there were any other possible explanations: any other changes that might have resulted in all that construction.

Along the Shannon–Erne Waterway, I can think of two other possible factors: Sean Quinn’s business empire and the Upper Shannon Rural Renewal Scheme, a tax dodge that applied in Leitrim, Longford, Roscommon, Cavan and Sligo, five of the six counties that had the highest rates of vacant housing (excluding holiday houses). So there are two problems here:

  • much of that construction activity may have been driven by tax breaks rather than by the existence of a nearby waterway
  • the construction itself may not have had beneficial effects.

You can read more about that here, noting in particular, on the map, the areas around the upper Shannon and the SEW with vacancy rates of over 25%; you might wonder whether Waterways Ireland is wise to claim credit for housing over-development.

But my main concern here is a different one: that, if you want to claim credit for economic benefits that followed waterways development, you have to measure the benefits and subtract those attributable to other factors, such as Sean Quinn and the Rural Renewal Scheme. Then it would be useful if you compared the remaining benefits with the cost of constructing your waterway: it might then be possible to say that waterways development is a good investment.

It may be that such a study has been done on the SEW, but if it has I don’t know where it is; I would like to see it if it exists. Until then, I regard this sort of thing, from DAHG’s Business Case, as drivel:

The broad existence and nature of the potential socio-economic benefits of canals and restored waterways are therefore well established and not really at issue.

Sorry, minister: that’s rubbish. As far as I know no proper evaluation has ever been carried out on the costs and benefits of any restored or new-built Irish waterway. So you’re not getting away with that one.

 

Shannon traffic figures to December 2014

I am grateful to Waterways Ireland for sending me the Shannon traffic figures for the last three months of 2014. They sent them last month but I didn’t have time to deal with them until now.

Regular readers may wish to skip this section

All the usual caveats apply:

  • the underlying figures do not record total waterways usage (even for the Shannon) as, for instance, sailing, fishing or waterskiing on lakes or river stretches, which did not involve a passage through a lock or Portumna Bridge, would not be recorded
  • the passage records would not show, for instance, a change in the balance of types of activities from those in larger cruising boats to those in smaller (sailing, fishing, waterskiing) boats
  • figures like these will not necessarily be representative of those for the year as a whole. The winter months, January to March, see little traffic in any year; for April, May and June, the weather can have a large influence on the amount of activity especially, I suspect, in private boats.

On the other hand, the figures do include the Shannon’s most significant tourism activity, the cruiser hire business. And they are our only consistent long-term indicator of usage of the inland waterways.

All boats

Shannon 2003-2014 01-12 all boats_resize

Total (private + hired) traffic for the full year

As we saw in September, traffic is down on 2013, but there has been little change over the last three years.

Private boats

Shannon 2003-2014 01-12 private boats_resize

Private-boat traffic for the full years 2003 to 2014

The vertical scale on this chart is different from that for hired boats so the changes in private boating from one year to another are exaggerated (by comparison). The good weather did not prevent a fall in activity.

Hire boats

Shannon 2003-2014 01-12 hired boats_resize

Hire-boat traffic for the full years 2003 to 2014

Again, the lowest figure in my records, but the drop was small; perhaps the hire trade is bouncing along the bottom (as it were). I wonder whether anyone has a Grand Plan for recovery or rejuvenation.

Percentages of 2003 levels

Shannon 2003-2014 01-12 compared with 2003_resize

Percentages of 2003 levels

Private traffic at just over 90% of 2003 levels, hire traffic at just over 40%.

Private -v- hired

Shannon 2003-2014 01-12 private -v- hired_resize

Still roughly 50:50

Seasons

In the five months January, February, March, November and December, there were 385 passages altogether, less than 1% of total boat movements for the year. If money can be saved by ceasing to operate the locks and bridge during the winter, they should be closed except, perhaps, for one Saturday per month, to be arranged for a non-flood day.

Regions

Here is the order of popularity.

ALBERT LOCK 7205
ATHLONE LOCK  5775
CLARENDON LOCK 5650
ROOSKY LOCK 5565
PORTUMNA BRIDGE 5395
VICTORIA LOCK 4934
TARMONBARRY LOCK 3885
POLLBOY LOCK 1222
CLONDRA LOCK 1020
BATTLEBRIDGE 835
DRUMLEAGUE 797
DRUMSHANBO LOCK 387
SARSFIELD LOCK 97

Lough Allen is a delightful place but it is not popular.

Shannon traffic figures to July 2014

I am grateful to Waterways Ireland for letting me have the Shannon traffic figures for July 2014. All the usual caveats apply:

  • the underlying figures do not record total waterways usage (even for the Shannon) as, for instance, sailing, fishing or waterskiing on lakes or river stretches, which did not involve a passage through a lock or Portumna Bridge, would not be recorded
  • the passage records would not show, for instance, a change in the balance of types of activities from those in larger cruising boats to those in smaller (sailing, fishing, waterskiing) boats
  • figures like these, for a small number of months, will not necessarily be representative of those for the year as a whole. The winter months, January to March, see little traffic in any year; for April, May and June, the weather can have a large influence on the amount of activity especially, I suspect, in private boats.

On the other hand, the figures do include the Shannon’s most significant tourism activity, the cruiser hire business. And they are our only consistent long-term indicator of usage of the inland waterways.

Shannon all boats Jan to Jul 2014

Total (private + hired) traffic for the first seven months of each year

Traffic in 2013 was up a bit on 2012; 2014 is down slightly below the 2012 level. It’s the lowest seven-month figure in the series (ie since 2003), which is a bit of a surprise: I thought that the good weather would encourage more boating.

The changes are small, so their importance must not be exaggerated, but they’re not cause for celebration. Let’s see whether the drop was amongst private or hired boats (or both).

Shannon private boats Jan to Jul 2014

Private-boat traffic for the first seven months of each year

Private traffic is up a bit on 2012 but down on 2013.

Shannon hired boats Jan to Jul 2014

Hire-boat traffic for the first seven months of each year

Hire-boat traffic is down on both previous years, but the pace of decline seems to have slowed.

Shannon private and hired -v- 2003 Jan to Jul 2014

Changes since 2003: private and hired boats

Hire-boat traffic seems to be levelling off at 40% of its 2003 figure: a massive loss of business. I do not know whether anyone is trying to, or could, recover that amount of business. I am not aware of any new Shannon-based tourism business that could compensate for the losses in the cruising (hire-boat) business, but I would be glad to hear from anyone who knows of such projects. Something with high growth potential is required.

Private traffic is wobbling either side of its 2003 figure: the increases during the Celtic Tiger years have been lost.

Shannon private -v- hired boats Jan to Jul 2014

Still roughly 50/50

In the year to July 2014, hire-boat traffic was just above private traffic, but there is very little in it. Private traffic is now comparatively more important to Waterways Ireland [which may be why it is now trying to establish its economic importance] but it does not bring in much money from outside the two jurisdictions, so the case for public spending on waterways becomes much weaker.

And, quite clearly, opening more waterways doesn’t work: as this chart showed last month, the branches off the main lines of the Shannon, Erne and SEW are little used. The Lough Allen Canal, the Suck and the navigation to Limerick are very little used and I see no sign that the reopened Royal Canal has attracted many visitors to Ireland. What is needed is more intensive usage of the main waterways, not further dilution by the opening of more branches [to Clones or anywhere else].

SnnNav JanJun 6

High and low usage

Finally, I thought it might be interesting to see whether the monthly pattern of usage has changed since 2003. To avoid an over-cluttered chart, I included only four years: 2003, 2003 +5, 2003 + 10 and 2014. The chart is for all boats, private and hired.

Shannon all boats by month selected years Jan to Jul 2014

Monthly traffic, selected years

The season seems to have got going earlier in 2003 and even in 2008. Was the weather better in those years?

 

More reading material

A bit of a break from the politicking ….

First,  the long-awaited second edition of David Walsh’s extraordinary book Oileáin is now available from Pesda Press. It’s an exhaustive guide to the islands around Ireland, seen from a sea-kayaker’s perspective. It tells you where they are, how you get there, what the tides and currents and hazards are, whether you might be able to camp …. A lot of this is, of course, aimed mainly at folk rather more athletically minded than I am, but I got it for its information about the islands in the Shannon and Fergus estuaries. David’s website keeps an electronic version updated, so that you can check the latest information before you set off, but even if you’re unlikely to start paddling to the Skelligs yourself you may find the information and the photos of interest.

Shannon enthusiasts will be familiar with Richard Hayward’s Where the River Shannon Flows, written as Hitler’s war was breaking out. It is an account of a road trip down the Shannon during which a film about the river was being made: the party was in Portumna when Hayward heard, on a wireless set through a window, that Britain was at war with Germany. I was privileged, some years ago, to be able to see the film and to match it with the scenes from the book, from which L T C Rolt drew information for his Green and Silver. Hayward was a proud Ulsterman, but one who was happy to meet, converse and exchange songs with anyone of any creed anywhere in Ireland. He was, if I remember correctly, a confectionery salesman by way of a day job, but more importantly he was an actor, a writer and a singer. His style is of its time, and perhaps rather laboured by modern standards, but he was a decent skin and I haven’t read anything of his that I didn’t enjoy. I am pleased to learn that a biography, An Unrepentant Romantic — the life and times of Richard Hayward by Paul Clements, is due to be published by Lilliput Press in May.

In the same month, UCD Press is to publish James Murphy’s Ireland’s Czar: Gladstonian government and the lord lieutenancies of the Red Earl Spencer, 1868–86. That’s this chap here, whose claim to fame is that he has a dock on the Royal in Dublin, and a harbour on Lough Allen, both called after him.

I don’t know whether I want to shell out €50 for Nigel Everett’s The Woodlands of Ireland, 700–1800 [Four Courts Press, May], but I like the idea that it

Focuses on the fundamentally pragmatic and commercial view of trees adopted by Gaelic civilisation, and the attempts of the various Anglo-Irish administrations to introduce more conservative woodland practices into Ireland.

Cad a dhéanfaimid feasta gan adhmaid? Why, we’ll import seacoal from Whitehaven, of course.

Finally, I am hoping that Joe Curtis’s Terenure: an illustrated history [The History Press, Ireland, March] will have more information about the remarkable Bourne family.

The information on forthcoming books comes from the magazine Books Ireland, which was until recently edited by old Shannon hand (and, if I mistake not, former Ditchcrawler) Jeremy Addis. Jeremy has now passed over the tiller and the magazine is now edited by Tony Canavan and published by Wordwell.

 

Shannon traffic 2013

Some weeks ago Waterways Ireland kindly supplied me with the Shannon traffic figures for the final three months of 2013 and I have just now had a chance to add them to my spreadsheets and produce some graphs.

The usual caveats apply: the underlying figures do not record total waterways usage (even for the Shannon) as, for instance, sailing, fishing or waterskiing on lakes or river stretches, which did not involve a passage through a lock or Portumna Bridge, would not be recorded. The passage records are our only consistent long-term indicator of usage of the Shannon but they would not show, for instance, a change in the balance of types of activities from those in larger cruising boats to those in smaller (sailing, fishing, waterskiing) boats. On the other hand, they do include the Shannon’s most significant tourism activity, the cruiser hire business.

It is good to note, incidentally, that, in its draft Corporate Plan 2014–2016, Waterways Ireland says that it intends to

Develop and implement a research programme to measure waterway usage and inform planning and development.

It won’t be easy to do, but we need much better measures of all types of activities on all seven of the waterways managed by WI.

The final outcome for 2013 won’t greatly surprise anyone who has read earlier bulletins on this subject, like this covering the figures to end-September 2013. All the illustrations are based on information supplied by Waterways Ireland, with some minor adjustments by me to eliminate anomalies, but the interpretation and comments are mine own.

All boats full year

Total Shannon traffic 2003–2013, private and hired

The decline in traffic since 2003 seems to have been halted …

All boats full year %

Total Shannon traffic as a percentage of 2003 traffic

… but it is 40% below what it was in 2003.

Private boats full year %

Private-boat traffic 2003–2013 as a percentage of 2003 traffic

Traffic in private boats seems to be recovering, but what is perhaps more significant is that it never went more than 10% above or below the 2003 figure. It has been remarkably stable over the period, despite the economic crash and despite the anecdotal evidence of boats being sold to overseas owners and trucked out of the country. Perhaps larger boats were replaced by smaller? Perhaps only boats bought in the boom were sold in the bust? Unfortunately the deficiencies of the registration system make it very difficult to determine what has been happening.

Hire boats full year %

Hire-boat traffic 2003–2013 as a percentage of 2003 traffic

But if private-boat traffic has been remarkably stable since 2003, the same cannot be said of hire-boat traffic. The best that can be said of 2013 is that the figures didn’t get [much] worse, but a 60% decline since 2003 is really, really dreadful.

WI’s draft Corporate Plan, which does not explicitly mention the hire industry, talks of

… unlocking opportunities to achieve recreational growth, and economic and social development.

I don’t know whether that omission means that WI sees little prospect of a rejuvenated hire-boat industry. And I note that, other than in the titles of organisations, the draft plan rarely mentions tourism or tourists. Are the waterways only for natives? If so, is that a deliberate policy decision? Or is there something that could be done, cheaply, to help to revive waterways tourism?

Emma Kennedy, writing in the Sunday Business Post on 23 February 2014, wrote about Fáilte Ireland’s latest brainwave, which is to “target” three groups:

  • social energisers, which are gangs of young people interested in “new and vibrant destinations”, which I take to mean Temple Bar
  • culturally curious folk aged 50 or over, with money, who are interested in “exploring new landscapes, history and culture”
  • great escapers, who like energetic rural holidays with their partners.

No families with kids, I see, although “Families & Loved Ones” (the latter term, by the way, nowadays seems to mean either dead people or their relicts) were one of the two “primary target customer segments” identified in Fáilte Ireland’s Inland Cruising Market Development Strategy. (Fat lot of good that strategy did, but we mustn’t be bitter.)

Anyway, without having done any market studies (though WI has funded lots of them), it seems to me that there is scope for more tourism on the waterways, but it might not be on traditional cruisers. It might involve outdoor activities like cycling and walking along the canals and Barrow: WI’s plan discusses them, but without adverting to an overseas market. And it might involve small-boat activities — canoeing, touring rowing, small-boat sailing, camping — on Shannon, Erne and SEW: WI says it will support micro-enterprises, and those providing outdoor activity holidays may need expertise and assistance rather than hard cash.

I admit to having little evidence on this, but it seems to me to be too early to give up on the tourism potential of the waterways. And the decline of the cruiser hire business does not necessarily mean that all waterway tourism is doomed.

Private -v- hire full year

Private boats overtake hire boats

That said, 2013 was the year when, for the first time since Noah was an Able Seaman, the number of passages by private boats exceeded that by hire boats.

Checkpoints 2013

The points at which numbers were recorded

Finally, this chart suggests that any structures that were not built by the Shannon Commissioners in the 1840s will not attract many visitors. The extensions off the main stem of the Shannon — south to Limerick, west to Ballinasloe, east through Clondra, north to Lough Allen — are much less used than the main line from Lough Derg to Lough Key. It seems unlikely that any further extensions, especially to small towns that it would take three hours (at canal speed) to get to, are likely to be any more successful in attracting traffic.

Ticking all the boxes

Sometimes an idea comes along that is just so good, so right, so advantageous on all counts that it is simply irresistible. This idea comes from the Americas, from the US Coast Guard. Adapted to the Irish inland waterways, and specifically to the Shannon, it could:

  • help to promote industry in recession-hit rural areas
  • create direct employment
  • help to stimulate indirect employment
  • promote Irish energy independence by reducing reliance on imported hydrocarbons
  • counter pollution of water-courses
  • reduce the number of heavy trucks using remote rural roads
  • use environmentally-friendly water transport, by barge along the Shannon
  • honour and promote the industrial heritage of Co Leitrim and the transport heritage of the Shannon
  • help to defray the costs of maintaining the Shannon Navigation
  • solve Dublin’s water supply problem, at least for non-potable water.

How could anybody resist?

The US Coast Guard has proposed that wastewater from fracking [PDF] should be transported by barge, rather than by truck or railway train, from the fracking sites to remote storage or treatment facilities. So, when fracking begins around Lough Allen, the wastewater could be carried down the Shannon by barge and, if necessary, pumped to Dublin.

It sounds like a winner to me.

Shannon traffic to June 2013

The figures for Shannon lock passages to the end of June 2013 are now available. The decline continues, though perhaps more slowly.

Shannon traffic Jan to June percent

Shannon lock and bridge passages January to June as percentages of the 2003 number

The usual caveats apply: the underlying figures (kindly supplied by Waterways Ireland) do not record total waterways usage because, for instance, sailing, fishing or waterskiing on lakes or river stretches, which did not involve a passage through a lock or Portumna Bridge, would not be recorded. The passage records are our only consistent long-term indicator of usage of the Shannon but they would not show, for instance, a change in the balance of types of activities from those in larger cruising boats to those in smaller (sailing, fishing, waterskiing) boats. It is quite possible, therefore, that overall usage might be increasing while long-distance cruising was declining.

Shannon traffic Jan to June private

Shannon lock and bridge passages by private boats January to June

As it happens, the figures show a small increase over 2012 in passages by private boats. I suspect that July’s warm weather will spur a further increase.

Folk living in Ireland, whether owners or prospective hirers, are likely to be able to react quickly to better (or worse) weather by doing more (or less) boating; folk living abroad may be less able to change their holiday plans. Accordingly, July’s weather might (I’m speculating here) mean an increase in passages by private boats and by boats hired by Irish residents; it might not lead to an increase in hiring from abroad.

Traffic in hired boats continued to decline in June.

Shannon traffic Jan to June hire

Shannon lock and bridge passages by hired boats January to June

That decline outweighed the small increase in private traffic, leading to an overall decline in the first six months as compared with the same period in 2012, which itself continued the pattern set in 2007.

Shannon traffic Jan to June all

Shannon lock and bridge passages by all boats January to June

I wondered whether the figures might show any change in the geographical distribution of activity. WI’s reports don’t show separate figures for private and hired boats for the individual locks, but it seems to me that the hire business is becoming more concentrated on northern waters, from Lough Ree upwards. If that is so, then there might be an increase in the proportion of passages through the northern locks, from Tarmonbarry upwards, and a decrease in the proportion passing through Portumna Bridge and Meelick (Victoria) Lock.

I put the WI reporting stations in four groups:

  • Portumna + Meelick
  • Athlone
  • Tarmonbarry, Clondra, Roosky, Jamestown (Albert), Knockvicar (Clarendon)
  • the also-rans: the three locks leading to Lough Allen, Pollboy leading to Ballinasloe, the Limerick sea-lock (Sarsfield).

The figures suggest that the distribution is indeed changing, but gradually rather than dramatically. Athlone’s figures are pretty steady, the outliers are declining slightly and Portumna + Meelick are declining a bit more; the northern locks (Tarmonbarry to Knockvicar) are taking the gains. Comments or alternative interpretations welcome.

Change by region

Lock passages by group

The figures for 2013 are for the six months January to June; those for other years are for twelve months.

The locks could of course be grouped in other ways, and I may try some of them in future months.

Lock sizes on the Shannon Navigation

Some figures.

Unrealistic expectations

1818

It has not been shown that sobriety increased in Co Leitrim after the canal to Lough Allen was built.

1845

The waterway, completed in 1859, closed in the 1860s. It is not clear that any Killaloe slates ever reached Ulster by the waterway.

2007

The Clones canal today, a united Ireland tomorrow?

 

Fracking Leitrim

This morning, on the wireless, I heard two people opposing the use of fracking to find gas around Lough Allen in Co Leitrim. Neither of them was convincing. One started by objecting to big multinationals being given licences to investigate the resources available; it is not clear that there was any ban on small native companies or workers’ cooperatives (or soviets of workers, peasants and soldiers) applying for licences, and presumably they could use traditional Irish implements like sleans if they wanted to.

The general line of argument adopted by the objectors was that anything that could go wrong would go wrong, probably all at the same time, wiping out the whole of Irish agriculture (some of which is not in Leitrim) and, er, eco-tourism. There would, the objectors seemed to suggest, be no preventive or mitigating measures and no insurance and the full cost of every accident would be borne by the residents of the area.

Remains of a pier at the brickworks, Spencer Harbour, Lough Allen

 

But the bit that really annoyed me was the depiction of the area as one of rural seclusion. Yet Lough Allen had canals, railways, coal mines, dams, iron works and brick works.

Spencer Harbour on Lough Allen

 

The very canal linking Lough Allen to the
rest of the Shannon Navigation owes its very existence to the desire
to carry coal from around Lough Allen to Dublin. And one of the most best tourism initiatives in the area, the Arigna Mining Experience, recognises that heritage.

Part of a brick

 

Insist on proper assessment and management of risk by all means, but don’t exaggerate it — and don’t ignore Leitrim’s industrial heritage.