Working barges set to return to Aire and Calder Navigation after Canal & River Trust U-turn

A barge operator says the future looks bright for his 200-year-old family business after a U-turn by a charity which should allow him to offload sand in Leeds.

John Branford - he hopes the first barge will be taking freight to Leeds in mid-April Picture: Gary Longbottom

John Branford, 75, from Goole said in January he feared he could be driven out of business after the Canal & River Trust blocked plans to carry aggregates from Hull to a wharf in Leeds

The CRT claimed there were issues with Knostrop Wharf, including traffic management and safety.

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However the trust has now relented, and Mr Branford, who has teamed up with Andy Collins of AC Marine Aggregates, hopes to have one of his vessels, Farndale H, out on the Aire and Calder Navigation with its first load in mid-April. Each barge trip takes 17 lorries off the heavily-congested roads of Leeds.

Aire and Calder Canal in 1966

Mr Branford said: “I’m really grateful to The Yorkshire Post for highlighting this. We really appreciate the help and that of Leeds City Council.

“In the 70s, the river was black with barges. There were hundreds and hundreds. Everyone has forgotten about the canals, but I think they are the thing of the future.”

At least five generations of Branfords have worked on the waterways. Mr Branford, 75, now operates three ex-tanker dry cargo barges, the latest two revamped with a government grant of £350,000.

He said other possibilities were already opening up, including carrying freight to Pollington in East Yorkshire. And he now hopes his son, who is a captain, will be able to join him in his free time.

John Branford thinks the future now looks bright for his 200-year-old company

He said: “It’s all go now, the trust has got to do some dredging, and clean the wharf out. They are on with that and I have to get my boat ready. I think the future could be bright now.”

Mr Collins added: “I’m just pleased they decided to support us on this project which is good for the environment in every way. We are probably looking at 50,000 tonnes in the first year.

“It’s the sort of project everybody needs to be looking at to cut CO2 emissions and keep traffic off the roads. The technology for electric HGVs is not there yet. At least until that’s up and running, these sorts of projects are needed.”

Maik Brown, business development manager (Northern) for the CBOA (Commercial Boat Operators Association), paid tribute to the “doggedness and perseverance” of Mr Branford and Mr Collins, along with CBOA chairman David Lowe, who has been a big advocate for the plans.

The Aire and Calder Navigation at Knostrop Cut, Hunslet Picture: James Hardisty

He said: “It has been a long haul.

"This will be the first commercial traffic on the Aire and Calder Navigation since 2013 when Lafarge ceased deliveries to Whitwood.

"I can’t stress this too highly but John Branford and Andy Collins have really put a marker in the ground and saved the barge industry in the North.

“With HS2, Andy Collins can source the other aggregates, the stone and granite and the potential is to carry a lot more cargo into Leeds when Stourton is developed in the next few years.”

He said Branford’s three barges were designed and built for a contract for Esso in 1968 to carry bulk oil products to Leeds, and things had come full circle just over 50 years on with the vessels "now breathing new life into carrying new commodities by barge into Leeds once again".

Sean McGinley, the regional director from Canal & River Trust, added: “Negotiations between the relevant parties have been very positive and we are close to a final agreement.

"It is subject to everyone agreeing to the terms which have arisen from the risk report, but we are hopeful that AC Marine Aggregates will soon have everything in place to move freight out of Knostrop Wharf.”