In the UK, 6800km of canals were built during the late 18th and early 19th centuries to carry commercial boat traffic. They revolutionised transport during the Industrial Revolution and predate the UK's railways by up to 70 years. British Waterways now manage 3200km of these canals, largely for leisure boat traffic but also for public access, fishing, water transfer and routes for services such as fibre-optic cables. Canal earth structures were built long before the principles of soil mechanics were known, and that they still stand today is a testament to the eminent engineers of the time. Their problems are related to their function of retaining water, and to their history, geological setting, usage and interaction with other structures. This paper considers how the results of geotechnical inspections can be used in a national asset management system to allow prioritisation of works based on asset condition and consequences of failure.


British Waterways (BW) is a public corporation partly funded by the UK government (£59m in 1999/2000) with an annual budget of £100m and a staff of around 1700. Its responsibility is to manage and maintain canals, river navigations and thousands of associated structures. Financial and human resources must be directed to areas of greatest need in terms of operational requirements and public safety. A recent government review has resulted in additional funding to deal with an arrears of maintenance programme of £260m. This includes £82.7m of safety related work, about 30% of which relates to earth structures.


Most of the UK's canals were constructed between 1761 and 1830, the period of so called ‘ Canal Mania’, coinciding with the Industrial Revolution in the UK. Over 6800km of canal were eventually built for commercial reasons by private companies who raised funds by issuing shares.

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