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Full steam ahead One of the largest canal restoration schemes anywhere is on course for completion on time despite starting three years late.

Inland waterways; Millennium Link David Hayward visited the Scottish lowlands to investigate the fast tracked progress of the Millennium Link project.

Farmer Walter Dandie used to drive his tractor 8km by road to help out on brother David's neighbouring farm at Broxburn, near Edinburgh. Now he travels just a few hundred metres through a new canal tunnel beneath the M8 motorway and can still take his tractor, courtesy of a specially widened towpath.

Further west in Falkirk, a whisky distiller, closed for two decades, should soon reopen, allowing connoisseurs to rekindle the taste of Rosebank - a rare triple malt.

What links these two events is British Waterways' £78M restoration of Scotland's two main lowland canals, the Union and the Forth & Clyde. Both farm and distillery lie alongside blocked sections of the long abandoned canals now being reopened. And both occupants will benefit from this new 'corridor of opportunity' with the distillery likely to again draw from the canal water clean enough to use in whisky production.

About half of the two year, 110km long canal restoration - the UK's largest ever and named the Millennium Link - reopens late next month. Its prime aims are to attract not just boating enthusiasts but also new canalside development, enticed by tourism and the sight of an active waterway outside the window.

The canals, once connected by locks at Falkirk, offered a direct link between Glasgow and Edinburgh and, for over a century, served as a busy commercial waterway. After closure in the early 1960s, unemployment along the abandoned and blighted route rose dramatically and now stands 30% above Scotland's average.With today's restoration of 121 structures along the route, including 39 locks and some 60 bridges, well under way, property developers are already showing interest.

'We have enquiries from at least £50M worth of potential development - half of it committed,' says BW's director for Scotland Jim Stirling. 'I am confident we will reach our target of creating 4,500 new jobs.'

But as a civil engineer, Stirling's immediate pleasure is to witness the current hectic towpath activity. Under 20 major construction projects the route's 32 obstructions - mainly infilled bridge crossings - are being removed and virtually everything else in between is being restored, unearthed or rebuilt.

Stirling well remembers that, back in 1996, it was never meant to be this way. Original construction timetables showed a linear progression along the route with only a few contracts happening simultaneously during a planned five year programme.

That programme was soon binned as fund raising nightmares took over the project's critical path. Hoped for Millennium Commission and European Union grants either never materialised or were slashed.

By the time the funding fell into place two years ago - led by a rebid £32M Millennium Grant - three years had been lost. So, while Stirling courted the funders, his chief civil engineer George Ballinger looked at condensing five years work into two while retaining the plan to finish by spring 2001 as much of the funding demanded.

'Main challenge with the acceleration is to ensure the numerous construction sites still allow the canals to operate as an essential drainage route,' Ballinger says.

Some 14M litres of runoff water finds its way into the canals every day so must be piped and pumped around road or bridge reconstructions. The possibility of a failed pump or blocked sluice gate demands round the clock callout teams and daily reading of water levels.

Next on Ballinger's headache list are the £10M worth of services that have availed themselves of the abandoned waterway and must now be routed away from infilled bridge crossings. 'We took over ourselves the contractual risk of dealing directly with the often nightmarish bureaucracy of most service diversions,' says Ballinger. 'But suddenly it seems the whole country is riddled with fibre optic cables that cost a fortune to reroute.'

Bureaucracy has also been a hassle where new, full clearance bridges need building. Closure allowed clearance above canal lengths still in water to be reduced to just 1.4m - apparently the height of a British Standard swan, says Ballinger, smiling but not joking.

'Having to keep the original geometry for new raised bridge approaches proved unexpectedly time consuming,' he maintains, no longer smiling.

The aspirin are out again when Ballinger notes how much remains to be done before the completion of canal sections totalling 67km next month, and anticipated celebrations when the rest becomes obstruction free in spring 2001.

The construction inventory still includes lengths of totally infilled canal to be redug; five new locks to be completed and three originals unearthed. Only the dramatic Falkirk Wheel has the luxury of an extension, with its 'redesign' allowing it a six month slippage to open autumn next year (see box).

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