Hauts-de-France: the Seine-Nord Europe Canal, the missing link in the sustainable links of Northern Europe

In the Hauts-de-France region, the designers of the Seine-Northern Europe Canal will link the Seine basin to the waterways of northern Europe. Here is an update on a colossal infrastructure project supported by the European Union.

This is an ambitious project. With 107 km of track, 60 bridges, 7 locks and 4 inland ports, the future Seine-Northern Europe Canal deserves its nickname of “construction site of the century”. Crossing 59 municipalities in the Hauts-de-France region, this new river link will allow boats to transport goods between Compiègne (Oise) and Aubencheul-au-Bac (Nord), on either side of the region. The goal is to complete the work by 2028.

A common European interest

The interest of the canal and its 4 port areas declared of public utility is not only national and regional. The project is in line with the objectives of the European Union’s transport policy: to create a fully integrated and environmentally friendly single European space with the completion of the trans-European transport network (TEN-T), removing the main obstacles and bottlenecks, strengthening interoperability and connecting the different modes of transport more sustainably and efficiently.

The EU has structured the trans-European transport network into three levels of priorities. Several strategic corridors, the backbone of the single European market, and 2 networks (central and global), prioritizing the development and planning objectives to be achieved.

The Seine-Nord Europe Canal and the construction of multimodal platforms are part of the Seine-Scheldt river link, which extends from Le Havre to the municipalities of northern Belgium, which are themselves linked to Dutch cities. In all, more than 20,000 kilometers of waterways make up this vast network.

“Today’s small canal is something of a bottleneck in the current network,” explains Jérôme Dezobry, chairman of the board of the Société du canal Seine-Nord Europe (SCSNE), the project’s owner. “It is obsolete, both from an economic and environmental point of view.

The aim is to link the seaports and inland ports of northern France, the Benelux countries and Europe more effectively and thus make them more efficient by improving trade and the movement of goods by water and by creating port areas for industrial and logistical purposes.

This sustainable development project, both from an economic point of view, through the fluidity of the single European market and the creation of direct and indirect jobs, and from an environmental point of view, through the transfer to the Seine-Northern Europe Canal of the trucks that are currently using freeways, will contribute to the European objectives of achieving climate neutrality by 2050.

Indeed, this will allow a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions linked to the transport sector. Several estimates have been made. While the initial study relied on a toll to access the infrastructure, the philosophy of the project has been revised. “This method of financing has been questioned, we could have an incentive revenue for companies to use the canal. This obviously plays into the number of boats using the future waterway. The institution estimates that up to 760,000 trucks could switch to this more ecological mode of transport.

Service quays near grain silos or industries as well as quays at inland ports will benefit companies in the Hauts-de-France. Initially designed for containers, cereals and construction materials, the canal could eventually have other users. The SCSNE is already receiving questions from cruise companies looking to create tourist products to go as far as Brussels or Liège. In addition, wharves are going to be built so that buses can access the banks of the canal, giving access to the tourist heritage of the Hauts-de-France.

Environmental measures and social clauses

Until then, those in charge of this project have planned several measures to compensate for the environmental consequences of the work (thus respecting the “polluter pays” principle). “Of the 200 kilometers of riverbank, 25 are reserved for the reproduction of different species of fish,” says Jérôme Dezobry. “What we want is to make a living canal,” he continues.

Very local” meetings are also being organized with residents in order to “co-construct development projects”, such as the bridges crossing the canal or the location of bicycle paths along the banks.

About 400 people are currently working on the project. And the first phase of the work has been launched in spring 2021, on the southern sector of the canal. In addition, “integration clauses have been added to the public contracts”. Companies responding to calls for tender must therefore recruit a certain number of young people under 25 years of age or, more generally, people who are far, or even very far, from employment. “Thirty-seven people have benefited from this approach,” says Mr. Dezobry.

The Seine-Nord Europe Canal Company is piloting this operation locally for the Hauts-de-France Region, the Nord, Oise, Pas-de-Calais and Somme departments. Representatives of the State and the European Commission also sit on the supervisory board. Of the 5.1 billion euros required, the local authorities are contributing 1.1 billion. The European Union is the largest contributor, with €2.1 billion from the European Interconnection Mechanism (EIM).