Artificial intelligence helps to protect Lancaster's historic canal bridges from hit-and-run damage

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An innovative artificial intelligence CCTV system is being trialled by the Canal & River Trust charity on the Lancaster Canal to catch careless hit-and-run motorists who cause thousands of pounds worth of damage every year to historic humpback bridges.

As well as inconvenience to local residents and boaters, vehicle strikes on 200-year-old stone bridges cost the trust annually up to £1m in repairs, diverting vital funds away from work to conserve the nation’s waterways.

The charity, which cares for 2,800 historical bridges across 2,000 miles of canals, will be testing the new system on Cockerham Road Bridge (no 79), near Forton, which was hit twice in 2022.

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In the past, the use of CCTV to providing constant recording of bridge strike hot spots in rural areas has proved prohibitively expensive due to a lack of power supply.

A lorry crossing Lancaster Canal at the Cockerham Road bridge.A lorry crossing Lancaster Canal at the Cockerham Road bridge.
A lorry crossing Lancaster Canal at the Cockerham Road bridge.

However, this new system is controlled by AI using a mobile phone signal and doesn’t continuously record but takes a few photos when it detects vehicle movement.

The AI then assesses if the bridge has been impacted. If there is no strike, the photos are deleted and if damage has been caused, trust staff receive a notification, allowing them to identify number plates to track down the offenders and claim full repair costs on their insurance.

Last summer Cockerham Road Bridge had to be repaired after yet another strike, at a cost of £25,000.

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The full-length white steel railings on the top of the stone parapet were also damaged and, in another innovation, have been replaced in sections, leaning away from the road to minimise the risk and make future accident repairs cheaper.

A Lancaster bridge being repaired.A Lancaster bridge being repaired.
A Lancaster bridge being repaired.

Andy Dobson, asset engineer with the Canal & River Trust, said: “Humpback bridges, an iconic part of Britain’s canal network, were built for the passage of horse-drawn carts, not for today’s modern vehicles and HGVs. Due to the large number of rural, narrow roads crossing the Lancaster Canal, it has more bridge strikes than any other. The bridges are part of the canal’s special character and heritage, and each time one is hit a small piece of history is lost.

“The canal bridges in this area are of particular interest, as their stone parapets were lowered and replaced with railings in the Second World War to deny shelter to invading enemy tanks and troops. Lancashire’s gently shelving beaches were considered a perfect spot for a large invasion force to land.

“With all this wonderful heritage to protect, the trust’s asset team has worked hard to think of innovative ways not only to reduce repair costs but also to prevent strikes from happening in the first place.

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"We desperately need motorists to slow down and take more care. We are grateful to Lancashire County Council who have been working with us over the last two years to install better approach signage to 15 at-risk bridges over the Lancaster Canal. Hopefully the combination of all these innovations will mean our precious historic canal bridges will be preserved for future generations.

Lancaster Canal's Cockerham Road Bridge, taken by an AI camera.Lancaster Canal's Cockerham Road Bridge, taken by an AI camera.
Lancaster Canal's Cockerham Road Bridge, taken by an AI camera.

“And if the AI CCTV system works effectively, it could potentially be rolled out at other accident blackspots and even be used on sites at risk from vandalism and fly tipping, saving the trust time and money and most importantly protecting the nation’s precious canal heritage.”