In Amsterdam, packages travel via canals, bicycles

AMSTERDAM (Reuters Life!) - An express package office usually has desks, a table for sorting, delivery bikes, copier, microwave, toilet and a water cooler, but one of DHL’s offices in Amsterdam also happens to float on the famed canals.

Three-hundred-year-old canal houses are reflected in canal water in Amsterdam, August 12, 2003. REUTERS/Jerry Lampen

Technically called a “floating service center,” the boat operated by DHL Express, part of Deutsche Post AG was launched over a decade ago as a way to more efficiently transport express deliveries using a boat to carry packages, including a bicycle courier for the final leg.

“Our regular customers know it goes by boat,” said Frans Grijzenhout, in charge of DHL parcels that need to delivered at specified times in the congested and small city core.

Grijzenhout explains that delivery trucks in Amsterdam, which have to navigate through narrow one-way streets, often end up waiting behind other commercial vehicles.

“You’re using less fuel,” Grijzenhout says, adding that the 17 meter-long boat replaces about the equivalent of five delivery trucks. “And bicycles are more efficient because they can make more stops than a car. It’s a different way of working and operating.”

The converted “grachten boot” -- or canal boat used to ferry tourists around Amsterdam -- journeys along Amsterdam’s outermost ring canal, passing narrowly under bridges as two or three couriers on bicycles wind through the streets.

They follow the boat’s progress to pick up or deliver packages, depending on the time of day, and usually meet up with the boat along three regular docking points while keeping in touch with the captain using mobile phones.

So far, competitors such as Dutch carrier TNT or FedEx Corp have not been granted permits by the city to deploy their own boats and DHL also benefits from the exposure it gets from a boat painted in its corporate color, yellow.

DHL says it also operates delivery boats in Venice and double-decker buses in London to move packages.

The main risk is using a boat to deliver packages in the “Venice of the North,” as Amsterdam is sometimes called, is that the city canals can freeze over, as they nearly did this past winter.

Reporting by Reed Stevenson, editing by Paul Casciato