London’s river boat services are growing their business, as commuters take to the water in place of crowded trains and buses.
The service is expected to carry 4.2 million journeying passengers this year, up from 3.3 million in 2015. And Transport for London has set itself a target of 12 million passengers by 2020.
Steps have been taken to integrate the riverboat service into London’s Oyster card public transport payment system, encouraging uptake. And a further 11 piers are being planned, while existing landing points are being upgraded.
Though the riverboat service is more expensive than comparable London Underground fares, and journey times can be longer, the service is sold as a less stressful experience for commuters. And by adding piers close to new riverside apartment developments, commuters can find the river bus more convenient than a walk to the nearest station or bus stop.
Further piers are coming shortly at Battersea, Canary Wharf East and Providence Wharf on the Isle of Dogs. On the south bank, Enderby Wharf is likely to have a pier by 2018. Also in planning is a drop-off to serve Ballymore’s Royal Wharf project, taking shape in the Royal Docks.
Further ahead, TfL is considering adding piers close to the Savoy hotel along the Embankment, as well as at Wapping, Rotherhithe, Greenwich, Beckton and to serve the Barking Riverside development.
“At Barking around 15,000 homes are being developed so it has got the potential to become a very significant hub for river transport, and provide phenomenal access to Canary Wharf,” said Sean Collins, chief executive of leading river bus operator MBNA Thames Clippers, speaking to London’s Standard newspaper. Collins currently operates 15 boats, but plans to add two more in the next couple of years, as services expand further.
TfL has recently modernised the Westminster and Bankside piers, to enable more commuter service boats to stop frequently at both locations. Westminster has been lengthened by 32 metres, with the result that the Thames Clippers will now call there 66 times daily on weekdays.
“These pier extensions are part of our commitment to making traveling by river easier for Londoners and visitors alike,” said deputy mayor for transport Val Shawcross. “By allowing an increased frequency of services they will make a real impact in encouraging greater use of the Thames – helping cut congestion across London’s transport network, and making these wonderful parts of London even better. There has been a significant increase in river passengers and we will be continuing to look at what else can be done to increase those numbers further.”
“The River Thames is fast realising its potential to be one of the most reliable and efficient thoroughfares in London and MBNA Thames Clippers is investing heavily to make river travel in the capital even better in terms of speed, comfort and frequency,” added Collins. “Yet another key area of central London now has even greater transport links.”
Currently, MBNA Thames Clippers operates limited upstream commuter services from Putney via Plantation Wharf, promoting Plantation Wharf to Blackfriars in 31 minutes. The potential to head further upstream is limited by low cruising speeds, and a shallow draught in the river at low tide.
Downstream, there is talk of potentially running services from Ebbsfleet and Swanscombe. While there are also speed limits on the lower reaches of the river, the Thames Clippers service improves journey times by using limited stop services for commuters.
LPA Perspective: It appears the new wave of riverside apartment developments are helping to promote river bus commuting. That, and continued pressure on London Underground, plus worsening congestion on the roads.
But travel on the river remains at a premium price, and for that reason it is unlikely to have mass appeal. And, with TfL under constant budgetary pressure, there is little likelihood of further subsidy to reduce fares.
The other big issue holding back river commuting, is speed. Vessels remain restricted, in order to reduce their wash and for safety reasons, and ultimately this compromises the ability of boats to carry commuters swiftly – unless a new technology can be proven to work.
Inevitably, as the river gets used more, so the focus on safety will be reinforced. It is approaching 30 years since the Marchioness disaster, when 51 people died after a boat collision when a barge hit a party boat. While many steps have been taken in order to prevent a recurrence, a busier river has the potential to make for a more dangerous river.