London’s First Highway: The East London River Crossings

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There are only so many ways of crossing the River Thames east of Tower Bridge. East of Greenwich the communities on the north and south banks are little more than distant relatives. Continuing our look at London’s first highway, we examine TfL’s plans for three new major river crossings between the Blackwall Tunnel and Dartford in an effort to finally overcome this natural barrier. We also look at why TfL are suddenly interested in building roads.

Lucky number thirteen

In December 2015, Transport for London published a strange document called “New River Crossings for London”, a single-page map showing the river spanned by red markers that was designed to promote TfL’s work to offer new ways across the river. It seems to suggest that there are no less than thirteen new river crossings in the pipeline.

This is a bold claim and it involves more than a little hubris. The bar is set quite low for inclusion in the list, and the thirteen crossings include several pedestrian bridges proposed by developers of luxury riverside apartments, the “conceptual” Overground extension to Thamesmead, and the Lower Thames Crossing, a Highways England scheme to be built near the Medway Towns. None of these seem particularly worthy of promotion by Transport for London. Crossrail 2 and the Garden Bridge are also on the list.

riverplansTfL’s crossing map

However, three of them are particularly interesting and even quite unexpected. In the east, the map includes bridges or tunnels at Silvertown, Gallions Reach and Belvedere – three new road crossings, when until recently none were on the cards. All three are being pursued by an organisation that has never previously shown much interest in road construction. TfL is responsible for London’s major roads, but in its 16-year history it has built just one very modest new length of road at Coulsdon, and has otherwise demonstrated that it does not believe in expanding highway capacity.

So, while it’s widely acknowledged that cross-river connections in East London are far worse than in the west for all modes of transport, and for road traffic in particular, it has been years since there was any real interest in doing something about it. To understand why TfL is suddenly so interested in building new road bridges and tunnels, it will be necessary to look at what’s proposed, how we ended up with so few crossings in East London, and what these new crossings are expected to do.

Three new crossings, three very old ferries

Between the Blackwall Tunnels and the Dartford Crossing, more than eleven miles as the crow flies, there are no fixed crossings of the Thames – just the Woolwich Free Ferry, which offers slow crossings for relatively small numbers of vehicles and is prone to delays and cancellations at short notice. Indeed, it can even be called off during particularly high tides, making it a waterborne service that is periodically cancelled when there is too much water.

We will examine the new proposals, and the ferry, in order from west to east.

Silvertown Tunnel

Between the Greenwich Peninsula and Silvertown, immediately to the east of the existing Blackwall tunnels, the Silvertown Tunnel is proposed as a new road tunnel constructed as either deep bore or immersed tube. It follows approximately the same alignment as the Emirates Air Line cable car, and its location is chosen to make the most of under-used road capacity, avoiding the need for new approach roads, so it would connect to the Blackwall Tunnel Southern Approach on the south bank and the Lower Lea Crossing to the north. Two bores would carry two lanes of traffic each.

The river here is just under 400m wide, but the tunnel will cross at a slight angle, spending closer to 500m under the water. TfL expect it to be operational around 2023.

The tunnel would be for the exclusive use of motor traffic, with one lane each way reserved for buses, motorcycles and goods traffic. Heavy goods vehicles would be encouraged to use Silvertown in preference to Blackwall. Both the northbound Blackwall and Rotherhithe tunnels have height and width restrictions, which entail long detours for heavy goods vehicles, so one key benefit of Silvertown is the reduction in the excess mileage that large vehicles would travel.

Woolwich Free Ferry

The ferry at Woolwich has operated as a free public service since the late nineteenth century, when the London County Council abolished tolls on several West London bridges and wanted to extend the same benefit to residents in the East. It’s now, theoretically, the link between the North and South Circular Roads, though its capacity is limited.

Two ferries provide a frequent service, with a total fleet of three boats used in rotation. In the early 2000s, TfL consulted on withdrawing the ferry if the previous incarnation of the Gallions Reach crossing were built, and subsequently proposed moving the ferry service to connect Beckton and Thamesmead.

However, neither of those options found favour, and TfL is now procuring three new boats to replace its 53-year-old fleet. This suggests the service is likely to remain for the foreseeable future, even if it cannot be significantly expanded to meet growing demand. If the new bridges and tunnels are built to either side it will become a decidedly local service.

Gallions Reach Crossing

At Gallions Reach, a bridge or tunnel would link Beckton and Thamesmead, from the A1020 and Woolwich Manor Way to the A2016 Western Way. If the location of this proposal seems familiar, that is because there have been plans for at least three other crossings on this site in the last 40 years.

Conceptual designs suggest that a high level cantilevered bridge would be necessary to clear shipping and avoid interfering with approaches to City Airport. A tunnel could be deep bored or immersed tube construction. The river here is more than 600m wide and the scale of the engineering work will be considerable.

The crossing would have a total usable width of 26m, enough to carry two general traffic lanes, two lanes (or equivalent width) for public transport, and could have a 4m-wide cycle track. The formation may be a dual two-lane road with bus lanes, or a single carriageway road alongside a segregated tram or DLR track. TfL hope this, and the Belvedere Crossing, will be operational around 2025.

Among the considerations for both Gallions Reach and Belvedere are the options for expanding bus connections across the river, the cost and benefits of building tram or DLR lines on either side, and whether provision for pedestrians or cyclists is possible in a tunnel. Some of these things may require funding as separate projects to be pursued along a different timescale, but there will have to be some certainty before the crossings are designed and built.

Belvedere Crossing

The Belvedere Crossing is partner to Gallions Reach and is being pursued as a joint scheme, at least for the purposes of consultation. It would connect Rainham on the north bank with Belvedere, just west of Erith, on the south, running from the existing Marsh Way junction on the A13 to the A2016 Bronze Age Way. Again, a bridge or tunnel could be provided; the bridge would need to be at a high level, but with no aviation concerns it could use a tall cable-stayed structure. A tunnel could, again, be deep bored or immersed tube.

The location of this crossing is entirely new – no crossing has ever been proposed here before – and it appears to be opportunistic use of an existing junction on the A13 and a reasonably clear path through to the A2016 spine road on the south bank.

belvedereTfL’s artist’s impression of bus lanes over either Gallions Reach or Belvedere river crossings

Like its sibling, the crossing would have a total usable width of 26m, but is almost certain to have a dual-carriageway layout with one general traffic lane and one bus lane in each direction, and possibly a dedicated 4m-wide cycle facility. Tram and DLR lines are not contemplated here.

Opening up the East

Why new river crossings, why here, and why now? There is a single answer to all those questions, and in fact it’s been a theme of London Reconnections articles about major new projects for several years. We are in some danger of forming a catchphrase:- It’s all about housing.

The name “Thames Gateway” is likely to be familiar to LR readers already. It refers to the vast areas of land close to the Thames in east London that are presently low-rent industrial facilities, marshland that can be economically drained, or derelict and seeking a new use, and which are therefore ripe for the construction of desperately needed new homes. Infrastructure will be needed to support the considerable population and the houses, schools, shops and – yes – luxury apartments that will be created.

The Thames Gateway may seem to be a ready-made solution to London’s most pressing crisis, but the idea of developing riverside land in the east has been around for more than a decade now without ever really taking off. One of the key flagship schemes, Barking Riverside, remains peculiarly isolated, and stubbornly refuses to grow. So far, then, what seems at first glance to be a promising site for scores of new homes has turned out to be difficult to use, perhaps because the riverside just isn’t seen as a promising opportunity by developers.

That may soon change. The housing crisis is high up the political agenda and there is tremendous will to see new homes built. There is cross-party support to inject some momentum into house-building at last. The key is infrastructure, and central to making Thames Gateway attractive is the provision of adequate transportation. That work falls to TfL.

The GLA estimates 1.5 million new homes will be built in London in the next 15 years. Half a million of those will be in East London, the majority within reasonable distance of the river, and 100,000 will be in the Thames Gateway development area itself. The task is therefore equivalent to building a city the size of Derby from scratch on the banks of the river – in a place where the river cannot be crossed for a distance of eleven miles.

The pressing need for the Thames Gateway to take off and provide a large number of the new homes that the city needs is, then, the single most important reason that Gallions Reach has returned from the dead and Belvedere has suddenly been conjured from nothing. If upwards of 200,000 people will live here there must be a way across the Thames.

Unblocking Blackwall

If that is the reason for new crossings at Gallions Reach and Belvedere, why is TfL also pursuing a new tunnel right next door to the existing ones at Blackwall?

The case for Silvertown is subtly different to the two new crossings further east. It’s less to do with housing and more specifically to do with population growth – two closely related but slightly different matters.

The Silvertown Tunnel is, of course, intended to relieve the chronic traffic congestion that plagues Blackwall for most of the day. TfL’s figures show that there is, on average, only one day in every fourteen on which this crossing operates without incident, and even when open and running at full capacity the tunnels are completely unable to handle the demand for travel across the river.

Blackwall already represents an enormous time penalty on road journeys between South East London and most of the rest of the conurbation, and also adds an unacceptable level of uncertainty. Long and unreliable travel times are bad in particular for businesses, who find it hard to predict delivery times or appointments. The result is that even with present population levels the Blackwall tunnels are a noticeable drag on the economy and quality of life in this part of London. They also represent a major air quality problem thanks to the queues that form in the morning rush and last all day – something that must be addressed before the Greenwich Peninsula begins to bristle with dozens of new high-rise apartment blocks as planned.

If the population of London is going to grow, demand for travel across the river will increase with it, and Blackwall will continue to increase in popularity because it is close to central London, has good onwards links in all directions and – perhaps crucially – because it is close to the economic hub of the Docklands.

The point of the Silvertown Tunnel is, therefore, not so much to generate new capacity to enable specific new development, but to unblock a serious existing problem in order that it does not become a limiting factor in the ability of South East London to grow. By introducing a “user charge” – or toll – to both the new tunnel and to Blackwall, it’s hoped that journeys that could be made just as easily by other means will be strongly discouraged.

The cost of infrastructure

The two really new proposals in TfL’s plans, Gallions Reach and Belvedere, are expected to cost approximately £1bn each, which is not extortionate for a major river crossing in the south east. The balance sheet avoids some of the usual big-ticket costs because these two crossings require little or no property demolition and the approach roads are very short. Most of the land that’s needed is brownfield, ex-industrial or found by slicing a corner off a car park or a yard. The only real cost is the construction of the crossing itself.

If £2bn sounds like extortionate spending on a pair of adjacent road bridges, perhaps it is, but the context of that spending is very important. Elsewhere in London, as reported previously on London Reconnections, the Bakerloo Line extension to Lewisham is expected to cost £2.6bn. Its price is considered quite justifiable because it will open up the possibility of 30,000 new homes along its route. If the same level of infrastructure spending were contemplated for each new home in the Thames Gateway, TfL would be looking to spend £9bn. As part of the wider picture, the cost of those two new river crossings is not all that remarkable.

Why roads?

It would be entirely natural for the LR readership to question whether constructing new road crossings is the right thing to do, whether the Thames Gateway would be better served by public transport options, and even whether indeed Transport for London – long a pioneer of ways to reduce car dependency – has lost its marbles.

All three new crossings are still at the consultation stage and TfL’s strategic thinking is not yet very clear. But what is abundantly clear at this early stage is that we are discussing developments well into the reaches of outer London, and new communities that will have as much connection to the areas of Essex and Kent outside the GLA boundaries as they do to central London. Nine Elms this is not.

Developments in East and South East London will, of course, have good public transport connectivity too. The south bank is about to get the Elizabeth Line, potentially later extended further east to serve Erith and Dartford. On the north bank there’s good railway connections, the Underground and the Overground. The new crossings that are proposed even contemplate bus routes, new tram lines and further extensions to the DLR. What is still needed – and what these proposals will address – are connections for those who will not commute to central London, and connections for the businesses who will support and serve the new communities.

Orbital travel is still, in the main, road-based, whether by car or by bus. Businesses of all kinds rely on road transportation for movement of goods and people. In particular, small businesses on one side of the river are seriously disadvantaged if the huge number of people on the opposite bank are inaccessible, but even large supermarket chains will experience greater cost and inconvenience if they have to operate two adjacent areas of London as entirely separate supply chains.

Road connections are not a luxury, they are essential for vast new developments of all kinds and – more than that – they are something that developers and prospective residents will expect to see in place. In proposing this significant new road infrastructure, TfL are not making a bold shift in their thinking about urban transportation. They are just being realists. The fact they have never put road infrastructure of this type in place before is perhaps not to do with their planning philosophy but simply because they have not previously dealt with a development of this size.

Local roads for local people

In any case, while the size of the works involved may be considerable and the headlines may talk about new dual carriageways and major new roads, the designs are careful not to make them attractive to through traffic. TfL are proposing just one general traffic lane each way plus bus and cycle lanes. They will be no wider than the many bridges in West London that serve as extensions of the street network over the river – arguably, it’s just that in East London the river is bigger and you need a more substantial bridge to carry your local road to the other bank. The enthusiastic road-building advocate will likely find them an utter disappointment.

Transport for London has worked hard to ensure these three new roads are specifically designed to be local. They are designed for buses and other significant public transport connections. They are designed for the goods vehicles, delivery vans and other traders that will be vital to service the new community of more than 200,000 people that will be built here. And yes, they are for the myriad local journeys made in the outer suburbs that public transport still finds it hard to accommodate. Indeed, far from losing their marbles, it could be argued that these are road construction projects that have a very TfL flavour to them.

What the future holds

Later in this series, we will explore in greater detail why the new river crossings are considered so instrumental to development plans in the Thames Gateway, and why past attempts to cross the Thames in East London have repeatedly been abandoned.

We will also look at the problems that face these three proposals, the position of the new Mayor, and in light of that – and all the other issues surrounding these proposals – whether they are likely to be built at all.

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Written by Chris Marshall