Over two millennia ago, at the furthest downstream location that a bridge could be built across the River Thames, London was born. Continuing our occasional series on the river’s relationship with transport in London, we look at how River Buses have grown from a single boat carrying ‎60 passengers a day, to a network of six routes, carrying over 4.4 million commuters and tourists a year.

Our curiosity has long been piqued by the success of River Buses. Similar companies failed in the 1980s and 1990s, but whilst there has been some subsidy dispensed to different companies to help spawn new River Bus routes, the bulk of the River Bus network has been commercially self-sufficient.

[Top image from Core Rising]

Water jet catamarans

As we described in Part 1 of this series, Thames Clippers placed into service two new 150-passenger high-speed catamarans (“cats”) on the growing RB6 Putney – Blackfriars route in November 2015. According to the company, the Hunt Class Galaxy Clipper and Neptune Clipper are the most energy efficient river and harbour fast ferries in the world.

Two 150 passenger Hunt Class cats.

The company and their corporate sponsor MBNA invested £6.5 million in the two boats, which are the first to be added to the River Bus fleet in seven years. These latest boats feature a new hull design that reduces resistance and wash so they operate more efficiently, as well as water jet propulsion instead of propellers which provide greater manoeuvrability at slow speeds. They also trebled peak capacity on the RB6 route between Putney and Blackfriars, which had seen a 40 per cent increase in passengers in the previous 12 months. The boats will also be used on other routes as needed for additional capacity.

And now two more new boats

On 10 Oct 2016, Thames Clippers announced the order of a further two 170 seat catamarans, at a value of over £6.3m, to add to their fleet. As a feel good story for British shipbuilding, the passenger boats will be built at the Wight Shipyard Co on the Isle of Wight, to enter service in summer 2017. Most of the previous Thames Clippers catamarans were constructed in a couple different shipyards in Australia. The two new boats are the same class as Neptune and Galaxy Clippers, but it was not divulged whether they will have a more dense seating layout (like the trend for new train carriages), but adding additional seating in place of the café/bar is currently under consideration.

When the two latest ferries join the Thames Clippers’ River Bus service they will add 14 per cent additional capacity to the network. No routes have yet been identified for the new cats, but their deployment will be announced in 2017.

The Catamaran fleet

Thames Clippers operates a primarily catamaran fleet because the dual hulls allow faster speeds with lower draught and height, ideal for the conditions and bridges on the Thames. The exception is the RB4 DoubleTree Docklands – Canary Wharf shuttle, as fast catamarans are not required for the short 300m river crossing.

Clipper Seats Model In Service Principal Route(s)
Storm Clipper 62 FBM Hydrocat 1999 RB1 then RB6
Sky Clipper 62 FBM Hydrocat 1999 RB1 then RB6
Star Clipper 62 FBM Hydrocat 1999 RB1 then RB6
Twinstar 125 ex-Ford Belvedere-Dagenham ferry 2005 RB4
Hurricane Clipper 220 River Runner 200 Mark 2 2001 RB1/RB2/RB5/RB6
Sun Clipper 138 River Runner 150 Mark 3 2005 RB1/RB2/RB5/RB6
Moon Clipper 138 River Runner 150 Mark 3 2005 RB1/RB2/RB5/RB6
Aurora Clipper 220 River Runner 200 Mark 2B 2007 RB1/RB2/RB5/RB6
Monsoon Clipper 220 River Runner 200 Mark 2B 2007 RB1/RB2/RB5/RB6
Cyclone Clipper 220 River Runner 200 Mark 2B 2007 RB1/RB2/RB5/RB6
Tornado Clipper 220 River Runner 200 Mark 2B 2007 RB1/RB2/RB5/RB6
Typhoon Clipper 220 River Runner 200 Mark 2B 2007 RB1/RB2/RB5/RB6
Neptune Clipper 150 Hunt Class 2015 RB6
Galaxy Clipper 150 Hunt Class 2015 RB6
TBD1 Clipper 170 Hunt Class 2017 RB1/RB2/RB5/RB6
TBD2 Clipper 170 Hunt Class 2017 RB1/RB2/RB5/RB6

Table 1: Thames Clippers’ catamaran fleet and expansion

On faster eastern stretches of the river the cats can reach 28knots (52kmh) where the speed limit allows. As the average speed of road traffic in London is somewhere between 6-7kmh, this means that Thames Clippers routes can be time-competitive for some journeys.

The River Bus experience

Londonist have produced several videos covering the Thames Clippers service from the crew and from the passengers’ perspective. Notwithstanding the fact that Londonist is a media partner of Thames Clippers, both clips provide excellent detail of the experience, ship to shore.

The passenger experience was posted 5 March 2014. Note the signage of separate pier boarding points for different river services, real time route updates, and an actual River Bus spider map. Also note that Thames Clippers’ own signage and branding has a different look, silhouette and feel from TfL’s, which doesn’t add to the perception that River Buses are integrated with the rest of London’s transport network.

This video lists “Thames River Taxi” as the operator of Putney – Blackfriars service (now called RB6), but they were one of the previous operators of this route.

A Day in the Life of a River Bus Crew

A day in the life of a Thames Clipper Crew shows the Automatic Information System (AIS) which tracks the actual passenger numbers entered by boat crew so that emergency responders will know the count on board in case of accident.

Unique Service Proposition of River Buses

River Bus interior, LRS

Connecting the dots

The Thames offers an important east-west commuter artery connecting major business, cultural and riverside attractions. Thames Clippers has been able to capitalize on this by providing:

  • Commuting to the City, West End and Canary Wharf from points further east and west, as well as sightseeing and accessing riverside tourist attractions
  • Continued operation during public transport meltdowns (tube or rail problems, most bad weather, precipitating arbours or industrial action)
  • A large seat for each passenger, some with airliner style fold down trays to work on during the voyage (no standees are allowed by Maritime regulations). However on some vessels some seats are larger, offer more privacy, more legroom or a better view, leading to a race for the best seats.
  • A café/bar serving hot and cold drinks, alcohol and snacks on larger vessels
  • Free WiFi and news screen
  • All boats are wheelchair accessible and most have accessible toilets
  • All piers are step-free at all tides, except Cadogan Pier, Wandsworth Riverside Quarter Pier and London Bridge City Pier
  • Large panoramic windows
  • Outside deck and bicycle racks on larger vessels

Bike rack on board a Thames Clipper. (Wikipedia public commons)

Current River Bus routes

Whilst it would be easy to assume that River Buses ply one long linear route up and down the Thames, there are actually six different routes – each with a specific target market and piers served. Unbeknownst to most Londoners, the River Bus network has quietly grown from a lone boat operating a single route between Savoy Pier in central London and Masthouse Terrace on the Isle of Dogs in May 1999, to six routes, with nine piers on both sides of the Thames in central London. So there is a pier within 15 minutes walk of the City and the southern half of the West End.

Route Number Route Name Termini and Major Piers Current Frequency Peak/Off Peak Target Market Notes Route Start
RB1 Commuter – Central to East London Westminster – London Eye – North Greenwich (the O2) 10 min/20 min Commuter Subsidy no longer needed 1999
RB1X Express -– Central to East London Westminster – London Eye – North Greenwich (the O2) 10 min/20 min Commuter Subsidy (?)
RB2 Tate to Tate Bankside – Westminster – Millbank – St George Wharf (Vauxhall) 40 min Tourist Never a subsidy 2003
RB4 Doubletree Docklands Ferry Canary Wharf – Nelson Dock in Rotherhithe 10 min/20 min Mixed Free for hotel guests. Never a subsidy 2005
RB5 Woolwich Shuttle (extension of RB1) North Greenwich (the O2) – Woolwich Royal Arsenal 20-30 min rush hours & weekends Leisure Separate boats weekends & Bank holidays* 2005
RB6 Putney – Blackfriars West London – Central London – Canary Wharf 30 min am, 30-75 min pm Commuter Rush hours weekdays only; still subsidised 2006
River Bus Express O2 Express London Eye – London Bridge express – North Greenwich, all piers return 2 hours before & after O2 events only Leisure Never a subsidy 2007

River Bus routes cover 20km from Putney to Woolwich (Royal Arsenal), and services are at least every 30 minutes over most of the network. There are frequent crossings to piers on alternating banks of the River, but the fare structure is not set up for inexpensive one stop cross-Thames trips. We shall return to this later in this series. The River Bus (RB) route numbers were added in 2014, and are listed here with their route names and terminal piers:

Thames Clippers also provides charter services such as picking up and dropping off passengers from large cruise ships at Tilbury. River Buses operate commuter services to 23 piers, 21 for Thames Clippers and two for the Woolwich Ferry.

River Bus size

Typhoon Clipper River Runner 200 Mark 2B shewing compact catamaran design. (Courtesy Ian Bishop of

Given that the cats are sometimes full to capacity, and occasionally turn away customers, increasing boat size would initially seem to be one way for Thames Clippers to increase ridership. The use of the 62-seater FBM Hydrocats as PIXC busters on RB6 suggest that ridership is growing on that route. The River Runner 220-seaters, however, are the largest practical size for River Buses, due to a number of limiting factors:

  • Longer catamarans with more seating would struggle to turn round without massive changes to the propulsion systems (bigger and heavier equipment would defeat some of the purpose).
  • Safe evacuation will be an issue requiring more staff and life rafts.
  • Some piers can take 4 cats at a time, but large scale rebuilding would be needed for most other piers which have space for only one River Bus.
  • Wider catamarans.

There is one problem greater than all of these, however – Westminster Bridge.

Westminster Bridge

Westminster Bridge has always been the limiting factor in the size of River Buses, as it determined 3 critical dimensions of River Buses, even before the Putney – Blackfriars route was started in 2006.

Propeller and steering servicing on the boats is usually performed by beaching the vessels on the concrete hard, free of charge, at Putney Embankment. ‎Alternative ‎under the waterline servicing has occurred at Greenwich, but it is not ideal as its sandbank is not that firm and has no road or mobile crane access, and at Chatham Dockyard, but but this costs more and is further away. The arches of Westminster Bridge are 11.8m wide though, which restricts the width of vessels proceeding upstream. The widest Clipper catamaran, the River Runner 200 class, is 9.3m, leaving only 2.5m clearance, just 1.25m each side, so these cats must slow significantly to pass through the arches.‎ The Hunt class cats are a metre narrower than the River Runners, at 8.3m, to allow them to pass under Westminster Bridge at greater speed. The Bridge also limits vessel height (or air draught) to 4.8m above the high waterline, precluding double deck vessels upstream.‎

With the three FBM Hydrocats being overhauled, and to deal with increasing ridership, River Runner 200s have been operating on ‎the RB6 to Putney‎ route.

In addition to this there is the problem of draught. The Thames has a large tidal range of up to seven metres between high and low tide. In particular, the navigable depth of water through the centre arch at Westminster Bridge (and at several other key locations on the river bus network at Putney and Bankside, for example) is just 1.2m at low spring tide, which effectively restricts vessels to 1.0m draught before allowances.

However lower than average rainfall, hence less water coming downstream, can reduce the low tide water level by up to 25cm. High barometric pressure over the North Sea can also reduce the Thames water level by this amount. Atmospheric pressure can make a huge difference to tides on the Thames, much more so that elsewhere in the world. (Atmospheric pressure variation in tide height in London is equal to 45% of the max tidal range in the Mediterranean!). Standard atmospheric pressure is significantly above the mid point of the pressure range in the UK, so low pressure over the North Sea can increase the height by circa 50cm (aka storm surge), instead of high pressure reducing it by up to 25cm. The asymmetry is due to standard air pressure not being the actual average air pressure or the mid point.‎

Well seasoned LR readers may recall the 1953 floods which are an example of the variability in Thames water levels when several factors correlate (something we covered in our look at flooding on the Underground. It also highlights the dangers of merely reading the tidetables. A common theme of London Reconnections articles is that on the ground (and on the water in this instance) analysis is key to understanding the transport situation.

Most of the time these low water level factors cancel each other out (0 + 50cm – 25cm – 25cm = 0cm), but several times a year it can get to -30cm or more, which is problematic with a 20cm draught margin. As a result planning and building new cats for the Thames requires carefully balancing size (and thus capacity) with the cancellation rates in the service level contracts.

The key point is that there is much uncertainty with the weather and tides, such that it’s a statistical calculation whether there will be sufficient draught to operate. This primarily affects route RB6 upstream, but can also affect operations at other routes’ piers that have shallow conditions. Indeed the draught at Thames piers can vary greatly, as this list attests:

  • Putney – 1.2m depth (not TfL owned)
  • Millbank (Old Tate) – 3.2m; modern pier with deep draught due to extensive dredging
  • Westminster Bridge – 2.1m at eastern end of pier; 1.2m at western end (and at the bridge’s centre arch)
  • Bankside (Tate Modern) – 2.6m; but the gravel bank nearby is 1.2m which restricts vessels getting on or off the pier at low tide
  • Tower Pier – 3.8m

Whilst the cats’ propellers don’t extend below the hull line, they can be damaged if they come in contact with the river bed, gravel, rocks or unexpected items on the bottom, especially when the props churn up the water. Water jet propulsion systems don’t have this issue to the same extent, so a lower draught margin can be used. Overall this means that the largest River Runner 200 vessels can’t operate RB6 services in all conditions. Hence the new Hunt Class has been introduced as a more ubiquitous River Bus vessel, along with the retention of the older, shallower draught FBM Hydrocats for use on less busy trips and to transport overflow passengers.

The Clipper draughts at full load (with propulsion type) are:

  • FBM Hydrocat 0.6m (water jet)
  • River Runner 150 1.0m (propeller)
  • River Runner 200 1.0m (propeller)
  • Hunt Class 1.0m (water jet)

Dwell time bottleneck

As with busy railways, dwell times are a key factor in River Bus frequency.

One of the traditional weaknesses of water transport as a mass transit system is its limited rate of ship-to-shore passenger transfer. It is also important to note the labour-intensive method of embarking and disembarking. River Buses are secured to the quay in the traditional manner of rope twisted around bollard, which requires two staff, one on quay and the other onboard. Then a narrow, single file gangway is pushed out from the boat onto the quay.

The gangways load or unload passengers single file, but are wide enough for a wheelchair or mobility scooter. The second ramp is used at busy piers to allow faster unidirectional, simultaneous boarding and alighting. Gangway size is effectively limited by their weight for manual handling purposes.

The dwell times that the authors observed were quite short, but these are only achievable with a small number of passengers. In the worst case, alighting a full load of 220 passengers would take at least 10 minutes, at 2.7 seconds per passenger. This would be like unloading a crowded Croydon tram from a single width front door only. Whereas a tram can load or unload more than 220 people in less than a minute with all doors.

This dwell time bottleneck will only increase as ridership improves, unless something is done. That something could be one or more of a number of options:

  • Inflate schedule times to allow for gangway congestion
  • Utilise the second gangway, but this would require at least another two crew members to lower it into place safely.
  • Install wider gangways, with all the ship and pier redesign work, and the Health and Safety inspections.

Thames Clippers already save time and fuel by skipping piers where there is no one to drop off or pick up. A double deck pier structure for dual level loading was tried by a river tour operator around the millennium but has since been scrapped, although some of the floating dual level structure remains moored near Waterloo Bridge.

River Buses are no accident

Evacuation is also a major limit on staffing, similar to aircraft, as it is one crew member per raft with one spare raft. For example, on the two newest Hunt cats, there are four rafts total, each carrying 65 persons. River Buses have not experienced any severe injuries or fatalities (zero KSI – Killed or Seriously Injured, the standard UK metric for safety policy) aboard. However small bumps against piers in rough waters have resulted in some minor injuries. And a defective joystick caused the Monsoon Clipper to collide with Tower Millennium Pier at 8.5 knots on 4 October 2011, causing minor injuries to 14 passengers and 2 crew.

The Hunt Class cats procured after this incident have water jet rather than traditional propeller propulsion, which significantly improves low-speed manoeuvrability. All large craft operating in the crowded central stretch of the Thames are now also required to carry a GPS-based automatic navigation and identification system, which shows their position and the position of all other vessels, continually updated on a display.

LRS River Bus route licensing

LRS now has Scheduled Service Planning Guidelines, in which it lays out its criteria for licensing river services. These Guidelines implement what they believe will be healthy and sustainable competition to provide the best benefits to passengers. LRS is tasked with having due regard to the need to provide a return on capital investment and the effects on the sustainability of the network and individual operators.

From a passenger’s point of view, the LRS Guidelines also state that the river boat service network should be:

  1. Comprehensive – providing service to available piers and recognising the needs of local people and visitors (including the elderly and people with disabilities)
  2. Frequent – with adequate capacity for seasonal and daily peaks
  3. Simple – easy for passengers to understand and flexible enough to adapt to specific demand patterns
  4. Reliable – aiming to provide even service intervals when frequencies are high and operating to time when they are low.

We note that these are some of the principles on which successful Underground services are based. Although in practice, LRS notes that it is often necessary to trade these Guideline objectives against each other and against the economic objectives.

LRS is also responsible for the free Woolwich Ferry, but currently contracts out its operation to Briggs Marine, which took over the contract from Serco 2013. We are not addressing this ferry in this article.

TfL River Bus Subsidy Policy

TfL sees no issue between the River Bus services being subsidised and river tours not, as they are different markets. Thames Clippers are the only river passenger service that operates during peak commuter hours. River tours do not start until 9.00am and finish before the evening peak hours.

It is important to note that River Tour services have never received any subsidies from LRS, PLA or any government department, having operated self-sufficiently on the river for decades. Indeed this subsidy situation is no different in TfL’s eyes from regular London bus services being subsidised, whilst open-top sightseeing buses not being subsidised and charging premium fares. TfL’s position is to use a small amount of public money to ensure that scheduled river passenger transport is provided without interfering with the market forces. They have found that initial subsidies appear to be the best way to develop and grow new River Bus services.

For example, extending services to Woolwich Arsenal Pier from Greenwich (now RB5) required a large subsidy in its first year – £4.30 per passenger – which dropped to just 54p per passenger in two years, and is now subsidy free.

Greenwich Pier sign. (Courtesy Ian Bishop of

By 2009 the Putney – Blackfriars West London River Bus service (now RB6) was still not performing well financially, but this was expected as it had to use smaller boats due to potentially lower water levels upstream. This was necessary to guarantee being able to operate the service whatever the river is doing, meaning more boats and more crew are required to carry a smaller number of passengers.

The January 2012 Greater London Assembly (GLA) Transport Committee meeting discussed the TfL River Services subsidy, and compared it to London buses. ‎TfL explained that it defines its River Services subsidy as direct payments to boat operators to support their service provision, but this does not include LRS’ own operations nor maintenance costs of their own piers.

As of 2 February 2012‎, TfL financially supported two River Bus operators:

  1. Weekday peak hour services between London Eye and Woolwich Arsenal Piers.
  2. Complete Pleasure Boats for the Putney to Blackfriars service from 3 January 2012, following the withdrawal of the previous boat operator, as a temporary six month arrangement at £6,000 per week to allow further investigation as to the future viability of this route.

‎As no precise records of River Bus passenger numbers were kept at this time, the best estimate of TfL’s subsidy of this route at the time was 89p per head per journey. This compares with TfL’s London Buses 2010/11 subsidy per passenger journey of 19p, but TfL notes that direct subsidy comparison between transport modes is often inappropriate due to the use of differing operating models and journey lengths.

The remaining River Bus services operate under licence on an economically self-supporting basis.

River Bus passenger split

Thames Clippers estimates that the overall River Bus passenger mix is 25-50% tourists, with the latter providing passengers in off peak hours, resolving the problem their 1990s predecessor RiverBus had. Moreover Thames Clippers provide cheaper fares and more frequent services which allow more tourists to experience the River, skimming trade from Thames tourist boats.

In 2011 Leon Daniels, TfL’s Managing Director of Surface Transport, gave an example of using River Bus services to provide alternative transport during Underground disruptions. There was a problem at Tower Hill Underground, for which a rail replacement bus service was provided to connect passengers to the DLR. In setting up the replacement bus route, LRS moved its terminus from Tower Hill Station to Tower Pier so passengers had the option to continue their journey by River Bus. During such diversions, Underground fares are often accepted aboard the Clippers, presumably with LRS picking up the tab.

Thames Clippers at North Greenwich Pier

On 24 May 2012 TfL announced that Thames Clippers would be the new operator of the Putney to Blackfriars route, taking over from Complete Pleasure Boats on 1 April 2013. Under this new licence Thames Clippers increased the Putney to Blackfriars service by two-thirds, using modern, fully accessible catamarans, stopping at the new St George’s Wharf pier in Vauxhall, and provide easy interchange to River Bus services operating east of central London to Woolwich Arsenal. Thames Clippers was awarded the licence for five years with an option for a further period of up to two years. The 62 seater FBM Hydrocats that started on the Thames Clippers first route at the millennium operated the new up river service. These have now been replaced by two River Runner 200s.

River Bus Licensing

River service licences are normally awarded for a period of up to 5 years, but this depends on the service proposed. LRS encourages experiments in terms of both services and facilities within the licensing regime, as well as allowing temporary services. The economic circumstances may determine whether a period of longer than 5 years is appropriate for a particular licence application, much like TfL manages rail operators.

Similarly, services to new residential developments may be introduced with particular time horizons based on the availability of funding from developers. We shall review some successful examples of this a little later in this series.

From April to November 2005, Thames Clippers operated a short lived tourist express River Bus route between London Eye Pier (Waterloo) to Tower Pier (Tower of London), at half hour frequencies and 15 minute journey time. However it was not a commercial success (there was no subsidy) and it was not renewed.

In its River Services licence expiry dates document of August 2013, LRS listed the following River Bus licences, along with river tour operators:

Licence No. Operator Route Expires
LRS024 Collins River Enterprises Ltd Millbank† to Bankside [RB2] 31 March 2023
LRS027 Collins River Enterprises Ltd Embankment† to Greenwich [RB1] 16 August 2014

But it is not known why all of the RB routes are not in this licence listing, nor why this document has not been updated. Enquiries to LRS about this have not been returned.

† Check before you travel
RB1 has since been extended to Westminster Pier
RB2 has since been extended to St George Wharf Pier (Vauxhall)

Note that TfL does not franchise Collins River Enterprises Ltd, a private company, nor even direct them. TfL’s approach is much different from its relationship with LOROL and other transport providers.

Passenger numbers for this route, now numbered RB6, have been steadily increasing:

Financial Year Passengers Operator
2012/2013 40,411 Complete Pleasure Boats Ltd
2013/2014 114,213 Thames Clippers Ltd
2014/2015 157,043 Thames Clippers Ltd

Until 2015, only 13.3% of RB6 trips extended into the East Zone to Canary Wharf. But by late 2015 ridership kept growing on the route such that some sailings have been full, leading to some passengers being turned away. So based on a recent RB6 customer feedback survey, Thames Clippers introduced a new timetable for RB6 starting 22 February 2016, providing additional peak RB6 express services to both London Bridge and Canary Wharf, which cut ten minutes off the Putney to Canary Wharf sailings.

To accommodate these RB6 timetable changes, all weekday RB2 sailings are now 10 minutes earlier than hitherto. The RB2 weekend timetable stays the same, as RB6 doesn’t yet operate ‎on weekends.

In the next part of this series, we will look at how transport policy with regards to the river has evolved.

Acknowledgements to Graham Feakins and Alan Robinson for their contributions.

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There are 78 comments on this article
  1. Frankie Roberto says:

    Given that some of these services seem to be profitable, I wonder why TfL doesn’t decide to take the same licensing approach as with the Overground: i.e. paying the operators a fee and keeping most of the revenue?

  2. Anon E. Mouse says:

    An interesting overview of a lesser known part of London’s transport.

    (Small typo: In the description of the different routes, the entry for RB5 refers to “ush hours”.)

    [Thanks, and fixed. LBM]

  3. @Frankie

    We get into the details of the origin and evolution of London River Services’ River Bus policy in the next installment. But in summary, the Thames has almost always been a free market of transport services, subject only to the Company of Watermen (in the past), and passenger services licensing by London River Services currently.

  4. Andrew S says:

    I give up! Under “Connecting the dots”, what are precipitating arbors, and and how do you use a cafe/bar if you’re not allowed to stand?

  5. Jon says:

    Interesting fact-based article, thanks.

    Couple of small typos:

    “Principal” routes not “Principle” routes in the table.

    35 km/h is 18 knots not 28 knots.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Precipitating arbors = leaves on the line?

  7. @Andrew

    Yes, ‘precipitating arbours’ is another way of stating falling leaves.

    One can walk around on River Buses; however every passenger is required to have a seat, ie no standee only passengers.

  8. @Jon

    Thank you Jon, and corrected.

  9. Southern Heights (Light Railway) says:

    The picture under “River Bus passenger Split” is not Tower Pier… 😉 The O2 perhaps?

    [Yes, this is actually North Greenwich Pier, I’ve corrected the caption. LBM]

  10. Al__S says:

    RB4 is rather threatened by proposed bridge at about this location. And is presumably hugely subsidised by the hotel. Wouldn’t have though it gets that many paying passengers given quite how expensive it is for what it is?

  11. jim banana says:

    The Woolwich Ferry is free and is operated by Briggs Marine and Environmental on behalf of TfL. Hasnt been serco for a few years.

  12. quinlet says:

    “As the average speed of road traffic in London is somewhere between 6-7kmh, this means that Thames Clippers routes can be time-competitive for some journeys”.
    In point of fact, the average speed of traffic in London in 2016 was just over 16 mph – or about 25kph. In central London, average speeds have dropped to 7.8mph – or just over 12kph. While that may still make river services time-competitive in some circumstances compared to driving, it won’t be the case in very many cases. And, of course, compared to rail the speed comparison is even less in the boat’s favour.

    This doesn’t take away, of course, the other benefits of going by boat.

  13. Anonymous Pedant says:

    “Passenger numbers for this route, now numbered RB6..” seems to be a non sequitur from the previous section about licensing, and in fact a continuation of the section before that about Putney to Blacklfriars?

  14. Timbeau says:

    If you can do the whole journey by boat it can be attractive, but the services are not well integrated with the rest of TfL. There are no through fares (and fares are higher anyway), and interchange distances with Tube and buses are generally poor – particularly at Putney, Waterloo and Blackfriars (where the pier has just been relocated to make way for the Supersewer work)

  15. johnb78 says:

    Pedantry corner: as the table shows, the earliest three clippers (the three FBM ones) were also built on the Isle of Wight, so the new ones won’t be the first UK-built ones.

    (and yes, “Australia and Tasmania” is definitively wrong usage – should be either “in Australia” or “in Queensland and Tasmania”.)

  16. Timbeau says:

    The air draught you quote for Westminster Bridge is, presumably, the minimum at high spring tides, so it might be possible to run larger boats at neap tides (when both air and water draughts are greater). Indeed as RB6 is a rush hour only service you don’t even need to use the same boats morning and evening if one session, but not the other, coincides with high or low tide.*

    But any schedule or roster that depends on the tide gets complicated – see “Staplehurst train disaster” for details (probably the reason we will never know the solution to the Mystery of Edwin Drood)

    *For those who don’t know, high tides occur about every 12h 25m: so do low tides, although in a river the tide goes out faster than it comes in, so low tide is less than 6.2 hours after high tide. Spring tides (the highest high tides and lowest low tides) occur twice a month, at full and new moon. Neap tides occur at the quarter moons

  17. Graham H says:

    Many thanks to Graham F and Alan Robinson for a shaft of light in an area often neglected.

    Pace timbeau, it’s all very well to talk about different fleets for different tides, but that’s an expensive hobby.

  18. ngh says:

    Re Timbeau (and Graham H),

    I did longer chunk on tides + similar issues and speed limits and the effect on potential timetabling (very variable journey times) but that didn’t survive the editorial scissors early on.

    Air Draft (As per PLA preferred spelling but LBM doesn’t like American spellings at the moment!) Yes and No as it also depends on the volume of water coming over Teddington Weir, air pressure, wind speed and direction over the North Sea too, the maths is very asymmetric in the possibility of it being higher rather than lower.

    *For those who don’t know, high tides occur about every 12h 25m: so do low tides, although in a river the tide goes out faster than it comes in, so low tide is less than 6.2 hours after high tide. Spring tides (the highest high tides and lowest low tides) occur twice a month, at full and new moon. Neap tides occur at the quarter moons

    Actually 12h22m to 12h29m at sea as successive tides aren’t the same…
    The section I have emboldened from your comment you have completely the wrong way round. Low and High tides are only evenly spaced out in the estuary till about Greenwich from there on inwards the incoming (flood) tide moves faster than the outgoing (ebb) tide as the incoming tidal water tends to flow over the top of the land water coming down and has to fight it so the speed of propagation of the turn of the high tide is far quicker than the speed of propagation of low tide (Tidal changes always (barring Jan 2014 type flooding) propagate upstream on the tideway.) Hence upstream the ebb (outgoing) tides last far longer than the flood (incoming) tide so if you look at the latest data from one of the PLA Monitoring stations at Chelsea (near the former Water Pumping station just upstream of Grosvenor Bridge)


    The tidal cycle over night was incoming 5h58m and outgoing 6h42, the differential of which will have increased by the upstream end of the RB6 Route at Putney to differential of over 1h.

    Together with variations is stream this makes timetabling the services at intermediate points and getting high utilisation rate from the vessels virtually impossible as the worst case always has to be taken hence the comparatively slow journey times and speeds on RB6 thus why making it subsidy free has been such a challenge over the years.

  19. Reynolds 953 says:

    I admit I’ve never been on a river bus service – I’ll add it to my list of things to try.

    I’m interested in the reasons why regular commuters use the service.

    Is it quicker than the alternatives for some cases?

    Or is a seat, a view (and a beer…) valued over a quicker journey on a crammed tube train?

  20. ngh says:

    Re Reynolds 953,

    For the Putney users I’ve spoken to it is a good alternative as they struggle to get on a train and then struggle to get on the tube at Waterloo the other alternative is cycling…

    The betting is on the Cafe-Bar not being fitted on the recently ordered vessels to create space for most of the extra 20 seats (passengers) without any changes to the hull design or vessel staffing requirements.

  21. IslandDweller says:

    The safety record is very impressive, but zero fatalities isn’t true. The figure zero only applies to “on-board”. A passenger was killed in an accident in 2004 – she was whilst waiting at the pier to board. The mooring bollard on board the clipper gave way as the rope was tightened and snapped off violently – the waiting passenger was killed.
    Here’s the investigation report:

  22. IslandDweller says:

    Great article by the way.
    But a small correction:
    “River Buses are secured to the quay in the traditional manner of rope twisted around bollard, which requires two staff, one on quay and the other onboard.”
    Not at every pier. At Masthouse (for example) there is never any staff on the quay – the onboard crew handle all the tying up process. Impressively quickly too.

  23. IslandDweller says:

    Another small pedant detail. The imaginative impromptu dry dock location which is sometimes used for servicing is at North Greenwich (there’s large sand area by the dome at low tide) – not at the historic part of Greenwich by the naval college. This servicing location is also directly opposite Clipper HQ – which is at Leamouth.

  24. IslandDweller says:

    @Reynolds953 Do treat yourself to a journey. Pick a sunny day and make sure it’s a service operated by the type of vessel that has outside seating at the rear – look at the photo close to the top of this article to see an example of the type I mean. These outside seats are highly sought after on a hot sunny day!
    It’s a stunning way to travel through the capital. There is little difference in price between a short hop and a longer trip, so you might as well treat yourself to the full ride from the City down to Greenwich. The acceleration (once east of Wapping marine police station – and hence out of the speed limit zone) is impressive.

  25. IslandDweller says:

    @ AL_S RB4 (the Hilton/Doubletree shuttle) might be relatively expensive, but this area is very poorly served by other public transport. There’s just a circuitous bus route. It’s a long walk to Canada Water from that area.

  26. @ Graham H

    Actually I and ngh wrote this installment, with much assistance from Graham F and Alan Robinson. Unfortunately our names are in blue, which is lost in the dark blue background of the banner photo.

  27. Toby says:

    Is there an album of photos taken from the same trip as the banner photo?

    I’m also inspired to try to make better use of these, and cruise, services. It doesn’t look easy to go from Hampton to Woolwich out of the blue but I’ll try.

  28. Graham H says:

    @LBM – my apologies – I looked for the by-line asI thought you had had a large hand in it and was surprised not to see your name in lights!

  29. Timbeau says:

    Tides: some confusion. You are quite right. I was referring to the net flow of water, which is the sum of the tidal flow (AC) and the river’s own flow over Teddington Lock (DC).

    The effect on the level of the river is as you say though.


    Upstream of Putney the river is too circuitous (and shallow at low tide) for timings to be competitive with the train. Tourist boats do run in the summer from Westminster to Hampton Court, but the first downstream boat does not get to Westminster until long after the last upstream boat has departed, so hardly practical for commiting into central London!

    I believe there was also a crew fatality on the Woolwich Ferry not long ago.

  30. @Graham H

    No problem. But as a Junior writer I don’t get a large point size for my name… However I’d like to congratulate ngh for his first LR writing foray, he was most helpful with the technical details, although I take full responsibility for the small errors (like confusing countries and islands!) and typos.

  31. @Toby

    We used commercial photographer CoreRising for the banner photo – the photo is even more impressive on a larger scale and without the title text in the way. It shews the short distance between London Bridge City Pier, the Galleria (I believe it’s called) and London Bridge station. CoreRising has an account on Flickr.

    Regarding river tour operators, the TfL London River Services map is

    Schedule details for River Buses, River Tours and Dining Cruises is

  32. Greg Tingey says:

    Only used them twice – both times Blackfriars – Putney.
    I was impressed, but I had to use my Oyster, as my geriatric’s card does not apply on them.
    I noted quite a few obviously-regular commuters on the service, both times.
    On a fine day though, it’s well-worth it for the views & other general interests

  33. ngh says:

    Re LBM,

    The building behind the pier is actually the Cotton Centre where NR have some office space, the Galleria is the older building to the left.

  34. ap says:

    I still miss The Viscount and The Henley, the two vintage boats that ran the Putney River Bus service before Thames Clippers. Going for a sunset ride home complete with a bar on board was a real treat that the new boats simply can’t compete with. Of course I get they don’t want to provide that kind of trip but it was wonderful.

    The New Statesman published a piece about the service…

    My memory is that there were all sorts of claims about the way the contract for RB6 was handled. I found this on the internet wayback archive…

  35. Greg Tingey says:

    Any handy links to pictures?
    Because, IIRC “The Henley” was/is a “little ship”

  36. ngh says:

    Re Greg,

    https:[email protected][email protected][email protected][email protected][email protected][email protected]k-oJiVcS-orSYKK-oJjMdd-oGj8Lf-oJmair-oJkNiv-orVxa1/

    I imagine someone had kittens when they found out that she is was approaching 116 year old when they lost the contract, now 121 years old.

    She also doesn’t and wouldn’t get a speed exemption certificate which is needed to run RB6 effectively (and the other services to lesser extent).

  37. ap says:


    Sadly no, for some reason I never took a decent picture but yes you are right. Both boats are still on the river. In fact although The Henley looks more of a veteran, it’s The Viscount that did its bit.

  38. Alan says:

    The mooring process, securing two ropes to bollards and operation of the gangway is often all carried out by a single crew member which adds even more to the dwell time.

    Pleasant though they are, they will always remain a cinderella service when most journeys offered have to compete with a direct, cheaper and more frequent (if less comfortable) rail/tube/DLR service. The piers that are possible exceptions to this – Masthouse, Greenland, Cadogan, Chelsea Harbour – all receive the sparsest service.

  39. Greg Tingey says:

    ap / ngh
    That’s a long time for any boat, never mind two of them, to be in service.

  40. Graham H says:

    @GregT -you should look at the history of the Weisses Flotte operating from Dresden,which is still running 4 steamers dating from 1879-1886, one of which, the Diesbar of 1884,is still using the steam machinery of 1857 transferred from a predecessor. (The machinery was built by John Penn of Greenwich, and its survival has recently attracted the attention of the Science Museum here, who have,I believe, asked for first dibs on it,should it ever be replaced).

    You might also like the Skibladdern of 1853 still in service in Norway. The Swiss also have several centenarian paddlers. [Lord Dawlish writes ” And I cannot think of a better way of consuming a slice of the loaded Zugertorte and a glass of Fendant than sitting in the saloon of the Unterwalden].

  41. Ed says:

    The huge growth the past couple of years is of little surprise. It is a great way to travel and the number of riverside developments to the east is vast.

    That could be its downfall perhaps in years to come though. There are plans to add a fair few more piers in the east – this will slow down trips from Woolwich.

  42. Damo says:

    The river bus in Gothenburg dont have ramps and just dock with the engines pushing the whole front against the quay. Two gates open on the ferry, two on the dock and away you go. This allows an easy 2-3m wide access. It doesn’t seem to stop pushchairs or bikes although I have never seen a wheelchair.

  43. IslandDweller says:

    “The piers that are possible exceptions to this – Masthouse, Greenland, Cadogan, Chelsea Harbour – all receive the sparsest service.”
    All weekday rush hour services call at Masthouse and Greenland – suggesting they are picking up regular commuters. Some off peak services skip those stops, but those off peak services are much more focussed on tourist traffic to Greenwich.

  44. Latecomer says:

    For those considering a trip on a Thames Clipper you can also buy combined tickets with the ̶d̶a̶n̶g̶l̶e̶w̶a̶y̶ Emirates Cable Car. I had an enjoyable afternoon and evening one birthday combining a one way ticket on the cable car from the Royal Docks to North Greenwich at sunset followed by a relatively short journey on the Thames Clipper to Canary Wharf. From there I had a pleasant stroll along the river to The Grapes pub in Limehouse for a thoroughly enjoyable meal and some ales.

  45. Wax Lyrical says:

    All the services need a speed exemption to make keeping to a regular timetable even halfway comfortable. With a mid-tide flow of 4kt a boat at the speed limit below Wandsworth Bridge, of 12kt relative to the water, is going twice as fast over the ground with the tide as against it. Upstream of Wandsworth it’s 3x as fast. (Even for the original fast cats at 25kt it’s a 40% difference; for the new 30kt fleet that’s down to 30%. But I imagine easier mooring is a bigger gain.)

  46. Wax Lyrical says:

    [Is the information about where the boats are serviced misplaced? It reads oddly in the middle of the paragraph about how Westminster Bridge constrains their size.]

  47. @Wax Lyrical

    The Port of London Authority (PLA) put speed limits in place to reduce shore erosion (there were also complaints of boat waves bouncing moored Thames houseboats up and down) and improve safety on the river.

  48. Slugabed says:

    Having visited houseboat-dwelling friends whilst they were moored at Greenwich Yacht Club,I can say that the latter is a real concern…!

  49. Walthamstow Writer says:

    Interesting article. I’ve never used the River Bus services but have had river trips east through the Thames Barrier and back and also one way down to Hampton Court. A very interesting way of getting a view of London that other public transport can’t give you. Former colleagues based at Canary Wharf used to use the River Bus on occasion to get to Leicester Square – they walked up from Embankment. I can see the attraction but I struggle to get past the relatively high fares.

    I tend to agree with the view that the River Bus in London is still very niche and probably unknown to many millions of Londoners. The article suggests that making the services much better known and popular could have some rather expensive consequences for the operators and TfL. I wonder where the River will figure within the Mayor’s new Transport Strategy due out in a few months time? The Business Plan only makes passing reference to expanding pier capacity / 2harnessing the potential of the river” / a possible new ferry link in the East / replacing the Woolwich Ferry vessels. Only the latter represents a firm financial commitment that was inherited from the previous Mayor.

  50. @WW

    Thanks. As you say, reading the tea leaves in the latest TfL Business Plan suggests very little planning or emphasis on expanding River Bus services (the Woolwich Ferry is not considered part of this, having long preceded the Thames Clippers as an extension of the road system, carrying autos and foot passengers).

    The next part in this series investigates River passenger transport policy since about 1997, and the current background planning for additional River Bus piers, adjacent to planned major riverside housing developments.

    The Mayor’s predecessor Mr Johnson did place a higher emphasis on river passenger transport, partly to provide additional transport capacity and tourism opportunities for the 2012 Olympics, and partly to serve high end riverside developments and their residents. As the latter are not likely supporters of Mayor Khan, he will not place much effort or money on expanding River Bus services. But, there are always exceptions. Stay tuned.

  51. Wax Lyrical says:

    @LBM: as a (former) rower I’m entirely behind speed limits on the Thames! I’ve been sunk at Putney, as a novice in an old eight without buoyancy chambers, by the wake of a waste-container barge. In the centre of town, with vertical embankments on each side, large wakes bounce off the walls to recross the river and the problem compounds.

    The point is that the fast cat technology makes a regular timetable possible despite the tide, in a way that conventional hulls can’t manage.

  52. timbeau says:

    “most journeys offered have to compete with a direct, cheaper and more frequent (if less comfortable) rail/tube/DLR service.”
    Not always very direct, or indeed much faster. Taking as an example a journey from near where I used to live near Putney Common to near where I now work (close to the Millennium Bridge), journey times pan out as follows (using Google Maps for walking times, and TfL journey planner for PT legs).

    Walk to Putney Pier – 13 minutes
    Boat to Blackfriars Pier – 44 minutes
    walk to destination – 4 minutes
    61 minutes: Oyster fare £7

    Walk to Putney station – 16 minutes
    Train to Waterloo – 17-21 minutes
    walk to destination – 24 minutes
    (or No 26 bus or via Waterloo & City Line, all about the same time)
    Total – 57-61 minutes:
    Peak fare £2.80 walking from Waterloo
    £4.30 using the bus from Waterloo
    £4.40 using the Underground from Waterloo
    Using a bus to get to Putney station would add another £1.50

    Walk to Putney Bridge station – 21 minutes
    District Line to Blackfriars – 30 minutes
    walk to destination – 6 minutes
    Total – 57 minutes: Oyster fare (peak) £2.90
    Using a bus to get to Putney Bridge would save a bit of time but add another £1.50

  53. Londoner in Scotland says:

    Regarding the time taken to moor the river buses and for passengers to embark and disembark, it should be possible for berthing and fixing the gangway to be the same operation. In a system largely developed by the Norwegians, vehicle ferries can berth by the vessel’s loading ramp latching onto the shore linkspan, thereby holding the ferry in place. However, the system is not widely used in the UK, where there is still great reliance on the time-consuming and labour-intensive use of mooring ropes. I see no reason why the same system should not apply to pedestrian ramps. The Thames should be ideal for this, because I believe most/all of the piers are pontoons, so the vessel and pier are always at about the same relative level. This method does require co-ordination of the design of the vessels and the piers.

    Any arrangement to speed up the rate at which passengers can embark and disembark significantly is likely to require alterations to the piers, with additional ramps between the pontoon and the quay if overcrowding is to be avoided.

    The berthing system in Gothenburg described by Damo is common for pedestrian and vehicle ferries, but only acceptable with bow loading. The vessel’s engines are acting against the gradient of the loading ramp to hold the ferry in place. Although some vessels have the ability to apply sideways thrust, this method is not satisfactory for side-loading, because of the risk of the vessel moving against the pier.

  54. timbeau says:

    The berthing system described above, relying on forward thrust against the pontoon may be trickier on the Thames, where there may also be considerable sideways thrust needed to counteract the current. I would also hope that such systems are not used with single-engined craft, as an engine failure could be disastrous.

  55. Southern Heights (Light Railway) says:

    In the Netherlands, using bow ramps and thrusters is used even on rivers with a good flow. It just depends on how you build the boats, these boats normally have a ramp at either end and are under the control of the captain… A bit of hydrolics doing the raising and lowering.

    For sideways mooring you really only need a single rope, from the bow. Simply moor against the current and push. Again a wide ramp relased by the captain would allow speedier (dis-) embarkation. As TfL control the moorings, this isn’t hard to do. A couple of bits of steel and some oxy-acetylene welding equipment and Bob’s your uncle. With a bit of thought it should be possible to control any pontoon gates too…

  56. Malcolm says:

    I know there is no close analogy between road buses and river buses. But mooring a public service vessel with only one (or no) ropes and relying on the engine strikes me as akin to opening a bus door without first applying a parking brake. It’s not going to happen nowadays, except perhaps in places where there are grandfather rights to use such a technique.

  57. Anonymous says:

    SH(LR), the accident report referenced above by Island Dweller should serve as suitable cautionary tale to anyone thinking of adopting a casual approach to any welding undertaken with regards to passenger operations in a marine environment.

  58. Leon Daniels says:

    Frankie – it is because these services ARE mostly commercially viable that we DON’T intervene!

    However we will do ‘pump priming’ and/or act in the event of market failure. So when when the commercial operator of the ailing Putney-Blackfriars service withdrew we put in place a contract, properly tendered, and with a higher level and quality of service. As a result it continues to grow ridership, as evidenced in this piece, and most likely will become self-sustaining in the future, whereupon our involvement can be reviewed.

  59. Londoner in Scotland says:

    @ Malcolm

    It is not appropriate for mooring against a pontoon, as on the Thames, but the system of bow- or stern-loading onto a vessel held against a slipway by its engine is widespread. The most recent new route I am aware of where this happens was introduced in 1996.

  60. @Malcolm

    I’ve taken a lot of different ferries in Canada and the US, from large car and truck ferries to the smaller SeaBus passenger only vessels in Vancouver and Halifax, and they’ve mostly used the engines to keep the ship pushed against the dock. Some were catamarans that I believe were tied to the pier. So engine docking (there’s likely a specific maritime term for it) is very common. However my thought then, as now, is that it must be an expensive waste of fuel and source of pollution, when tying a ship to the dock would be a much cheaper alternative. Perhaps it’s the labour intensive aspect that is the deciding factor.

  61. JA says:

    Interestingly the diary section of the Evening Standard on Thursday reported hearing that Sadiq Khan had vetoed the provision of premium priced first class accommodation on the new build Thames Clippers. Understandable if the services they are intended for are subsidised by TfL, but perhaps a mistake if increased income from premium fares could hasten the reduction or complete elimination of subsidy.

  62. @JA

    Ta for that. Here’s the link:

    As Table 1: ‘Thames Clippers’ catamaran fleet and expansion’ in the article demonstrates, most of the Clippers are used somewhat interchangeably on different routes, according to ridership, special events, tube strikes etc. And there are always a few Clippers in reserve in case of surge ridership or delay, essentially PIXC busters.

    As RB6 Putney-Blackfriars(-Canary Wharf peak express) is still be subsidised, and quite likely to be operated by the two new 170 passenger Hunt Class cats, Mayor Khan is trying to avoid bad press.

    However I don’t see anything wrong with having First Class on Thames Clippers, as they are a private enterprise that is striving to be economically self-sufficient, and have achieved this on most of their routes, and many mainline trains have First Class compartments as well.

  63. @taz, guy, Johnb78 et al

    Thanks for pointing out the geographical and other problems in the text, I’ve now corrected them. LBM

  64. Alan says:

    RB4 does actually get a few paying passengers, myself included, presumably because as IslandDweller says, it is a long haul to replicate that journey by any other means for the (admittedly moderate) population that live around the hotel. A single fare is a painful thing but with a monthly season it is slightly easier to bear.

    I may be jumping the gun for the next instalment, but if the Brunel Bridge does go ahead, it would surely be the end of the RB4 and Greenland might no longer be viable either. This would however relieve capacity at Canary Wharf and take away the conflicts of having a cross river ferry on a stretch that gets a range of through traffic, commuter, recreational and all the various goods traffic.

  65. NickBxn says:

    I can’t cite a source, but I’m certain that the berthing system of slotting the bow into a V-shape within each end of the pier was proposed in London about 15-20 years ago. I remember seeing artist-visualisations of it, but suspect the simple economics of equipping the piers and having to roll out a standard bow design across different operators’ fleets to make most use of the facility got the better of it.

  66. Ian J says:

    no standees are allowed by Maritime regulations

    This surprised me, as such regulations don’t seem to apply on busy ferry services outside the UK (Venice for example or Sydney or Hong Kong) – I assume the limiting factor on these services is lifeboat/raft capacity not seat availability.

    Relatedly, I’m not sure a more dense seating layout (like the trend for new train carriages) is completely right, in London at least – the trend is for less seating to make way for more standees – hence 2+3 seating becomes 2+2, lateral becomes longitudinal, etc.

  67. @Ian J

    I was imprecise, I meant seat pitch becoming tighter.

  68. @Alan

    I presume that the DoubleTree Hotel at Rotherhithe owes its continued existence to the RB4 route, as ALan and IslandDweller point out the logistics of an alternate route.

    And as the software world goes, they have made a bug (having to cross the Thames to reach Canary Wharf) into a feature – hotel guests take the scenic RB4 for free.

    So the DoubleTree, and the Holiday Inn incarnation before it, basically sponsor this route, have naming rights of the route (“DoubleTree Docklands Ferry”), such that this RB4 has never needed a TfL subsidy.

  69. Southern Heights (Light Railway) says:

    @NickBxn: Yes you are correct, they were little tri-marans, I believe several piers were adapted for them. And as far as I recall one of the trimarans survives and is used to shuttle passengers from passenger liners to Tower Pier.

    I can recall seeing them chug up and down the Thames back when I lived up that way.

  70. timbeau says:

    @ian J/Briantist

    Seating capacity is moving in different directions on long and short distance train services. On long distance services seat pitch is getting tighter. (Mark 3 coaches – the first where seats did not line up with the windows – originally had 72 seats in second class: Great Western now squeeze in up to 84, in a shorter length (as the toilets are larger). On short distance services seats are being removed to make more standing space.

  71. straphan says:

    Both the Hilton Ferry and the ‘mainline’ RB1 carry plenty of commuters to Canary Wharf from the hotel and Greenland Pier respectively. The reason is that the eastbound Jubilee Line is completely packed at Canada Water (having mopped up crowds from Waterloo and London Bridge) and – from experience – you could even spend 15 minutes on the platform before you can physically squeeze yourself in. Recently, the problem has become more acute: many flats have been completed on the peninsula; whereas the Overground has been extended to 5 carriages and has been more in demand with all the unreliability on Southern. As such, the entrance to Canada Water gets shut quite regularly in the morning peak due to overcrowding on the platforms. You could, of course, circumvent this by taking the Overground from Rotherhithe and change, but you’re then still left with the problem of getting onto a Jubilee Line train.

    With yet more flats due for completion on the peninsula pretty soon, the pedestrian/cycle bridge across the Thames could not come soon enough!

  72. Christian Schmidt says:

    Having grown up in Hamburg I use river boats for everyday trips for years. While there are some different circumstances, there are also some differences in operation that seem odd.

    Firstly and most noticeable are the piers and dwell time issues. In Hamburg no additional staff is used for stopping. Vessels have turnable screws, they simply come up to the pier side, then push strongly against it while the captain (who is the sole staff on the vessel apart from a cafe/kiosk attendee) releases the gangway. There are warning lights and sounds for passengers, and the gangway, which is wide enough for two people to walk next to each other, is directly visible to the captain.

    Other differences include that the pier doesn’t have any front barriers, or staff, and that local health & safety regulations allow standing on boats. (I guess that’s because this has always been the case – the service has been running since the 19th century so was there before the health & safety rules.)

    There are 7 routes fully integrated in the Hamburg area public transport fares structure, but also a couple partially or not integrated ones (as well as lots of sightseeing tours). Some of the integrated one runs peak hours only (up to every 7/8 minutes). The main trunk route (62) runs from 515 to 2345, quarter hourly during day, with additional boats as demand requires (e.g. summer weekend, events)

    Fares are between 1.60-3.20 Euro single, 7.60 day (which obviously then includes all buses and trains within the city limits), 11.80 for a group of five after 900h. I’m pretty certain the service is supported, that is the boat operators share of the fares income doesn’t cover cost and the city council has to make up the difference. It is not tendered as the boats are owned by the (publicly-owned) operator, and nobody else has suitable ones.

    There are two routes where tides could cause problems (one because of a low bridge, one because of a shallow river). In both cases the service is simply curtailed (it’s just one stop in each case anyway). Note that such episodes are predictable in advance (even if only a few hours in advance), and signs will usually be put up giving the times that the pier may not be served. This information would also be broadcast on radio travel news.

  73. @Christian Schmidt

    Alan Robinson commented on the Hamburg river boats in the first River Bus article (6 May 2016 at 21:06) at, specifically on the mechanically deployed ramp that expedites dwell times and reduces crew/staff requirements.

  74. Jamie Guest says:

    Your comments about traditional methods of mooring and gangways make interesting reading. I went to Vancouver in 1978 and they had a cross harbour ferry to North Vancouver called, I think, Seabus. This was designed to be part of the public transport network and was designed for rapid loading and unloading with several exits on either side of the boats. However this was only achieved by using an integrated system design using purpose built boats and docks. The harbour is tidal so the docks are floating, as on the Thames. The docks are enclosed on 3 sides and the boats go in and are then held in place by hydraulic rams on the dockside. The doors then opened all at once and loading/unloading was very rapid. A similar system on the Thames would be expensive to start u and would almost certainly need some sort of capital grant/subsidy from Tfl. It would also mean that the boats would have to be built to a common design to be compatible with the docks.

  75. MikeP says:

    One aspect of the riverboat service that I haven’t seen noted is the exceptionally deep discounting of season tickets.
    The effect of this is that for an annual season from Dartford to Canary Wharf, it’s the cheapest by some margin. At 2016 fares, when I last calculated it, Dartford – Woolwich Arsenal plus an Eastern zone river boat was around £300 pa cheaper than Dartford – Z2.
    I sold it to a colleague who I passed walking the other way from his flat to the DLR !!
    Unfortunately, the changed timing of the 08:04 from Dartford (now 08:05 and all stations to Woolwich Arsenal rather than semi-fast) from August 2016 meant that the walk from Woolwich Arsenal to the pier to make the 08:30 boat was no longer possible. Shame, because it was one relaxing way to commute.

  76. @Jamie Guest

    Yes, it’s the SeaBus, which can carry 400 passengers, runs every 15 minutes between downtown Vancouver and residential North Vancouver at the foot of the mountains. I note that the SeaBus is fully integrated into the Vancouver area zone system, unlike Thames River Buses.

  77. IslandDweller says:

    Re boat servicing, and the impromptu locations that are used.
    By chance, I spotted one of boats having an engine change last Tuesday in the lock entrance to the West India Docks. This is one of the few places still available in inner London where they can get a large truck onto a safe / flat / secure area which is directly adjacent to non-tidal water.
    Whereas operators of other transport modes generally perform maintenance in purpose built depots/garages, Thames Clippers regularly do significant pieces of work in a work site where they don’t have any permanent facility. The area has to be cleared once they’ve completed the work as it’s in the operational area of the lock entrance and needs to be clear when large vessels enter or exit the docks.
    I’ve put a photo in the pool.

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LR Magazine Issue Five: Overgrounded


With print copies now being prepped for dispatch to subscribers at LR Towers, London Reconnections Magazine Issue 5: Overgrounded is now available to purchase in our online store. Transport is politics, politics is transport You don’t get transport without politics.

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