London’s First Highway: Part 2 – The Surprising Success of River Buses

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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 LondonUnveiled.com

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 LondonUnveiled.com)

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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