London’s First Highway: The Fall and Rise of River Buses


Over two millenia ago, at the furthest downstream location that a bridge could be built across the River Thames, London was born. In many ways the river is the very reason for London’s existence. The city grew around that first London Bridge and in return the Thames served as London’s highway for centuries, critical to the city – and indeed Britain’s – prosperity.

In its heyday in the 19th century, the area now known as Canary Wharf was the busiest port in the world.  Indeed, the Thames remains Britain’s second largest port and is the busiest inland waterway in the UK, keeping London and the South East supplied with food, fuel and finished goods. The Thames thus still plays a vital role in Londoners’ lives, albeit one that has become increasingly unseen. As a 1937 description of London stated: “London neglects its river and hides its port… [the Thames] might be London’s ‘Grand Canal’, but it is almost inaccessible”.

That use of the word ‘inaccessible’ is perhaps rather apt. In recent times the Thames has come to be seen increasingly as a barrier to transport in London, not as its highway. Its role as London’s main road overtaken by increasingly efficient land-based options such as trains, trams and buses throughout the twentieth century. To the point that by the 1970’s the Thames was no longer really a viable passenger transport route, merely an aquatic platform for tourist cruises and floating parties.

The role of the River in London life arguably reached a nadir in September 2009. In that year Transport for London (TfL) took the Thames off the Tube map. It was ordered back on by the Mayor after a public outcry, but at the time the message was clear, a marker of how irrelevant the River had seemingly become.

That disappearance and re-appearance, however, also marks the symbolic change of the flow in the fortunes of the Thames as a transport artery. For a number of entities were beginning to realise the passenger role that Mother Thames could still play.

In this, the first of a series of river transport articles, covering recent developments and plans for both passengers and freight, ‎we look at the role played by river buses in the Thames’ renaissance. A form of water traffic that we first encountered in 2010 in Mwmbwls’ A Tale of two Cities – Could London learn from Brisbane?, river buses have launched a modest revolution in the five years since. In that time ‎London’s river passenger numbers have nearly doubled, and we pick up the ropes now to explore their history in London and look at what failed (quite often) and what was learnt, laying the foundations for the ‘Thames Clippers’ to become the unheralded success as river buses that they are today.

History of twentieth century river services

Since the end of Queen Victoria’s reign there have been least 11 different river bus services, from a fleet of 29 large steamers, to hovercraft and even Russian-built hydrofoils. All but one ended after less than two years due to depressions, wars or new technology (such as automobiles). All were also hampered by a lack of integration with London’s faster, more popular and much larger Tube and train networks.

The previous RiverBus service (not to be confused with the current “River Bus” service) was established in 1987 by Olympia and York (O&Y), then developer and owner of Canary Wharf, who actively promoted it to bring high end workers from the Chelsea Harbour luxury residences development and London Bridge to their offices. The ten or so fast catamarans used had 62 spacious seats and ran at 15-20 minute headways. Ridership grew slowly as firms moved into Canary Wharf, and the service attracted a Business Expansion Scheme grant in 1988 when it was renamed ThamesLine. By the end of 1988, however, tenant numbers at Canary Wharf did not match the forecasts. Despite financial support from the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) and an Enterprise Allowance grant of £500,000 from the Departments of Transport and of the Environment to run the service for four years, soon the ThamesLine company was in financial difficulty.

Docklands rescue

Rescue eventually came from a consortium of four Docklands property developers, who saw that the service was an asset to Canary Wharf and Chelsea Harbour. They also realised that it had strong links to the mainline railway stations at Charing Cross and Waterloo. At the time Docklands was still perceived as difficult to access – the DLR line had teething problems and limited service, there was no Underground connection yet at Bank, and the Docklands highways were still under construction. The Developers saw that a rebranded ‘RiverBus’ could be marketed as the answer.

By 1992 the RiverBus service carried 750,000 passengers a year. London City Airport had also become a sponsor, with the airport service popular with airlines based there and served from North Woolwich pier.

The 1992 recession evaporated ridership, however, and put several of the developers out of business. RiverBus repeatedly sought financing from London Regional Transport (LRT), as London Transport had been renamed, but was consistently refused. RiverBus management also attempted to join the Travelcard scheme and to make through-ticketing travel possible, but London Transport was advised that RiverBus could not participate in Travelcard since it would involve public sector grant for LT being passed onto the private sector RiverBus operation.

Olympia & York funding problems

RiverBus increasingly attracted tourists as well, so services were expanded to St Katharine Docks and Greenwich, but in spite of a dramatic growth in passenger numbers, RiverBus still depended on a substantial subsidy from Canary Wharf developers Olympia & York.

The service expanded up river but this was not profitable, and with Olympia & York now experiencing major financial problems of their own, the developer’s ability to subsidise services looked to be in jeopardy. In response to this plans were made to expand services further with new vessels, in the hope of making additional revenue to keep the company (quite literally) afloat. Just as importantly, the need to integrate river services with other modes of transport was recognised, so that they were available to Travelcard users and would be visible on the Tube and rail maps carried by every tourist and transport passenger and to be found on every Tube train.

These plans came to nothing. When Olympia & York went into Administration shortly afterwards the banks quickly reduced the RiverBus subsidy. At the same time continuous improvements were being made to the DLR, and the Docklands highways opened in May 1993. Both of these leeched away RiverBus passengers. Despite receiving funding from local government, the private sector and individual benefactors, RiverBus finally went into receivership in August 1993, with losses of £2.5m in its final year. In February 1994 the company was beached and the fleet of catamarans was disposed of.

The RiverBus post-mortem

In hindsight, RiverBus was a good idea, just one that was slightly before its time for a number of reasons:

  • The pier at Canary Wharf was much less convenient than the current Thames Clippers pier
  • The 62 seat boats were too small to make the most of peak-hour demand
  • The inability to arrange usage of Westminster Pier, critical to capturing the off-peak tourist trade, also compromised revenue.
  • Tourist demand is seasonal and weather-related, generating insufficient revenue off peak
  • Fares were roughly double the DLR’s prices.
  • Most importantly, the Docklands had not yet reached critical mass. Canary Wharf tower was still mostly empty and construction had not progressed far on surrounding buildings.
riverbusOriginal Canary Wharf ‎Pier for RiverBus services. Courtesy Darryl Chamberlain, 853Blog

There were also some more general issues. Lack of London Transport and stable, longer term government support meant that both RiverBus and the services which preceded it were subject not only to weather and nature, but to the waves of market cycles and winds of national events. In essence the Thames was still a toxic free market cesspool for river passenger services.

The floundering of the RiverBus should perhaps be treated as a warning to those who propose that public transport be sponsored by, or even provided by, commercial property developers. The Olympia & York experience provides a clear and timely warning as to how commercial transport services can quickly go pear shaped in an economic downturn.

Lessons for the future

Although RiverBus failed, the underlying idea was still seen by many as sound. Just a year after its collapse London First commissioned a study titled The Business Case for a Passenger Transport Service on the River Thames, which it published in January 1996. This posited that a purely commute service between central London and the Docklands would not generate a profit, but that one which focused on serving London’s visitors as well could. By linking Central London tourist attractions with new, less accessible attractions opening like the Globe Theatre, Tate Gallery Bankside and North Greenwich’s Millennium Exhibition, a break even point, the study predicted, could be reached.

The birth and role of London River Services 1997

In 1997 Secretary of State for Transport John Prescott announced the £21m Thames 2000 project to regenerate the Thames for the Millennium and to provide a legacy of passenger transport services and piers on the River. The centrepiece was the Millennium Dome.

In light of this the Cross-River Partnership, a consortium of local authorities, private sector organisations and voluntary bodies, recommended the creation of a public body to co-ordinate and promote river services. This agency, provisionally titled the Thames Piers Agency, would take control of Thames piers from the Port of London Authority, integrate boat services with other transport modes and commission construction of new piers.

In 1997 the Port of London Authority (PLA) transferred its passenger piers to London Transport. London Regional Transport (soon to be replaced by TfL) then established London River Services (LRS) Ltd in 1998 as a wholly owned subsidiary to maintain and manage the piers, and to create the licensing system for boats, River Buses, river cruises, tours, party services and piers. LRS was also made responsible for promoting river services to TfL’s travellers via the main website, maps, leaflets, campaigns and press releases, as well as integrating such services with the rest of the public transport network. These changes were intended to foster stability in the river passenger transport sector.

With more than 50 operators and 200 boats calling at 33 piers under its remit, LRS was also charged with developing “clear, simple identities” to explain to new passengers which commuter, leisure, tourist or charter boat to board.

LRS and TfL also have an obligation under the 2007 Greater London Authority Act to promote and encourage the use of the River Thames, for transport of passengers and freight. This extends to supporting the river tourist trade as well, even though this sometimes causes congestion that impacts River Bus services.

A brief interlude for the Watermen

Before we look at what happened on the River next, it is perhaps worth pausing briefly to look at the role of the watermen, one of the Thames’ historical features. The Guild of Watermen have enjoyed exclusive rights to carry passengers on the tidal Thames since 1510 when Henry VIII granted them this licence. This was in fact one of the first forms of licensed public transport in London, when Acts of Parliament passed in 1514 and 1555 standardised their fares and protected the public from being taken advantage of.

In 1700 the Watermen combined with their cargo colleagues as the Company of Watermen and Lightermen (CWL), many of whom are qualified in both disciplines of waterage and lighterage. The responsibilities of watermen also include mooring vessels at wharves, whilst lightermen move cargo onto smaller boats to ‘lighten’ the load of sea-faring vessels, delivering them to wharves up and down the Thames. These days lightermen still handle a small amount of rough goods like waste or aggregates, such as on ‘Bovril’ boats that carry liquid waste.

Whilst it is a Tudor era contemporary of many other storied City of London livery companies of trade associations and guilds, the Company of Watermen and Lightermen has never applied for livery status, having been the only City Guild to be formed and governed by Westminster. For this reason the CWL is considered not a ‘Company without Livery’ but simply a ‘Company’.

Historically, knowledge of Thames wharves, piers and the unique character of the river have been handed down through generations of families. Although outsiders could enter the trade, it has been in effect a closed shop for generations. The Watermen, however, lost their exclusive status when European regulations governing the licensing of boatmasters on inland waterways came into force in 2003. Today the CWL regulates people working on the Thames to a marine version of the Knowledge (albeit much less exhaustive and exhausting), operating as a professional association under European rules.

Incidentally the world’s oldest continuously run sporting event is held annually on the Thames in mid July, being the race for Doggett’s Coat and Badge, rowed by newly-qualified Thames watermen since 1715.

rowlands“The Annual Sculling Race for Doggett’s Coat and Badge” by Thomas Rowlandson, approx. 1805

Thames Clippers history and growth

Returning to the river buses, Thames Clippers Ltd was founded in 1999 as Collins River Enterprises by Sean Collins (Managing Director) and Alan Woods (Chairman), who were granted a licence and monopoly by LRS to provide river commuter services on the Thames between Savoy Pier and Greenwich Pier. This was noteworthy as an important first for a river commuter service – a protected market environment that provided stability. Conceptually this was no different from the monopoly London buses have enjoyed for over a century, but it has been critical to addressing some of the issues that had plagued river services before.

The service began as a single vessel carrying less than 80 passengers a day. This operated as the Riverline route between Greenland and Savoy Piers. Collins, a former boat captain for Olympia & York’s failed RiverBus company and a third generation Waterman, relates that when they started the service TfL and the PLA “thought it would be just another failed river bus.”

Thanks to increasing riverside jobs, population and attractions, notably at Canary Wharf, the Tate Modern and the O2, and crowded conditions on the Tube and rail networks, Riverline soon proved to be anything but. From the very beginning, ridership grew steadily despite the initial lack of support from TfL.

Collins River Enterprises soon changed its name to Thames Clippers, a deliberate nod to the fast tea clippers of the middle of the 19th century. Developed to serve the growing demand for rapid shipments of Britain’s favourite brew, the clippers possess an image of seafaring adventure and entrepreneurialism in British culture. This association is arguably even stronger in London, where the Cutty Sark towers majestically over the river at Greenwich. From a brand perspective, it was too good an association for the company not to make.

Millennium Celebrations

Initially the Thames Clippers service used existing piers, which were small and basic as few were designed for large crowds. In 2000, five new and upgraded River Bus piers were opened thanks to a grant of £7,177,000 from the Millennium Commission as a key component of its Thames 2000 project to improve previously neglected travel connections on the Thames, and to promote the river as an alternative means of public transport:

  • Tower Millennium Pier
  • Blackfriars Millennium Pier
  • London Eye Pier
  • Westminster Millennium Pier
  • Millbank Millennium Pier

This, along with TfL placing River Bus icons on the Tube map, greatly helping the service find its target market. This stabilised the service, and LRS and TfL soon realised it was not just another river commuter service waiting to sink financially.

The pier infrastructure upgrade leveraged Thames Clippers’ private investment in purchasing its own boats. The “Millennium” part of these pier names was later dropped.

The Millennium Dome was conceived to house a Festival of Britain type of showcase to celebrate the third millennium, on the isolated peninsula of North Greenwich as a regeneration impetus. In addition to the new Jubilee Line Extension tube station there, it was considered prudent to provide a second transport link to it from central London. Supported by Millennium Commission Lottery money, construction of North Greenwich Pier at the site and investment in new boats by operators allowed River Bus services to bring visitors to and from this new large venue in 2000.

Thames Clippers Operations

Thames Clippers turned over £1.1m in 2002 before financing charges, making an operating margin of 3% or about £35,000, on carrying an average of 1,200 passengers a day.

In 2003 Thames Clippers skipper Sean Collins stated to “There is no other mode of public transport in central London that does not get financial support”, and that his company still has to pay pier usage fees, even on those owned by LRS, which go directly back to TfL’s coffers.

The Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) purchased the Millennium Dome in May 2005, renamed it the O2 and started converting it into a large capacity entertainment complex. To improve transport options to their venue, AEG purchased Thames Clippers Ltd. and ordered six new fast catamarans. Upon their delivery and service introduction in 2007, these new boats increased Thames Clippers annual ridership by over 1 million passengers in just one year.

Thames Clippers also provides other services such as picking up and dropping off passengers from large cruise ships at Tilbury.

Other River Bus operators – History of the Putney to Blackfriars service

The Putney to Blackfriars river commuter service was originally provided by Thames River Taxi as licenced by London River Services. However Thames Executive Charters (TEC), which operated Thames River Taxi, found that they could not make their operation of this service cover its costs. TEC attempted to refinance and build new boats but were unsuccessful, so they met with London River Services in September 2011 to advise LRS of their decision to stop operating the service.

LRS were unable to assist financially within the structure as it then was, so TEC announced that their Putney – Blackfriars River Bus operation would cease 22nd December 2011. TEC also recognised that they could not compete against the £20m investment that AEG have put into Thames Clippers to date, nor was TEC able to match winning bidder Thames Clippers’ improved Service West between Vauxhall and Blackfriars (of which we will talk more in a future article). The 60 seater Cats that started on the Thames Clippers initial route are earmarked for this river service.

putneyrouteInitial Putney – Blackfriars River Bus route, as operated by Thames River Taxi

As a result of all this, on 22 December 2011 TfL appointed TRT’s sub-contractor, Complete Pleasure Boats as the interim operator for this route on a six-month contract starting from 3 January 2012. TfL also announced that they‎ were continuing negotiations to finalise arrangements with an operator (Thames Clippers Ltd) to award a longer-term contract.

In October 2012, TfL started an Official Journal of the European Union (OJEU) operator procurement process for a new and improved Putney to Blackfriars River Bus Service to start on 1 April, 2013.

LRS reserved its rights to change the number and location of the piers along the route during the term of the contract. The RB6 service was to be subsidised by TfL and provide an increased service to commuters: at least 6 eastbound and 6 westbound trips per morning and 3 westbound and 3 eastbound trips per evening. Being a commuter service, it operates Monday to Friday (with the exception of Bank Holidays) at peak hours only.

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.

Notwithstanding TfL’s Thames disappearing act in 2009, the role and unheralded growth of Thames Clippers’ River Bus services in the last fifteen years has been the result of much coordination behind the drapeaux by TfL and its London River Services (LRS) department, the Port of London Authority (PLA), riverside boroughs, boat operators, amongst others, and the Mayor. As this article has hopefully shown, this successful service also didn’t emerge from nowhere. It stands, as it were, on the shoulders of several drowned giants.

Nonetheless its quiet success is a remarkable achievement. So much so that when, in September 2014, Thames Clippers announced that they would be adding one new boat to their fleet, they can hardly have expected that they would soon have to frantically rethink their plans. For by the end of 2014 passenger numbers had already increased by a further half a million to 3.8 million, and instead, two new catamarans with a capacity of 150 passengers each were ordered instead of one. These were put into service in November 2015 and, according to the company, represent the most technically advanced and energy efficient river and harbour fast ferries in the world, their low draught also allowing them to navigate the Thames’ shallow reaches upstream. The catamarans have a top speed of 30 knots, which is almost 35mph.

In our next article we’ll look at just how, and where, Thames Clippers puts its river fleet to use.

This series of articles is very much a group effort. Author credit on this series is thus shared with, and our gratitude offered to, Alan Robinson, Graham Feakins and Jonathan Roberts.

Written by Long Branch Mike