The Thames – could we finally be starting to grasp this magnificent opportunity?

Through the heart of London, free of all the normal hold-ups, runs a six-lane highway, used to a mere fraction of its potential. So Boris Johnson, the Policy Exchange think-tank and I were at the Shell Centre tonight, banging the drum for the River Thames as a public transport artery – and launching PX’s new pamphlet At A Rate of Knots, which I co-authored. All the right people – from City Hall, TfL, the Port of London Authority, the boroughs and so on – were there; and as I said in my speech: 

“Think of the river as a giant bypass. For passengers, a giant bypass of most of the difficulties in travelling around London – traffic jams, points failures, congested tracks, snow, highly relevant today of course. And for policymakers, for you guys, a giant bypass of every single one of the usual miseries that bedevil your task of improving transport in this city.

“Almost all the infrastructure is already in place, free of charge, and has been for the last ten thousand years. We don’t have to dig any holes. We don’t have to knock down any buildings. We don’t have to pin our hopes on signalling software that never works, or contractors who usually cheat us. And because it is a pocket-money project, we don’t have to worry about the Treasury, or the PPP, or the banks, either. We can get it done, if we really want to, in about eighteen months.

“What we are proposing today is that for a capital outlay of not much more than one-thousandth the cost of Crossrail, we can get as much transport capacity as about half a new Underground line. If we want to invest more money in the river, we can get the transport capacity of a whole new Underground line.

“We estimate the capital cost of the modest initial expansion we’re proposing at £30 million – for extra  boats and some longer piers. Even the modest initial phase would transport between 12 and 17 million passengers a year. That makes a capital cost of £1.76 a passenger in the first year.

“TfL says that 12 to 17 million is only the capacity of a busy bus route. But to put our proposal in perspective, the recent extension of the Docklands Light Railway to Woolwich was projected to carry five million passengers a year. It cost £180 million, a capital cost of £36 per passenger in the first year. Phase 1 of  the East London Line upgrade is projected to deliver an extra 23.8 million journeys a year – at a cost of £900 million. That’s £37.80 a passenger. Quite rightly, no-one questioned these projects on the basis that they would only deliver the capacity of a busy bus route – because that argument, in truth, is an argument for never doing anything at all.

“So in hard-headed cost-benefit terms – in transport bang achieved per taxpayer buck – this is about the best value of any new project undertaken in the last ten years. It benefits a number of areas, particularly in west London, that have seen almost no public transport improvements for the last half-century. It helps meet the galloping needs of Canary Wharf and Docklands, particularly before Crossrail arrives. It could be the silver bullet that finally breathes life into that mythical beast – the Thames Gateway. And if anyone says TfL can’t afford it, I’d point out that this is an organisation which is still planning to spend £28 million on a new headquarters for itself. 

“But the real magic of this is that as well as satisfying the head, it satisfies the heart. It liberates hundreds of thousands of Londoners from their subterranean holes, travelling instead with the wind in their hair and the matchless spectacle of the world’s greatest city before their eyes. It will return the Thames, currently a void of lifeless yuppie flats, to its proper role as the beating heart of our city. Even for people who seldom or never use it, the riverbus will raise spirits, and capture the public imagination, and become a symbol of London.”

Sounds like a no-brainer, doesn’t it – so why hasn’t it happened? As the pamphlet, and a piece I wrote for the London Evening Standard (by kind permission of the Telegraph management) makes clear, the practical objections usually raised – tides, environment, cost, passenger numbers and so on – are either wrong or are minor, and easily overcome. The real problem is, and always has been, political – the total lack of leadership on the river, and the unwillingness to act of the only two bodies which could provide it, Transport for London and the Port of London Authority (PLA).

Some of the comments beneath my Standard piece show the kind of self-interested whingeing which always comes from tourist boat operators, houseboat residents and other interests when any proposal is made to improve the commuter service. But the fact is that the Thames, in central and inner London, should primarily be what it always was for about 950 of the last 1000 years – a highway; and not a place to live on a houseboat, or paddle a canoe. Nobody would be allowed to park their caravan on the hard shoulder of the M25. Proper leadership is needed to make clear to these people that the interests of tourists and a few dozen houseboat residents must come second to the transport needs of the city and its economy as a whole.

That might now be happening. Boris spoke after me and made something that sounded distinctly like a commitment to address the main practical barriers to the expansion – silly PLA-imposed speed limits on the river and the lack of capacity at some central London piers. There’s also talk of giving a specific TfL board member responsibility, for the first time, for driving through improvements on the river. If it does occur, it will be significant stuff, so tonight was a good night.

3 thoughts on “The Thames – could we finally be starting to grasp this magnificent opportunity?”

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