Boris Johnson's broken promises on the river

Six-lane highway: the river Thames (Photo: Getty)
Six-lane highway: the river Thames (Photo: Getty)

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. In a report launched exactly a year ago tonight and co-authored by me, the think-tank Policy Exchange argued that the Thames could transform many Londoners’ travelling lives.

In under three years, and for an initial outlay of just £30 million, we showed how London could create a new, waterborne Tube line, with a frequent service of high-speed boats at 20 piers from Putney to Woolwich. That is about a quarter of the time, and less than a hundredth of the money, that a similar project would need on land.

This service would never be stopped by traffic, points failures or Ken Livingstone’s Tube union chums (it moved thousands during recent strikes.) It would bring new links to places badly served by the transport system, and much-needed relief to the whole network. It would seize imaginations and raise spirits. Hundreds of thousands of Londoners would be liberated 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.

Sounds good, right? Most people seemed to think so. Outside the ranks of the bureaucracy, the only people who opposed it were various Kennite diehards still in mourning for the bendy bus. Our most important supporter was Boris Johnson. He spoke at our launch, committing himself not to our full set of demands but certainly to increasing the use of the Thames.

In this, he echoed his own 2008 election manifesto, which promised “strong political support” to “promote greater use of the river,” stating that the Thames “offers a remarkable opportunity to relieve congestion on existing transport networks.” The manifesto attacked TfL for “relegating river services far down their list of priorities” and failing to provide “strategic direction to take advantage of London’s river,” a criticism also made by the London Assembly.

Since Boris’s election, some things have got better. Oyster pay-as-you-go has been extended to the Thames Clipper, which provides an excellent and frequent service between central London, Canary Wharf, Greenwich and Woolwich.

But overall, the river service is substantially worse now than before Boris came to office. Thames Clippers has had to axe its boats after about 9pm. At the same time TfL has quietly removed the Thames Clipper timetable from its river service information booklet – it now, incredibly, only gives the times for the tourist boats. Its website still gives the Thames Clipper times, but only in a sketchy, unhelpful format. The river is looking like another one of Boris’s broken transport promises.

As with so many of these, the central difficulty appears to be Transport for London. TfL hates things it does not directly control. The fact that Thames Clippers is a private company has always been anathaema to it.

In a briefing paper on 8 January 2009, the policy unit of Peter Hendy, TfL’s commissioner, directly lied to Boris, providing grossly inflated estimates of river journey times compared with land and stating that along-river urban commuter services had failed to prosper (in fact, at least ten cities have highly successful such services). The briefing also said that the contribution the river could make was “at best” no more than a “popular bus route,” around four million trips a year. In fact, including the tourist services, there are already just under four million trips a year, without any real investment or promotion at all.

Various inflated claims about the boats’ need for subsidy have also been made, not least by TfL, and sometimes regurgitated by the mayor in answer to assembly members. If it charged the same fares as the rest of the network, the service would indeed need a subsidy, just like the rest of the network – but much less of a one per passenger than the Tube (as you’d expect, given the fact that unlike the crumbling Tube the major infrastructure, the river, is already in place, for free.) If it charged higher fares, it wouldn’t need a subsidy, just the capital investment.

Of course, times are tough and £30 million is a lot of money, even for a new network that could serve an absolute minimum (on our estimate) of 9.3 million new journeys a year, and in the medium term an extra 12- 27 million new journeys a year (all figures in addition to the 2.7 million journeys already made on the Thames Clipper.) Let’s see what other projects TfL considers higher priorities, shall we?

1.      They spent £15 million on five new hydrogen buses (number of new journeys per year: nil.)

2.      They spent £23 million painting some blue lines on some roads (number of new journeys per year: 18,250.)

3.      They spent £26 million re-branding a bus route in East London, the 369, as the “East London Transit,” and extending it by one mile. It is otherwise identical to the previous service over the same route (number of new journeys per year: 150,000.)

4.      They spent £198 million on the DLR extension to Stratford International (number of new journeys per year: 4.4 million. Quite rightly, nobody objected to this much more costly project on the grounds that it would only produce as many new journeys as a “popular bus route.”)

Boris has even spent £1.2 million of public money on his latest transport gimmick – after the “living bridge” and island airport, remember them? – to put a new cable car across the Thames. This project, which does not exist and probably never will exist, has already been given about eight times more money than would have been needed to save the evening riverbus service along the Thames – which does exist, or at least used to.

Transport is the alpha and omega of the London mayoralty. Some good things have been accomplished – but judged against his manifesto promises, as I’ve said before, it is by far Boris’s area of least accomplishment. And the clock is ticking.

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