London gained a new river pier last month, at Royal Wharf, from which you can catch Thames Clipper services into central London.
That's Royal Wharf, the major new residential neighbourhood at Silvertown in Newham, which when complete next year should have 10000 residents. Those residents already have a DLR station at Pontoon Dock to link them to Canning Town, and now they have a river boat service from a brand new pier jutting out into the Thames. It's a long pier too, the first arm launching off at an angle towards a jagged platform, the second stretching further via a covered walkway to a floating jetty. I think it's the longest publicly accessible pier anywhere in London.
The Thames Clipper service runs every half hour, roughly speaking, except between 10am and 5pm on weekdays when it doesn't operate at all. It's essentially the same service that Woolwich gets, Royal Wharf being an extra stop (which means commuting from the Royal Arsenal now takes two minutes longer). Alas I visited during the day when there were no boats and found the entire pier locked shut, presumably to prevent high jinks, which was a shame because it looked like there was a seating area halfway out with fine river views. So I went back again after dark.
The riverside at Royal Wharf is a lonely place at night. Much of the western half of the site is still a building site so you can only approach from the east, and the entrance to the jetty is tucked away in an unfinished corner. No large obvious sign has been placed by the riverside, only an information board (with times and fares) plonked on the tarmac and a machine for buying tickets. But I did now have access to a blade of light stretching off above the river, the slats along each side blazing red, and somewhere beyond maybe a boat.
I decided against taking a seat on the illuminated triangle halfway down, it being a bit drizzly, but if I had I could have enjoyed views downstream towards the Thames Barrier. I can also confirm that the grimmer flank of industrial Greenwich looks prettier after dark. It's here at the halfway point that the River roundel appears, plain enough above the entrance to the covered walkway, but from onshore it's distant, small and easily overlooked.
The platform at the foot of the ramp is an unexpectedly impressive structure. A terrace of wooden seating faces the river, protected behind a large pane of glass in case of inclement weather, almost as if this were somewhere to put on a performance rather than somewhere to wait for a boat. Another ticket machine is available, plus a Next Boat Indicator which is supposed to tell you if anything's coming during the next 30 minutes. I learned not to trust it.
Being so far out into the river it was now possible to see the full sweep of North Greenwich on the western horizon and beyond that Canary Wharf, which is a panorama tenants at Royal Wharf alas don't get. A boat did eventually arrive from central London and disgorged just three passengers, suggesting the service has yet to take off with its target audience. After it sped away I was left alone in the middle of the Thames, no more than a metre above the waves, exploring the various nooks and crannies and enjoying a rare spell of midriver solitude. And then I walked back up the ramp.
I didn't get on the boat because travelling by Thames Clipper from Royal Wharf isn't cheap. A journey upstream to North Greenwich or Canary Wharf costs £4.40 with Oyster, this being the flat fare for the 'East' zone, and if commuting into Central London the fare is £7.30. Indeed the boat journey costs more than twice as much as travelling via DLR and Jubilee line, and it takes more than twice as long. If you hate battling the crowds on the tube and have time and money to spare then the Thames Clipper option may be for you, but otherwise it's hard to see the benefit.
Here's what Thames Clippers said when the service started, not entirely truthfully.
Firstly the new pier is only convenient if you happen to live at Royal Wharf. The Royal Docks are vast, so most of its residents don't live anywhere near a single jetty in Silvertown. Secondly anyone travelling this way to get to ExCel is a fool because that's the other side of Royal Victoria Dock and requires an additional 15 minute walk via a lofty footbridge. And thirdly City Airport is even further away than that, so anyone with luggage really ought to have caught the DLR instead.
Meanwhile here are some highly misleading travel times from the Royal Wharf developers' website.
The DLR times are from Pontoon Dock, which is fair enough because that is one minute's walk from the edge of the estate, but the Underground times are from Canning Town so look much better than they really are. As for those Crossrail times, not only did the purple line not open last year but getting to Custom House will require a lengthy hike across the aforementioned footbridge. There are no direct buses. Even the riverboat times are wrong, based on some fantasy timetable the marketing team dreamed up rather than real life.
Here's what the times should have been, assuming an optimum start point on the very edge of the Royal Wharf estate.
I wonder how many new residents were tempted in by the effortlessly short journey times, only to realise later they're not that good.
I hope they enjoy living in their stacky boxes, most without any kind of river view, on a densely packed estate served by three coffee shops, a Sainsbury's, two letting agents, a pharmacy and a nail bar.