diamond geezer

 Friday, October 17, 2014

For 24 miles between Tower Bridge (T) and the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge (Q), no bridges cross the Thames.

TRiver ThamesQ

The QE2 Bridge lies just beyond the capital's borders, linking Thurrock to Dartford, so technically East London has no bridge crossings at all. But road vehicles aren't completely blocked by the river, of course. There are three other Thames crossings - the Rotherhithe Tunnel (R), the Blackwall Tunnel (B) and the Woolwich Ferry (W).


None of these is ideal. The Rotherhithe Tunnel is old and narrow with awkward bends and a 20mph speed limit. The Blackwall Tunnel is even older, and just as bendy northbound, but with an additional southbound bore dug in the 1960s to double the flow. And the Woolwich Ferry is a ferry, for heaven's sake, taking ages to cross the river and with very limited capacity. Still, at least all three are free, for the time being.


The Blackwall Tunnel has been described as the most critical road link in the capital. It's particularly susceptible to closure, for example when the driver of a high-sided vehicle ignores the warning signs at the entrance and gets stuck within, creating tailbacks that ripple out for miles. And when that happens, northeast and southeast London might as well be two different cities.

T R   W Q

So TfL have a plan, which is to build a brand new tunnel beneath the Thames, almost precisely underneath the cablecar. The Silvertown Tunnel (S) will be straighter and wider than its Blackwall cousin, allowing clear passage for lorries and double decker buses. Not only will this greatly increase capacity it'll provide additional resilience, meaning drivers can pretty much guarantee being able to cross the river rather than joining a queue.


On the northbound side of the river a new landing point will be served. While the Blackwall Tunnel surfaces in Tower Hamlets, the Silvertown Tunnel will rise in Newham on the opposite banks of the Lea. This will split the increased volume of vehicles, with more through traffic following the original route to the A12 and more local traffic taking the new tunnel. But things aren't quite so well balanced on the southern side.


The Silvertown Tunnel is essentially a third bore of the Blackwall Tunnel and will dive underground from exactly the same location. A new road junction will be created on the southern approach road, and all traffic attempting to cross to the north will have to pass through this point. North Greenwich's roads won't get relief, they'll merely suck in additional vehicles hoping to use the new crossing under the Thames. So TfL have a plan to stop that.

    £ £   £

They plan to charge vehicles to drive through the new Silvertown Tunnel. What's more they plan to start charging vehicles to drive through the existing Blackwall Tunnel too, because you can't toll one and not the other, it just wouldn't work. Put simply, TfL want to double the capacity to improve connectivity, but then slap on a Congestion Charge because connectivity's been improved too much. Tolls will likely be higher than on the Dartford Crossing during peak periods, closer in price for the rest of the day and with free passage at night. Existing users of the Blackwall Tunnel may not be best pleased.


Moving downstream, there are also plans in the pipeline to improve the Woolwich Ferry. The boats are old and nearing retirement, so an additional upgrade would be necessary to keep things running. And yes, if this happens TfL would bring in tolls on the Woolwich Ferry too. Suddenly the free-to-use Rotherhithe Tunnel is looking more appealing.

    £ £ £ £

But upgrading a ferry is a pathetic 19th century solution, given that what's really needed is another fixed crossing. So TfL have longer-term plans, if the money's forthcoming, to build a 21st century bridge further downstream. This would be the Gallions Crossing (G), running above the Thames from Beckton to Thamesmead, along an alignment long protected from development. It would need to be properly lofty to allow ships to continue to pass underneath, but once built TfL could shut the Woolwich Ferry for good.


The Gallions Crossing would be another major boost to connectivity, landing close to the end of the North Circular, although TfL claim it'll be used mostly by local traffic. Again they're keen to keep vehicle numbers down so tolls would be introduced from day one. The money collected would also go towards the cost of building the bridge in the first place, because governments don't tend to go round dishing out generous infrastructure handouts these days. And this would create four consecutive tolled crossings on the lower Thames, where previously there was only one.

    £ £ £ £

There are some groups who think that a Gallions Tunnel would be a much better idea. A subterranean crossing would eat up a lot less land than an enormous bridge, increasing the available area for new houses and bringing greater benefits overall. But tunnels are also much more expensive than bridges, hence TfL aren't keen, and since when were they responsible for housing policy anyway?


We're years off any of this lot being built. A Gallions Crossing won't be completed before 2025, if at all, and even the Silvertown Tunnel isn't pencilled in before 2021. The latter project is currently at the consultation stage, with TfL now seeking your opinions on the tunnel's design rather than whether it should be built in the first place. Many are not pleased, given the pollution and traffic noise the tunnel will bring, especially on shared approach roads south of the river. But the alternative is a disconnected and inefficient city, and a river it's remarkably difficult to cross.


Tolled tunnels and greater capacity, or the status quo and queueing traffic - we'll likely end up with one or the other. Read the facts, take your pick, have your say.

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