diamond geezer

 Saturday, June 22, 2019

Yesterday - not in a press release but in a letter - the Deputy Mayor for Transport announced that the proposed Rotherhithe to Canary Wharf bridge has been put on hold.
"I am writing to inform you that today the Programmes and Investment Committee has agreed that TfL should pause development work on proposals for a walking and cycling bridge between Canary Wharf and Rotherhithe."
This is of course dreadful news, trashing long-held dreams of enhancing sustainable travel.
"Despite considerable effort to minimise the costs of a bridge at this location, the sheer scale and complexity of the engineering solution that would be required means it is currently unaffordable. The current midpoint cost estimate for the scheme is £463m, within a range that means final costs could be over £600m. This compares to a £350m allocation in the current TfL Business Plan. The bridge is therefore unaffordable in the short to medium term, particularly in the context of TfL’s wider financial challenges."
Basically, there's no money. But this bridge would also have been in a really awkward place, namely East London. The River Thames has to be navigable by sailing ships and superyachts upstream as far as Tower Bridge, so it's simply not possible to build an ordinary span. Instead TfL's project team have been forced to consider swing bridges, lifting bridges and bascule bridges, and these are all really expensive options. Given that nobody's ever managed to build a bridge across the Thames in East London, it shouldn't be a surprise when another one bites the dust.

But the project's not dead.
"The committee has concluded that the project should revert to the feasibility stage of development where strategic alternatives, such as a ferry service, can be reassessed."
All that's really happened is that TfL are jumping back a stage to a consultation they ran in November 2017 which presented several options for a river crossing. Back then 85% of respondents preferred the option of a navigable bridge, but now TfL are telling us they've costed it and can't afford it so let's choose again.
"Looking forward, it is my hope that we are able to develop a ferry option that is more affordable as a short to medium-term way of providing the walking and cycling connectivity that is needed at this location. TfL will be assessing all options for a ferry service, including a roll-on/roll-off style service using electric or hybrid vessels. This would be considerably cheaper than building a lifting bridge, and the service could be up and running more quickly."
A ferry's never going to be as good as a permanent bridge, but it's a lot better than nothing. So here's the bit I don't get.


The service is run by Thames Clippers and has the designation RB4. The operating vessel is a lot smaller than the rest of their fleet, but can still carry 120 passengers. The boat's called Twinstar and was originally built in 1976 to carry Ford employees between car plants in Dagenham and Belvedere. The ferry's quite well used, in both directions, or it was when I popped down yesterday afternoon. But it's also poorly advertised, on one bank entirely hidden behind a hotel and you're unlikely to stumble upon it by mistake.

I couldn't spot a single sign outside the Doubletree Hotel in Rotherhithe Street alerting potential passengers that a ferry service operated from here. There were also no signs up the front staircase, no signs in the front courtyard and no signs by the front door. Only on the far side of reception was there a proper printed notice, plus a digital screen, in front of another door out to a rear terrace and beyond that a covered walkway to the pier. As public transport interchanges go, it's astonishingly low key. There again, the Doubletree Docklands Ferry exists only because the Hilton pays for it to be here, and they graciously allow non-guests to use the service too.

It's not cheap. The three minute crossing costs a mammoth £4.80, reduced to £4.40 if you use Oyster or contactless, making it even more expensive than the cablecar. The fare drops to £3.20 should you have a Travelcard, but only bona fide hotel guests travel for free. The fare shot up in 2015 when zonal travel was introduced on river services, and a quick hop across the river became as dear as a seven mile voyage down to Woolwich. You'd be £2 better off heading back to Canada Water and taking the tube to Canary Wharf instead, except the Jubilee line doesn't take bikes, and there's the rub.

Also, the weekday timetable's got great big holes in it. No boats run between 11am and noon, or between 9pm and 10pm, so it's not exactly a turn up and go service. These gaps allow staff to take rest breaks, which is important, but they also allow the operator to employ fewer staff than a proper timetable would require, a cost saving measure introduced last November. Any cyclist arriving at the wrong time faces a 5 mile detour via the Greenwich Foot Tunnel or a shorter (but lunatic) diversion via the Rotherhithe Tunnel. This is no way to attract passengers.

TfL's original consultation proposed an "enhanced ferry service", including "alternative fare structures, pier upgrades, improved access points, roll-on/roll-off cycle friendly vessels and an increased frequency". The capital cost would be only £30m, and around a million extra pedestrian trips might be expected annually. The big catch was that far fewer extra cycle crossings would be generated, maybe as few as 40,000, because only a fixed link is truly transformational.
"It provides a positive Benefit:Cost Ratio but unlike a fixed link crossing it is unlikely to deliver a step-change in travel behaviours, particularly cycling accessibility, or realise significant long-term wider economic benefits."
An enhanced service would be great, but why not start by making the existing ferry more attractive? Advertise it properly. Close the mid-morning gap in the timetable. Try to provide some kind of access that doesn't involve traipsing through the foyer of a hotel. And most importantly of all, subsidise it and make it free for anyone to use.

The Doubletree Ferry currently carries around 400,000 passengers a year and has plenty of empty seats. If we assume that half of those 400,000 are hotel guests and the other half pay £4.80 a time then zeroing fares would 'only' require a million pounds a year in subsidy. And that's just 0.1% of the proposed budget of the Silvertown Tunnel, the mega-project inexplicably planned downstream for the benefit of not-pedestrians and not-cyclists, so is surely affordable.

Even if an enhanced ferry service turns out to be the ultimate solution, why waste time waiting for completion? Let's start by removing charges on the existing ferry now, watch pedestrian and cycle use climb, and start knitting together the two sides of the Thames tomorrow.

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