Hearing Boris Johnson’s £10 million plan today to get more commuters on the Thames made me chuckle. It’s not that I’m against the river travel – I have quite the opposite view in fact. As a Tube user and seeing how clogged up London’s streets get in peak hours, I know how important it is we relieve pressure on our existing transport network.
I’ve argued that we need to be as bold as the Victorians were in constructing the Metropolitan Line 150 years ago and give the green light for Crossrail 2 in time for the influx of additional passengers that will arrive at Euston with HS2 in 2033. Without this infrastructure investment, there is a fear that key Tube stations will have to be closed during peak times on safety grounds.
But with the latest Thames announcement, it just seems like the same thing we’ve seen many times before. Boris Johnson (and others) have been talking about improving river services for years, yet Londoners still pile onto the Underground, onto busy buses or into expensive taxis. And the capital is gridlocked as a consequence.
As I’ve written about before on these pages, the Thames is nowhere near as busy as it has been in bygone years. The Queen’s Jubilee last year was a rare example of seeing the waters that run through central London bustling with activity.
Judith Flanders’ recently published The Victorian City provides a fascinating glimpse of the potential of the how the Thames could be used. The author writes that from 1837 small steamers shuttled between London and Westminster Bridges (and sometimes further to Putney) every day between 8am and 9am, with boats leaving at 15 minutes intervals.
Perhaps the most interesting point here from Flanders’ is that the arrival of the railways in the late 1830s didn’t “destroy this new transportation system almost before it had begun, but for the next decade the competition instead drove frequency up and fares down.”
“By the 1840s, at least one steamer ran from London and Westminster Bridges every four minutes. The river had become ‘the leading highway of personal communication between the City and Westminster’, with thirty-two trips an hour, 320 a day, carrying more than 13,000 passengers daily: ‘this silent highway is now as busy as the Strand itself.”
If you look at the passenger numbers over the course of the year back in the 1840s, you get something like a figure of around four million journeys per annum (assuming travel of six days per week). It’s embarrassing that 170 years on and with the capital’s population having multiplied many times over, there are only around six million journeys on the Thames each year.
Today the boats that have all the mod cons (like floating Costa Coffee concessions) which should attract commuters. In the 1840s it was a completely different story, as Flanders writes:
“Competition was guide solely by price, for the boats were neither luxurious nor event pleasant. There was barely any seating and shelter on board; in the rain passengers huddled in the lee of the wheelhouse, holding up ‘mats, boards, great coats, and umbrellas’ for protection. The boats were, in addition, ‘diminutive ungainly shelterless boats…. rickety, crank little conveyances’ and ‘filthy to a degree.’”
So what are we doing wrong today? Why won’t commuters take to the Thames?
In my mind, it all comes down to one simple point – the river services don’t feel like part of the rest of the Transport For London network. Yes, you can use your Oyster card, but as I wrote in my previous post on this subject you will still pay more for travel. Why, for example, can you use your Travelcard on buses, the Tube, trams, the DLR, London Overground and National Rail services, but not on the Thames?
Why should it be seen as a luxury to travel Westminster Bridge to London Bridge by boat? Commuting is about getting from A to B – if you are in a particular zone it shouldn’t matter what mode of transport you take.
There needs to be more effort by Boris and his team at City Hall to be done to integrate services. It’s not just a case of building shiny new piers by trendy riverside apartments, but about actually investing in making “London’s first superhighway” a commuter route, rather than just something that visitors to the capital will enjoy on an excursion. Boris has incorporated the Overground into his control, now he needs to take to the river. London’s success depend on it.