Water Works: Tower Pier to Tilbury field trip

As an iconic and storied piece of London, the Thames brings to mind images of boats, bridges, docks, or fog; a foreground to a fast-changing skyline; nostalgic or reverent song lyrics; or a reminder of the city’s long-standing north-south divide.

As part of our 2019 project, Making the Most of London’s Waterways, we embarked on a boat trip from Tower Pier to Tilbury to learn about the Thames’ role as a mover of goods and people, especially linked to new riverside development. The trip was kindly supported by event sponsors Port of London Authority (PLA), Port of Tilbury, and Thames Clippers, with additional support from project partners Arup, Avison Young, Hadley, and Pollard Thomas Edwards.

Moving goods

As London’s importance as a shipping hub increased throughout the 1800s, so did river congestion, cutthroat competition among wharf operators and river businesses, and structural issues with wharves and docks. In 1908, an Act of Parliament created the Port of London Authority (PLA) to manage the tidal Thames, covering the Thames from the North Sea to Teddington and some tidal tributaries.

Although containerisation in the 1960s drastically reduced the amount of freight coming into London, the Thames is still the country’s busiest inland waterway, handling more than five million tonnes of goods and materials yearly, or 60% of the UK’s inland waterways freight.1 London is also the country’s second busiest port, accounting for around 10% of the UK’s shipping activity by tonnage.2

James Trimmer, the PLA’s Director of Planning & Environment, wants to see more water-borne freight as an alternative to road-based freight – it’s a core tenet of the PLA’s Thames Vision. Transport for London is also on board: the organisation recently developed a river freight plan and is part of a river freight working group.

Both the PLA and TfL strongly support using the river to transport aggregates (construction material) and spoil (construction waste) associated with London’s extensive waterside development. John Oosthuizen, Freight Strategy Manager at TfL, advised anyone with projects near the river to use the Freight Infrastructure in London Toolkit (FIILT) to review options for water-borne freight and include river transport in Construction Logistics Plans. TfL’s own website has additional information on infrastructure across London’s waterways.

Alison Hall, Commercial & Marketing Manager at Port of Tilbury, also champions the Thames as a freight corridor. Located just outside of the M25, Tilbury handles an incredible range of goods across a 400 hectare site. From consumer items like food and cars, to raw materials like grain and forestry products, to waste and recycling, an estimated £8.7bn worth of goods pass through the port each year. Alison sees potential in the Thames not just for freight associated with construction, but for moving shipments like food, beverages, and online shopping. She suggested that education and cultural change are necessary to demystify and de-risk waterborne freight among built environment practitioners.

Operations at Port of Tilbury
Port of Tilbury from the sea (L) and the sky (R, courtesy Forth Ports). In response to demand, Tilbury is expanding by another 60 hectares, operational from 2020.

Speakers were keen to stress that waterborne freight could have a positive impact on air quality. James Trimmer indicated that CO2 outputs from river freight are on par with rail. The PLA is also the first UK port to develop an Air Quality Strategy. Alison Hall’s calculations suggest that transport materials by barge can remove at least 36 HGVs from the roads. Those figures square up with Tideway’s estimate that their construction waste barges, which can each carry 1,500 tonnes, replace 40 to 50 trucks.3 Not only can this impact air quality, taking HGVs off London’s roads helps ease congestion and improve safety for vulnerable road users.

Moving people

With around 10 million passenger journeys on the Thames annually, river transport is on par with TfL’s cycle hire for mode share in London.4 Some 4.3m passengers per year travel with Thames Clippers, founded in 1999 and running services between Putney and Woolwich Arsenal.

There is demand for river transport, insisted Thames Clippers Founder and CEO, Sean Collins. For example, the RB6 route, which extended Clippers’ service to Putney in 2013, initially went to Blackfriars. After 18 months, Clippers purchased additional vessels to handle growing demand, and later extended the route to Canary Wharf.

Thames Clippers route map
Thames Clippers caters largely to commuters, with around 2/3 of journeys on weekdays, though many tourists also use the service. Transfers between Embankment, Westminster, and Canary Wharf piers are particularly popular – many central London piers operate at capacity during peak times. Image courtesy Thames Clippers.

Although ‘River Services’ are brought under TfL’s branding, they aren’t on the same fare or funding structure as other public transport – river services are expected to be self-financing. For example, the Canary Wharf to Rotherhithe ferry is funded by the docklands’ Hilton hotel. RB6 received an initial subsidy from TfL (which commissioned the service), but it ended earlier this year.

Having to compete against subsidised public transport means river services need low operating costs to keep fares reasonable – but expansions of piers to accommodate demand for vessels and pier management require ongoing investment. With significant riverside development, Sean sees an opportunity to expand passenger services and secure funding: private investment can help deliver and maintain piers, which can then cater for new passengers.

All speakers were clear that local authorities and developers need to plan for river transport as early as possible, and that better use and protection of the Thames’ piers and wharves is critical to realising more waterborne transport of goods and people.

Development on the Thames

There is precedent for local authorities and developers supporting new piers and river transport.

Both Tideway and development at Battersea/Nine Elms are using the Thames to transport construction materials and waste. For passengers, the new Royal Wharf pier opens later this year at Ballymore’s Royal Wharf scheme in east London. A café on the pier will provide long-term income for pier management.

construction waste barge
Construction waste being removed by barge

At Barking Riverside, Planning, Design & Communications Director David Watkinson hopes to prioritise river transport, but recognised the challenge of having enough passengers to support a non-subsidised service. In contrast to Purfleet’s river-aware residents, many Barking residents don’t realise how close they are to the Thames; much of the riverfront was under private ownership with restricted access until recently. Early phases of development feature new riverside parkland, which helps improves access and visibility  of the river and is a draw for new residents.

With limited awareness of the river comes issues around water safety. Barking Riverside has embarked on a partnership with the Royal Lifesaving Society to educate residents on how to swim and behave safely around water. Water safety is also an issue in central London, as nearly 700 people contemplate suicide from the Thames each year.5 Lucy Owen, Deputy Director of Environment & Planning at the PLA has been working with the Tidal Thames Water Safety Forum to develop a drowning prevention strategy, and is keen to connect with other built environment organisations to implement it widely.

RNLI lifeboat station
RNLI lifeboat station near Waterloo Bridge

At Purfleet, a joint venture between Thurrock Council and Swan Housing Association will deliver 2,850 new homes and a significant mixed-use area with a new film and TV complex. Duncan Innes, Project Director at Swan, outlined ambitions to create a truly riverside neighbourhood: the masterplan includes a high street connecting Purfleet rail station to the river, and local people have petitioned to change the name of the community to ‘Purfleet-on-Thames’. Duncan hopes to use the river to transport construction materials and noted potential for a Clippers passenger service. This could be part of a route to Gravesend – a destination Thames Clippers hopes to bring into their network in the future.



[1] Port of London Authority
[2] Port Freight Statistics 2017
[3] Figure from Claire Donnelly, Lead Architect for Tideway, as relayed during 11 May Open City boat trip
[4] Transport for London
[5] Drowning Prevention Strategy