Should Transport for London be encouraging more of us to commute by boat?

A Thames Clipper boat in action in 2013. Image: Getty.

How to get more capacity on London’s transport network is a perennial debate. Upgrade signalling systems. Get longer trains. Build Crossrail 2.

But there’s one piece of infrastructure that’s already in place and cuts through the length of the city – and it’s debatable whether we’re making the most of it.

There are two commuter-style riverboat services that travel into the centre of London from either side of the city. There’s another, central only, one that operates between the two Tate galleries. And there’s a river crossing-style passenger ferry between Canary Wharf and the Hilton Docklands, across the river in Rotherhithe. (Did you know that was there? I didn’t.) All of these are operated by Thames Clippers.

Transport for London (TfL) itself runs the free passenger and vehicle ferry between Woolwich and North Woolwich (OK, pedants; Briggs Marine and Environmental operates it, but it’s a TfL service). Then there are various tourist services with running historical commentary, which commuters with hangovers and a day full of meetings are only going to use if they have a lot of disposable income or are trapped in an episode of The Good Place.

Freight takes up more space on the Thames. Construction of the super sewer will use the river to transport materials in an attempt to reduce HGVs on the road. The now-defunct Garden Bridge planned to do similar, in what was possibly the only sensible part of that whole project.

Yet there’s room for more. The Port of London Authority (PLA) notes that increased development near the river, notably at Nine Elms, brings opportunities for more commuter services. Indeed, a new pier at Battersea will be served by Thames Clippers in the near future. By 2035, the PLA wants 20m commuter and tourist trips a year, almost double the current figure.

So where are those trips going to come from?

There’s one service that seems obvious, but doesn’t currently exist: a route to City Airport. It’s on the river, right? Thames Clippers serves a pier further east, and the Woolwich Ferry already docks close by. Why not add a boat from the west stopping at North Woolwich?

Boring practical answers are: it’s actually a 15 minute bus ride from North Woolwich pier to the airport, and the DLR already goes there. But the DLR is only useful if you’re already in the City; if you’re around the West End it would be a lot easier to hop on a boat and whizz down the river.

Ticketing is an added complication to any expansion of services. London’s Travelcard and pay as you go systems work with a series of concentric ring zones, radiating outwards from zone 1, the most central, and most expensive: you simply buy a ticket for the zones you want to travel in.

But Thames Clippers don’t use the same zone boundaries. They divide the river into three zones: the west zone covers roughly the same are as zone 2 on that side of London (I suspect the actual dividing line is slightly further out than the zone 2/3 boundary on the tube map, but no matter). But the central zone goes all the way out to Canary Wharf, deep into the non-central Zone 2, and the east zone extends to Woolwich Arsenal, zone 4 if you took the DLR.

 

A map of Thames Clipper services. Click to expand.

None of this really matters, of course, because the Clippers don’t use TfL’s fares anyway. Your Travelcard isn’t valid (though it will get you a third off a standard fare). You can use pay as you go on Oyster, but that fare doesn’t count towards your daily cap. And it’s expensive: one journey in the central zone costs £6.30 on Oyster or buying online or with an app. The daily pay as you go cap, the maximum you can spend on all other forms of transport around zone 1, is just £6.60.

A month’s pass to commute between, say, Wandsworth and Blackfriars, costs £188.15. By way of comparison, a monthly Zone 1 & 2 Travelcard costs £126.80, you can use it on more than one mode of transport and journey times are roughly comparable. Although, to be fair, one of these journeys is probably a lot more pleasant than the other.

At any rate, we may be getting towards an explanation of why river services aren’t more popular.

One interesting footnote about the Thames Clippers fare policy is that it is partly controlled by City Hall. Peruse the fares chart, and you’ll spot some weird anomalies in the fares between West-and-Central and East-and-Central. Turns out that the RB6 route between Putney and Canary Wharf is operated under contract from TfL, and a mayoral directive sets the fares.

Thames Clippers was awarded RB6 after previous operators couldn’t make the route work commercially. Since 2013, the company has increased the number of passenger journeys and added more boats to the service. In theory, other river services could be brought back under TfL’s control – but in practice, while Thames Clippers is making a profit, there’s no reason to do so.

It’s unsurprising that TfL has no desire to absorb the full impact of the costs of river routes. Given that TfL has recently decided it can’t afford the planned upgrade to the Northern and Jubilee lines, there’s no way it’s going to take on another expensive service.


This is a shame, as making river transport an integrated part of the Travelcard system is an obvious way of encouraging use. Stockholm includes ferries in its own travelcard, and Sydney includes public ferries in its daily and weekly capping system.

But perhaps comparing London to these cities is unfair. After all, if you ask Transport NSW’s website how to get from central Sydney to, say, Manly, it tells you to get the ferry – it’s just the easiest option. Similarly, when your city is a collection of islands like Stockholm, it makes sense for ferries to be a seamless part of the system.

But in London, it’s faster to get from Westminster to Putney on the District Line. The RB1 route is mostly connected up by the District or Jubilee lines. Apart from the bit around Chelsea, which is an odd transport desert (and will stay that way, if residents succeed in overturning plans for a Crossrail 2 station), river services feel like an optional extra.

The PLA doesn’t envisage capacity issues restricting growth in commuter services, and though Thames Clippers is adding boats, it’s likely that commercial viability will be the big constraint in making the Thames a practical piece of transport infrastructure.

Unless, just possibly, you look east.

It’s easy to think of Thames-based public transport as just being for the area within Greater London. But Thames Clippers is looking at running a service from Gravesend to Embankment with a calling point at Canary Wharf – and did a four day trial in September. The whole journey takes 1 hour 10 minutes, a favourable comparison with the hour it takes Southeastern to get to Charing Cross.

Ticketing may not be as big an issue, depending on the type of season ticket a Kentish commuter chooses: currently, a Southeastern-only monthly ticket costs £252.30. There’s an option to pay £385.60 if you want a TfL travelcard on top, but if your home and social life is based in Gravesend, would you bother, or just go use Pay As You Go to move around London? Given the choice between a scenic commute on the river or playing sardines on Southeastern, this feels like a no-brainer.

The PLA believes there is potential for new piers at Barking Riverside, Thamesmead, Purfleet, Erith, Greenhithe and Grays. So instead of thinking of the Thames as a way to unlock London’s transport potential, it might be more useful to look towards Essex and Kent, and use the river to relieve the area’s creaking rail infrastructure.

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The Réseau Express Métropolitain: the multi-billion dollar light rail project Montreal never asked for

Montreal from the summit of Mont Royal. Image: Getty.

The Réseau Express Métropolitain (REM) is the 67-kilometre, C$6.3bn light rail project Montreal never asked for.

It is the single largest transit project in Montreal in half a century. Not since the construction of the Métro has there been as bold a proposal: an entirely new mass-transit system that would have the effect of radically altering the city’s urban landscape.

Conceived, planned and costed by the Province of Quebec’s institutional investor, the Caisse de dépot et placement du Québec (CDPQ), the REM is currently under construction and slated to become operational between 2021 and 2023.

Once completed, it is supposed to provide high-frequency, intermediate-volume light-rail service on a regional level: connecting suburbs with the city centre along three axes and linking Montreal’s central business district with its international airport.

The REM may even connect to an as-yet unbuilt baseball stadium, or be extended as far as Quebec City, some 400km away, to replace the existing commuter rail network. Indeed, the REM has been strongly endorsed – by both the federal and provincial governments that back it – as a panacea for all of Greater Montreal’s transit and traffic congestion problems.
Since it was first proposed in 2015, the REM has been championed above all else as a guaranteed-to-succeed “public-public partnership”. A win-win, where various levels of government cooperate and coordinate with an arm’s-length government agency to produce much-needed new transit and transport infrastructure.

Unlike the more commonly known public-private partnership (of which there are some notable recent failures in Quebec), the obvious insinuation is that – this time – there’s no private interest or profit to worry about.

PR aside, the pension funds managed by the CDPQ are private, not public, wealth. The CDPQ’s entire raison d’etre is to profit. It has even gone to the lengths of “mandating” the REM to provide it an annual profit of about 10 per cent, a cost to be assumed by the governments of Quebec and Canada in the event the REM isn’t profitable.

The law that has made the REM possible has other interesting components. The REM is legally distinct from and superior to other public transit agencies and the extant regional planning authority. It has exclusive access to publicly-funded transit infrastructure. There’s even a “non-compete” clause with the city’s existing mass transit services, as well as special surtax on all properties within a 1km radius of each of the 26 proposed stations.

This latter element takes on a new dimension when you consider the CDPQ’s real-estate arm, Ivanhoé-Cambridge, has a near total monopoly on the properties surrounding the future downtown nexus of the REM, and is invested in suburban shopping centres that will soon host REM stations.

It seems that Montreal isn't so much getting a new mass transit system as a pension fund is using a new transport system to stimulate growth in a faltering if not moribund commercial and residential property sector.

Quebec’s public pensions have historically invested in suburban sprawl. As this market becomes increasingly untenable, and populations shift back towards the city centre, the REM is supposed to stimulate growth in “transit-oriented developments” centred on its future stations. The new surtaxes are likely intended to force sales of land for immediate redevelopment, so that new homes are ready to move into as soon as the system becomes operational.

It’s important here to remember that the city of Montreal wasn’t given several billion dollars by the government with which to spend developing its mass transit system. Rather, Quebec’s former premier asked the CDPQ to come up with a way to integrate several long-standing yet unrealized transit proposals. These included a light-rail system over Montreal’s new Champlain Bridge, an express train to Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport, and a dedicated commuter rail line for the Western suburbs. It was the CDPQ that proposed a fully-automated light-rail system that would use existing technology as well as some of Montreal’s extant railway infrastructure as an inexpensive way of uniting several different projects into an assumedly more efficient one.

So far so good. Cities need more mass transit, especially in the era of climate change, and Montreal contends with regular congestion both on its roadways and various mass transit systems. Moreover, access to the city’s already generally-high quality public transit systems is an important driver of property values and new residential development.

Considering the evident need for more transit, the REM theoretically provides an opportunity to kill several birds with one stone. Better still, the REM will in all likelihood stimulate the transit-oriented developments and re-urbanisation necessary for a more sustainable future city.

A map of the proposed network, with metro lines in colour and commuter rail in grey. Click to expand. Image: Calvin411/Wikimedia Commons.

The REM is the business “test case” on which two new government entities are based; the CDPQ’s infrastructure development arm, and the Canadian government’s infrastructure development bank.

The REM is also intended to stimulate economic activity in important economic sectors – such as engineering, construction and technology – that could soon be in high-demand internationally. Both the governments of Quebec and Canada see tremendous value in the economic potential of infrastructure mega projects at home and abroad.

This aside, the actual development of the REM has been complicated by what appears to be a bad case of over-promising and under-delivering, at least in terms of how seamlessly it could be integrated into the city’s extant transit and transport systems.

Though the train as originally conceived was intended to use an existing electrified railway line as the backbone of the network, it now appears that the REM cannot in fact be adapted to the line’s current voltage. The entire line, and the tunnel it passes through, requires a thorough overhaul, something that had last been completed in the mid-1990s. The new electrification, as well as the reconstruction of the tunnel, will cut it off from the regional commuter rail network. Rather than have different types of rail systems share existing infrastructure, the REM will force the premature (and unnecessary) retirement of a fleet of high-volume electric trains.

Consider that while the REM will connect the city with its international airport, it’s not planned to go just one kilometre farther to connect the airport with a major multi-modal transit station. Dorval Station integrates a sizeable suburban bus terminus with a train station that serves both regional commuter rail as well as the national railways network.

It’s difficult to understand how and why such an obvious and useful connection wasn’t considered. Given long-standing interest in high-speed and/or high-frequency rail service in Canada, La Presse columnist François Cardinal has noted that a REM connection between airport and a likely future rail hub would extend access to international air travel far further than just downtown Montreal.


The REM was also supposed to integrate seamlessly into the Montreal’s built environment, its promoters insisting construction could be completed with minimal inconvenience to current transit users. By the end of this year, REM-related construction will force a two-year closure of Montreal’s most-used commuter rail line, and sever the most recently-built rail line off from the transit hubs in the centre of the city. Tens of thousands of commuters throughout the Montreal region will be forced to make do will already over-saturated bus and métro service.

Though public consultations revealed these and other flaws, concerns raised by the public, by professionals and even some politicians were largely ignored. The REM also failed its environmental assessment. The provincial agency responsible for such evaluations, the BAPE, stated baldly that the project wasn't ready for primetime and lambasted the CDPQ’s lack of transparency. In turn, the BAPE was accused of exceeding its mandate. The REM made a similarly poor impression, with transit users groups, architects and urban planners criticizing the project in whole and in part.

The main points of contention are that the REM won’t do much in the short term to alleviate congestion across the city’s existing – and comparatively expansive - mass-transit network. Quite the opposite: it is already beginning to exacerbate the problem.

Because the REM was conceived without the involvement of either the city’s main transit agency or the regional transit planning authority, its progress is hampered by a wide-variety of problems that would otherwise likely have been planned for. And because it’s a mass-transit solution to what is primarily a political consideration, the REM will provide higher-frequency service of dubious necessity to the city’s low-density suburban hinterland, much of which already has ample commuter-focused transit service. The high-density urban-core, which is most in need of transit expansion, will benefit perhaps least of all.

While it’s unlikely the REM will fail outright, it’s also unlikely to stimulate much new interest in using mass-transit services: it will first have to win back those who may abandon mass-transit while the REM is being built. Providing higher-frequency service to suburbia is the kind of thing that sounds good in theory, but doesn’t respond to commuters’ actual needs. Arguably the REM’s best feature – its real-estate development potential – has been somewhat obscured from public view because of obvious conflicts of interest. The REM’s limitations – and there are many – will for the most part only become known once the system is operational, at which point it will be too late.

The REM provides interesting theoretical avenues worthy of exploration – particularly the potential relationships between new transit development and how it may stimulate new growth in the housing sector. But building a new transit system – especially one this large and complex – ultimately requires the fullest possible degree of cooperation; with transit users, extant transit agencies and regional planning bodies.

Ignoring the recommendations of experts, the public and government assessment agencies for the sake of expediency is never a wise idea. When it comes to designing and implementing the mass-transit systems of the future, the needs, wants and opinions of users must be paramount. In Montreal, it appears as though they were an afterthought and an inconvenience.

Whether Montrealers will be able to vote with their wallets remains to be seen. As things now stand, it appears the city’s bus network will be forced to integrate with it, removing redundancy and ensuring that users won’t have much choice but to use it.

It’s difficult to imagine how forcing people to use a transit system they never asked for will encourage greater use.