This, the first of two articles on river-based passenger transport in Britain and Ireland from Maurice Kerr, describes the cyclical nature of river transport’s popularity on the Thames


Author: Maurice Kerr BEng (Hons), MSc MIEI marine civil engineer

The Thames has hosted a variety of passenger vessels for millennia, from early timber wherries and skiffs crossing the gentle currents of the then wider river, to the Victorian wrought-iron paddle steamers and the modern-day aluminium-hulled catamarans that carry tourists and commuters the length and breadth of the tidal Thames. The popularity and importance of passenger transport within the city has ebbed and flowed throughout history as London grew and developed in response to social and technological changes.

Rising close to the small village of Kemble in Gloucester, the Thames crosses England, winding through towns and cities such as Oxford, Reading and on to London where it enters the North Sea. At approximately 346km in length, the Thames is far from the longest river in the United Kingdom, but as an important transport artery in London, the former heart of the British Empire, the river is one of the most significant in the country. As both a physical boundary and well-traversed maritime route, the Thames has been a highly valued economic route, a source of potable water and food, a waste site and, in recent years, a leisure facility.

Thames passenger transport and London’s early development

Passenger transport on the Thames played a pivotal role in London’s early development with records noting the river’s importance as early as 1193 when the Corporation of London was awarded the title of Conservator of the Thames, and responsibilities included the licensing of boat operators on the river [1].

Lambeth Palace Pier and penny steamer circa 1896

Lambeth Palace Pier and penny steamer circa 1896

London Bridge offered the only permanent crossing of the Thames within the city until the 18th century. Due to heavy congestion on the bridge as a result of a range of carts, pedestrians and livestock, ferry services offered a welcome and important alternative means of crossing the river. With the expanding fleet of vessels on the river viewed at the time as vital to the city’ growth, attempts to regulate and increase the efficiency of crossings were imposed by the Corporation of London. These measures, brought into place in the late 1300s, included a requirement for vessels to bear assigned numbers and operate from specific alighting points [1].

In 1555 the Company of Watermen, a livery company which survives to this day, was formed by an Act of Parliament to license passenger vessel operators in order to further regulate the service and increase the reliability and safety of what had become an unruly profession. Records prior to the formation of the Company of Watermen describe the vessel operations as “divers and many misfortunes and mischances, caused by evil and ignorant persons who robbed and spoiled of their [passengers’] goods, and also drowned them” [1].

In the latter half of the 18th century, the construction of bridges at Westminster, Kew, Blackfriars, Battersea and Richmond led to a significant decline in demand for passenger transport. Luckily for the Company of Watermen, a decision was made to merge with the Lightermen in 1700, those who unloaded cargo from ships and carried it into port by lighter, to form the Company of Watermen and Lightermen. This helped to secure the future of watermen on the Thames during this period – while demand for passenger services declined, the ever expanding freight trade in the Port of London provided stable employment[1].

The 19th century saw a resurgence in passenger transport with the introduction of steamboats. Faster than any previous vessels on the Thames, steamboats brought seaside towns along the lower reaches such as Gravesend, Margate and Ramsgate into reach for day trips from the capital [2].

Embankment Pier circa 1900

Embankment Pier circa 1900

By the mid-19th century, approximately 15,000 people per day travelled to work on the steamboat services, almost twice the number of passengers on the newly emerging railways. The resurgence was shortlived however, as the expansion of London’s rail and road networks took passengers away from the steamboat services, and the use of the river as a means of passenger transport declined steadily until the 20th century [2,3].

One incident that may have partly contributed to the reduction in passenger numbers in the late 19th century is the loss of the SS Princess Alice. In 1878, while on a scheduled sailing from Gravesend to Swan Pier near London Bridge, the passenger paddle steamboat SS Princess Alice collided with the collier SS Bywell Castle close to North Woolwich. The Princess Alice sank in minutes as more than 650 of her passengers drowned in the heavily polluted river. While the incident did lead to improved passenger safety on the Thames, a perceived greater risk, highlighted by this incident, also led to the decline in popularity [4].

In the early 20th century, a renewed interest in passenger transport was founded with London County Council establishing a river transport system to complement a new tram network. A number of piers and a fleet of 30 paddle steamers were acquired by the council in 1905, however, public interest in the service failed to materialise. The service made a significant financial loss in its first year and, in 1907, it was shut down [5].

During the Second World War, a temporary river transport service was set up in order to supplement disrupted train and tram services due to the Blitz.

1964 Thames airview

1964 Thames airview

In the 1950s, a limited, though successful, passenger service ran between Kew and Greenwich with more than two million passengers using the service at its peak. However, the service closed in 1962 due to high running costs. In the 1960s and 1970s, futuristic concepts for river passenger transport were trialled including hovercraft and hydrofoil services, but financial and technical issues led to failure. A number of further attempts and concepts were made in the latter half of the 20th century, but once again these schemes ultimately failed.

21st century revival

At the turn of the 21st century, a further revival of passenger transport on the Thames came about with the formation of the Cross River Partnership, a consortium of local authorities, private sector organisations and voluntary bodies, launched the Thames 2000 Initiative. While the short-term aim of this initiative was to regenerate and develop the Thames in time for the millennium celebrations, the initiative’s longer-term aim was to promote and develop passenger services. Additionally, the Cross River Partnership recommended the creation of a single public body to co-ordinate and promote river services. This agency, provisionally titled the Thames Pier Agency, would integrate boat services with other modes of public transport and acquire the public piers owned by the Port of London Authority. In 1999, the Thames Pier Agency became London River Services, a subsidiary of Transport for London and formally incorporated as a limited company. At present, London River Services (LRS) owns and operates eight passenger piers on the Thames in central London as well as owning the two Woolwich ferry terminals.

Further promotion of the Thames came from Ken Livingstone’s Transport Strategy in 2005, which aimed to develop the safe use of the Thames for freight and passenger transport, particularly encouraging passenger services that relate to London’s cultural and architectural excellence and tourism.

In 2013, the Mayor of London and Transport for London prepared the River Action Plan to address existing barriers to the growth of river-based passenger transport and increase passenger numbers to 12 million by 2020. Key barriers identified within the plan include:[6]

  • a lack of public awareness of existing river services;
  • high travel costs;
  • a lack of integration with other networks;
  • journey times;
  • gaps in the network;
  • fragmented pier ownership; and
  • inadequate boatyard facilities for the maintenance of passenger vessels and piers.

Additionally, the plan identified new opportunities for passenger growth which included:[6]

  • the provision of pier interfaces with riverside residential developments in west London, central London, Canary Wharf and Thames Gateway;
  • an expansion of river tours (sightseeing and dining cruises);
  • a new cruise terminal;
  • continued riverside tourism; and
  • London’s increasing population.

Plan to address the barriers to growth

Four key aims were outlined in the plan to address the barriers to growth: the provision of better piers; better information and integration; better promotion; and better working partnerships. The measures were implemented on a rolling programme from 2013 onwards with continual monitoring by the Concordat Steering Group.

In 2014, there were more than 9.8 million passengers on the Thames, an increase of 1.8 million on the passenger numbers in 2013 and approximately double the numbers recorded in 2003. The rise in passenger numbers is largely attributed to an increased use of river bus services. Based on the current growth and the continued implementation of the River Action Plan, the river passenger numbers are set to surpass the plan’s 12 million target well before the 2020 target [7].

Thames Clipper services at St George Wharf Pier

Thames Clipper services at St George Wharf Pier

Passenger service operators on the Thames such as MBNA Thames Clippers have also expanded their service, network and fleet in line with the River Action Plan with the purchase of six 220-seater capacity catamaran for commuter services in 2007. In 2015, two more vessels are to be added to MBNA Thames Clippers fleet, with the 150-seater catamarans set to provide additional capacity throughout the river-bus network. [8]

To allow for additional ferry services, LRS considered extending three of its most popular piers: Westminster Pier, Embankment Pier and Bankside Pier. A feasibility study, undertaken by marine consulting engineers Beckett Rankine, investigated the physical, navigational, archaeological, social and environmental constraints at each of the piers and proposed potential options to extend each one.

Westminster Pier consists of five pontoons restrained by four main piles and is accessed by two linkspans from the Bazelgette steps. The pier is currently used to serve tripper, dining cruise companies and high speed launch excursions. The key aim of the proposed extension is to allow river bus services to also operate from the pier. The pier’s close proximity to Westminster Bridge and Victoria Embankment, a listed structure dating from 1860 and designed by Joseph Bazalgette, and the effect on navigational safety and the river’s hydrodynamics were key constraints. Extending downstream was the only feasible option, though the provision of additional access to and from the pier was also suggested. The preferred option, without the additional access, involves installing a new pile and inserting a new pontoon that matches the existing structure. Moorings downstream of the pier will have to be moved a similar distance to maintain safe navigation.

At Embankment Pier, which is co-owned by LRS and Bateaux London who provide dining cruise experiences, the key aim is to increase the number of river bus berths. As at Westminster Pier, Embankment Pier is located close to Victoria Embankment and a bridge – Hungerford Bridge in this case. Additionally, located along Victoria Embankment approximately 100m downstream from the pier is Cleopatra’s Needle, a listed ancient Egyptian obelisk that was re-erected in London in the 19th century. Extensions both upstream and downstream were considered but the preferred option was to extend downstream as there were likely to be fewer conflicts with other structures and developments. The option involved installing a new pontoon, similar in length to the existing one, that would be secured to mono-piles along the pontoon’s back face. To improve disabled access, and access for goods trolleys, the existing downstream brow would be replaced by a wider bridge and a new ramp would be installed on the footpath.

Bankside Pier - visualisation

Bankside Pier – visualisation

At Bankside Pier, an extension is required to improve safety and allow for additional river bus and cruise services. Considered a difficult pier for berthing due to its slightly oblique alignment to the river flow, the existing pier consists of a pontoon restrained by two piled dolphins and accessed by a fixed bridge and canting brow arrangement. Extension downstream was not strictly constrained by the adjacent Southwark Bridge but it would involve impinging upon the navigation channel which would be a significant hazard so close to the bridge. Extension upstream was much more plausible but its size and appearance had to avoid negatively affecting important local structures such as the Tate Modern, Millennium Bridge and the Globe Theatre.

As the existing Blackfriars Pier is due to be replaced as part of the Thames Tideway Tunnel project, there was an opportunity to refurbish that pier and install it upstream of Bankside Pier, in front of the Tate Modern. However, Blackfriars would not be available within LRS’ preferred timeframe and thus was not considered to be a feasible option. The preferred solution was to install a relatively small, 20m long pontoon to the upstream end of the existing pier that would be supported by a new mono-pile.

Beckett Rankine working jointly with Avery Associates Architects then developed the preferred options to a level of detail suitable for planning applications in 2015. Each application was supported by a detailed navigational risk assessment and hydrodynamic, environmental and archaeological studies. Construction and installation of the first extension is due to be completed by the end of 2015 while the other two piers will be completed in 2016.

The future of Thames passenger services

New passenger service piers are also being delivered at Plantation Wharf, the Battersea Power Station development, Convoys Wharf in Deptford and at Enderby Wharf where it will be combined with the cruise terminal which is also being designed by Beckett Rankine.[7] These new piers will link new, large-scale mixed residential and commercial developments with the river bus routes and onward connections. The feasibility of providing further new piers and extending other existing piers is also under consideration at a number of other sites along the Thames, with the support of many of London’s boroughs and the Greater London Authority.

Steamboat on the Thames circa 1900

Steamboat on the Thames circa 1900

With the number of passengers on the Thames forecast to rise further, and with provision for this increase addressed by the current pier extensions project, as well as further planned piers and extensions, the future of passenger services on the river is secure. This latest era of success can be largely attributed to the successful implementation of the River Action Plan by both London River Services as well as London’s boroughs and the Greater London Authority, enabling an efficient modern use of the city’s oldest resource. Nevertheless, as history has shown, passenger transport on the Thames must continue to develop and adapt to meet the needs of the growing city in order to succeed long into the future.

In Ireland, with the exception of the ferries servicing island communities and a number of fragmented tour operators, scheduled river and harbour-based passenger or commuter services are virtually non-existent. River-based commuter services have been explored and proposed for both Cork and Dublin in the past, but these proposals failed to move far beyond the planning stages. However in recent years, Dublin, Belfast and Cork have experienced an increase in the popularity of river/harbour-based sightseeing tours, which has opened the Liffey/Dublin Bay, the Lagan/Belfast Lough and Lower Cork Harbour to the public.

With increasing public and private sector support outlined in plans such as the Liffey Regeneration Strategy (2001), the Cork Harbour Integrated Management Strategy (2008) and the Cork Area Strategic Plan (2008), there exists a potential opportunity for an increased use of Cork and Dublin’s rivers/harbours for a variety of commercial and leisure-based marine activities.

Additionally, when combined with large-scale redevelopment plans such as the Alexandra Basin redevelopment in Dublin’s docklands, the redevelopment of Spike Island, Haulbowline Island and Ringaskiddy in Cork Harbour, and the advancement of some elements of Cork’s mothballed Docklands Redevelopment Plan, there may be an increased opportunity for viable river and harbour commuter services.

In the second article on the subject of river-based transport in Britain and Ireland, the key barriers and constraints to river and harbour based passenger/commuter services in Ireland’s main cities of Dublin, Belfast and Cork and their coastal surrounds will be considered to see whether lessons can be learnt from the success of the Thames’ River Action Plan.



[1] – University College London (2009) – RECORDS OF THE COMPANY OF WATERMEN AND LIGHTERMEN AT GUILDHALL LIBRARY – Guildhall Library Manuscripts Section – Last updated March 2009 – accessed at;

[2] – London Transport Museum (2015) – 19th Century London: On the Water – Online Museum accessed at;

[3] – London Transport Museum (2015) – 19th Century London: River Traffic Declines – Online Museum accessed at;

[4] – Royal Museums Greenwich (2015) – What happened to the ‘Princess Alice’? – Online Resource – accessed at;

[5] – London Metropolitan Archived (2015) – A London County Council paddle steamboat ‘The Rennie’ at Lambeth Pier – Online Resource – accessed at;

[6] – Mayor of London (2013)   – River Action Plan – Prepared by Transport for London; accessed at;

[7] – Port of London (2014) – Record Numbers Travel On The River Thames as Action Plan Delivers Improvements – News Releases – Accessed at;

[8] – Thames Clippers (2015) – MBNA Thames Clippers loads the two new 150 capacity catamarans onto a vessel in Hobart – News Releases – Accessed at; O'RiordanCiviltransport,United Kingdom
Author: Maurice Kerr BEng (Hons), MSc MIEI marine civil engineer The Thames has hosted a variety of passenger vessels for millennia, from early timber wherries and skiffs crossing the gentle currents of the then wider river, to the Victorian wrought-iron paddle steamers and the modern-day aluminium-hulled catamarans that carry tourists...