River transport strategy diluted

By Giles Broadbent on March 1, 2012 11:37 AM |

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Despite promises, pledges, concordats and initiatives, progress on moves to make the river a viable means of transport are water-logged and muddled.

That's the conclusion of an investigation by the London Assembly transport committee, which points to a lack of ownership and energy from Transport for London as one of the key failings.

In early 2010, the Mayor of London heralded a new era in water transport and set the target of 12million river passenger trips per year - the current number is about six million, including two million on the Woolwich ferry.

Chairwoman of the transport committee Caroline Pidgeon said: "While there have been some developments and passenger numbers have grown, it's frustrating that progress is so slow on expanding a service that has so much potential - particularly for the 2012 Games.

"Our last report described the Thames as London's forgotten highway and unfortunately in many ways it still is.

"It's all a bit half-hearted. If Transport for London were to direct the same attention and energy at river services that it's lavished on the cycle hire scheme it could turn the tide."

And it is the lack of focus and ownership by TfL that runs through the report. It is accused of a "lack of strategy", improvements are only "patchy" and its commitment in terms of energy and cash is criticised.

For its part, TfL says the river is equivalent to "a medium-sized suburban bus route", which is difficult to co-ordinate because of a patchwork of private operators, including 10 owners for 15 piers used by Thames Clippers.

The London Assembly report Improving River Services points out TfL has been fully committed to the cycle hire scheme, which shares many of the same factors - limited number of users, unlikely to make a huge impact on commuter movements and operated by the private sector.

The report said: "Similarly, TfL has shown considerable commitment to the development of the cable car between Greenwich and the Royal Docks with up-front funding of around £3 million. By contrast TfL's direct financial support for river services comprises a subsidy of around £400,000. The popularity of the cycle hire scheme shows that TfL's support can make a difference."

The mayor's ambassador for river transport Richard Tracey urged TfL to take more of an active role as its signalled reticence only encouraged other players to be equally unambitious.

The report queries the mayor's attitude - he has trumpeted the minority transport operations - cable car, cycles and the river - but only two of the three have been significantly championed by TfL.

Thames Clippers managing director Sean Collins said: "TfL needs a strategic plan that focuses on what the future needs of the river are.

"That's all we're calling for so it gives the operators like us the confidence to invest."

A spokesman for the Mayor of London said: "The Mayor has already asked TfL to produce a new strategic plan for passenger services on the River Thames. This plan will address all of the recommendations in the report and will be published before the end of the year."

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