The much-loved Woolwich free ferry service has been given a reprieve.

The future of the service had been put in doubt by the east London crossings programme which saw proposals either to scrap the ferries or move them downstream towards Gallions Reach.

There was further pressure on the decision because the ferries were coming to the end of their natural life.

However, Transport for London has agreed a multi-million-pound upgrade to extend the life of the operation which dates back from the 14th century.

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In a £50million scheme, two new ferries will be bought to replace the three ageing vessels in operation – John Burns, Ernest Bevin and James Newman. The reliability of the modern boats making up for the loss.

In addition, there will be new mooring facilities at Woolwich and North Woolwich, the embarkation points. The work should be complete by March 2018, according to papers lodged with TfL’s finance and policy committee.

TfL's general manager of river services Andy Thompson said: “We are working to extend the life of the Woolwich Ferry service into the 2020s. We’ve completed work on the jetties and lifting bridges, so we are now focussing on the ferries themselves, and can confirm that we are planning to buy two new boats to replace the existing 1960s vessels.

"The buying process for these has now started and we have encouraged a number of ship building companies to bid for the contract. Alongside this, we recently consulted on plans for new fixed river crossings in east London, including two new crossings at Thamesmead and Belvedere, which could be delivered by 2025, subject to funding.”

Lib Dem mayoral candidate Caroline Pidgeon said: “I very much welcome this backdown by TfL.

The Ernest Bevin Woolwich Ferry sails across the River Thames

“In the rush to push ahead with the tolled Silvertown Tunnel and other road crossings TfL were willing to sacrifice the free Woolwich Ferry, which is not only popular locally but incredibly helpful for pedestrians and cyclists.

“I hope that in addition to retaining the Woolwich Ferry service consideration is now given to extending its operating hours, especially on a Sunday.”

London Assembly member Len Duvall said: “This historic part of east London transport has played a vital role in Woolwich’s development, and brought many jobs to the local area. It’s little wonder it holds such a special place in the heart of local people.

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“This is great news. It also means that TfL will improve the roundabout leading to the ferry to avoid congestion at peak times. We know that if we can keep traffic moving it will contribute to improving air quality, and that can only benefit our local community.”

The union Unite had expressed concerns over the future of its members' jobs when an end to the service was first mooted.

After the decision, Onay Kasab, Unite regional officer told “Unite has always seen the huge value of the Woolwich Free Ferry to the community, to people getting to and from work and for business.

"This is an amazing service provided by a skilled dedicated workforce, from the stores to the workshops, the traffic handlers to the deck crews. It is a great shame that some take longer to see the value of the Woolwich Free Ferry – but we are pleased that they get there eventually.

"Unite will continue to not only value the service but to fight for our members and the much cherished Woolwich Free Ferry.”

The service is popular with pedestrians and cyclists but also can cause congestion and long traffic jams during disruptions. Many large HGVs use the service, pummelling roads around Woolwich town centre and Silvertown.