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Thames Vision 2035: Achieving safe and sustainable growth of river passenger transport

The Port of London Authority (PLA) and Transport for London (TfL) commissioned Arup to undertake this study to identify actions needed to achieve long-term growth objectives in the Thames Vision. The recommendations of the study, from the need for marketing and co-ordination of services to infrastructure investment, are being carefully considered and will be the focus of a new high-level group.

The study was undertaken before the Coronavirus outbreak.  However, recommendations remain relevant as there a case for action to be taken to support the sector and realise the potential of river transport in the green recovery.

River transport provides resilience for the public transport network, as an alternative to other public transport services. It supports social distancing, fresh air movement and provides some outdoor deck space. River transport also supports walking and cycling for commuters and leisure goers, with increased capacity for bikes in commuter services and walking routes through central London from the Thames Path.

Executive Summary

Our work

Arup and Populus were commissioned by the Port of London Authority and Transport for London to identify options to achieve safe and sustainable growth in passenger journeys on the Thames in London, Kent and Essex, from the 10m journeys in 2018, in the context of a previous Thames Vision target of achieving 20m annual journeys by 2035.

This report was written before the coronavirus outbreak and therefore does not take account of its impact on travel demand.

Demand growth scenarios

We derived illustrative projections for three scenarios:

  • Background growth from tourism and population. This could increase customer numbers to 11- 13m (medium estimate 12m) per annum by 2035.
  • Scenario 1: Background growth + planned interventions, which could increase customer numbers to 13-15m (medium estimate 14m) pa by 2035.
  • Scenario 2: Marketing, customer service and improved peak services, which could deliver around 14-16m (medium estimate 15m) trips pa by 2035.
  • Scenario 3a: Contactless capping, off peak demand growth and new piers, which could deliver demand of 18-20m (medium estimate 19m) trips pa by 2035.
  • Scenario 3b which also includes lower fares on river bus services and could deliver demand of 19- 22m (medium estimate 21m) trips pa by 2035.

A challenging but achievable target

As such, the previous target of 20m annual trips is achievable by 2035, but continuing on the current trajectory of intervention is likely to lead to demand lower than that envisaged in the Thames Vision: only the more ambitious Scenarios 3a and 3b, which require PLA and TfL investment of £121m-£163m achieve the target.

This level of demand growth is likely to result in a step up in the number of central London river buses and tours movements in the busiest hour from 21 today up to between 26 and 42 in Scenarios 3a and 3b, which will require an increase of river capacity.

Likewise, if left unchecked, there is a risk of negative impacts on the environment from growth, including a potential 80% increase in CO2 and NOX emissions, a decrease in water quality and biodiversity, and higher noise levels. However, when coupled with the forthcoming PLA Net Zero strategy, and adoption of new tech by vessel owners, there is an opportunity for future emissions to be 50% lower than today, and for water quality, biodiversity and noise levels to improve, even if demand meets the target.


  • PLA, TfL, Greater London Authority (GLA) and the key operators must set themselves up to deliver a shared set of strategic priorities for the river Thames, including new governance and possibly a River Task Force.
  • The industry must focus relentlessly on getting the basics right, including improving awareness, making river buses part of TfL price capping and improving the reliability of the Woolwich Ferry.
  • The industry should maximise the capacity of the river, initially through integrated timetable planning, pier extensions, new destination piers, better timetable planning and ultimately a real- time operations centre. We have suggested six new piers as part of this report.
  • The industry should look to build up winter and off peak patronage in particular, through winter festivals, and more all-weather facilities at piers, in line with London’s global competitors.
  • PLA and TfL should secure the delivery of proposed new services, and new piers, (linked to developments where possible) and improve the realm around existing piers, in line with the TfL Pier Strategy.
  • PLA and TfL should attract new entrants, encourage competition, enhance innovation and bringing fares down. These measures, along with extra capacity, could be delivered through incentives in river works licences and river services licences.
  • PLA and TfL must place extra emphasis on delivering the forthcoming Net Zero strategy, and delivering supporting infrastructure for low emission vessels, and possible tolling of Woolwich Ferry to ensure sustainable growth
  • PLA and TfL must monitor this strategy through improved collection of ridership data, regular customer satisfaction surveys, tourism trends and regular pier audit surveys.

The full report is available as a PDF.