London River Services

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London River Services
Locale London, UK
Waterway River Thames
Transit type Commuter boats, ferries and tourist/leisure services
Began operation1999
No. of terminals25 (8 managed by TfL)
OwnerTransport for London
Operator Various boat companies

London River Services is a division of Transport for London (TfL), which manages passenger transport on the River Thames in London, UK. They do not own or operate any boats but license the services of other operators. The services they regulate are a mixture of leisure-oriented tourist services and commuter services.[1]

The River Thames is generally no more than 300m wide as it runs through central London, and is easily crossed by bridge or tunnel. River boat services in London therefore mostly travel east or west along the Thames rather than across it, and the only major cross-river ferry services are to be found further downstream where the river is wider.

London's river service network is not as extensive as those of Hong Kong or Sydney, but with recent investment in river public transport and the creation of London River Services, water transport in the British capital is experiencing a revival. More than 2,000 commuters a day now travel by river[2] which adds up to three million people per year, a figure that is set to increase with preparations for the 2012 Olympics and tourist traffic during the games.


Traffic on the Thames in 1746

Before the construction of London's bridges and the Underground, the River Thames had served as a major thoroughfare for centuries. Attempts to regulate the transport of passengers and goods began in 1197, when King Richard I sold the Crown's rights over the Thames to the Corporation of the City of London, which then attempted to license boats on the river. In 1510 Henry VIII granted a licence to watermen that gave exclusive rights to carry passengers on the river,[3] and in 1555 an Act of Parliament set up the Company of Watermen and Lightermen to control traffic on the Thames.

For centuries the only bridge across the Thames was London Bridge. Crossing the river by wherry (small wooden rowing boat) was a common mode of transport.[4]

The 19th Century

Steamers on the Thames in 1841

Passenger steamboats were introduced in 1815 and the use of the river as a means of public transport increased greatly. River services ran from Gravesend, Margate and Ramsgate via Greenwich and Woolwich into central London. By the mid-1850s about 15,000 people per day travelled to work on steamboat services – twice the number of passengers on the newly emerging railways.[5] With increased congestion on the river, collisions and other accidents became correspondingly more frequent, most notably with the Princess Alice disaster at Woolwich in 1878.[6]

While the introduction of large steamboats and bridge construction had taken business from the Thames watermen, the growth of the railways took passengers away from the steamboat services and the use of the river for public transport began a steady decline. River service companies struggled financially, and in 1876 the five main boat companies merged to form the London Steamboat Company. The company ran a half-hourly service from Chelsea to Greenwich for eight years until it went bankrupt in 1884. Nevertheless, river services continued under different management into the next century. Many of the Thames paddle steamers around this time were built by the Thames Ironworks at Bow Creek.[7]

The 20th Century

In 1905 the London County Council launched its own public river transport service to complement its new tram network, acquiring piers and investing in a large fleet of 30 paddle-steamers.[8] Frequent services operated from Hammersmith to Greenwich. The LCC river service was not a success; in the first year it ran up debts of £30,000. It was shut down in 1907 after only two years' service.[9][10]

Numerous proposals for "river bus" services were considered throughout the Twentieth Century, although the few that were realised were cancelled after a short time in service.[11] In 1940, a temporary wartime river bus service was introduced using commandeered pleasure cruisers to replace train and tram services which were disrupted by the bombing of the Blitz.[12]

With the move of the Port of London downstream in the 1960s, regular river transport was limited to a few sightseeing boats.

Revival of passenger services

In 1997 the then Secretary of State for Transport, John Prescott, launched Thames 2000, a £21-million project to regenerate the River Thames in time for the Millennium Celebrations and boost new passenger transport services on the Thames.[13] The centrepiece of these celebrations was to be the Millennium Dome, but there was also a plan to provide a longer-term legacy of public transport boat services and piers on the river.

River traffic around Waterloo Pier in 2008

The Cross-River Partnership, a consortium of local authorities, private sector organisations and voluntary bodies, recommended the creation of a public body to co-ordinate and promote river services. This agency, provisionally titled the Thames Piers Agency, would integrate boat services into other modes of public transport, take control of Thames piers from the Port of London Authority, and commission the construction of new piers.[14]

The result was the formation in 1999 of London River Services, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Transport for London.

Ken Livingstone's Transport Strategy for London 2005 states that: The safe use of the Thames for passenger and freight services should be developed. Passenger services will be encouraged, particularly services that relate to its cultural and architectural excellence and tourism. Use of London's other navigable waterways for freight, consistent with their roles for leisure use and as ecosystems, will be encouraged.[15]

LRS today

Greenwich Pier with TfL branding

LRS is responsible for integrating river transport with the rest of the public transport network, such as the Tube and buses. It promotes boat services under the London River Services brand, issuing timetables and river maps.

LRS is also responsible for directly managing eight piers on the river, and has invested in LRS-branded signage and passenger information.

Following its launch the service was criticised for its lack of subsidy for private boat operators.[16] LRS now supports the Thames Clipper commuter service financially and has increased the peak service frequency to a boat every 15 minutes.[14] In April 2009, the signing of a "River Concordat" by London’s pier owners, boat operators, borough councils and Transport for London was announced, committing the various partners to improving ticketing, piers and passenger information, and to closer integration into the transport network.[17]

London River Services is not responsible for maintaining the river itself; the Port of London Authority takes care of river traffic control, security, navigational safety (including buoys, beacons, bridge lights and channel surveys),[18] and the RNLI operates Thames lifeboat services.


The public presentation of London River Services is visually associated with existing TfL design standards, using identical graphic design elements to those used on London Underground publicity, signage and other elements, drawing on the design heritage of Harry Beck.

The London River Services brand is a sub-brand of TfL which uses the familiar Tube roundel, originally devised for London Underground and now established as the corporate branding for all TfL services. The River Services roundel is a dark blue bar (Pantone 072) on pale blue circle (Pantone 299).

Corporate signage, stationery and literature all use the New Johnston typeface in common with other TfL services.[19]

LRS publishes diagrammatic river maps in the tradition of Harry Beck's iconic Tube map. Tube maps published by TfL since 2000 denote river interchange stations with a boat symbol.


The service patterns advertised by TfL can vary according to season. They are divided into three main types:[20]

Commuter services

A commuter boat operated by Thames Clipper on the River Thames

These river services run to a timetable through the day with more frequent services during peak rush hour times. Most services run seven days a week, although some do not operate at weekends. Many operators offer discounted fares to Travelcard holders. The main lines of operation are:

  • Embankment - Woolwich
  • Putney - Chelsea Harbour - Cadogan - Embankment - Blackfriars

The catamaran-hulled vessels have on-board coffee bars, airline-style seating, are wheelchair-accessible and have bicycle racks.

Ferry services

The Woolwich vehicle & passenger ferry

In central London, the River Thames is narrow enough to allow it to be crossed by many bridges; further downstream however, the river widens and there are fewer bridge crossings. Two ferry services are still in operation:

Two other ferry services operate upstream in west London: Hammerton's Ferry and the Hampton Ferry. These services are independent of London River Services as they do not serve LRS-managed piers.

Leisure services

A tourist boat operated by Bateaux London Catamaran Cruisers on the River Thames

Leisure boats are aimed mainly at the tourist market; as they do not usually provide rush hour services, they are not normally suitable for commuting. Some boat companies run regular scheduled services, others may run twice daily, only on certain days of the week, or only during certain months of the year. Boats may also be chartered for private hire. Destinations are often tourist attractions such as the Tate Galleries or Hampton Court Palace. During the summer, the Scottish paddle-steamer PS Waverley operates tourist services on the Thames.[20]

  • Bankside - Waterloo - Millbank (Tate to Tate)
  • London Eye River Cruise
  • Multilingual Circular Cruise
  • Greenwich Sunday Evening Sightseeing Cruise
  • MV Balmoral and Paddle Steamer Waverley Cruises from Tower Pier
  • Richmond - Kingston - Hampton Court
  • Tilbury/Gravesend - Greenwich
  • Westminster - Kew - Richmond - Hampton Court
  • Westminster - St Katharine's Hop-on, Hop-off circular service
  • Westminster - Waterloo - Tower - Greenwich
  • Westminster - Greenwich - Barrier Gardens


Scheduled tourist and commuter services on the river are operated by a number of private companies, including:[20]

Operator Services External link
London Eye River Cruise (operated by Thames Clipper) tourist service [2]
Bateaux London tourist [3]
Crown River Cruises tourist [4]
Lower Thames and Medway Passenger Boat Company tourist [5]
London Borough of Greenwich Woolwich Ferry [6]
Thames Clippers commuter and tourist [7]
Thames Executive Charters commuter [8]
Thames River Services tourist [9]
Turk Launches tourist [10]
Westminster Passenger Services Association tourist [11]
Waverley Excursions tourist [12]
Thames Pleasure Cruises tourist [13]

Charter services, usually catering for large parties, are also available from these and other operators.

Operator Charter Services External link
Livett's Launches (Chris Livett) private charter [14]


An map of the main piers in central London

London River Services lists 24 piers on the River Thames in its publications, of which 8 are managed directly by LRS.

Millennium Piers

Millbank Millennium Pier - architect: Steve Chilton

In 2000, five new piers were opened with funding from the Millennium Commission under its Thames 2000 project, with a grant of £7,177,000:[21]

The new piers were provided to improve previously neglected travel connections on the Thames and promote the river as an alternative means of public transport.[22]

List of piers

Scheduled tourist and commuter services use the following piers, although no single service serves all the piers listed. The piers are listed in order going downstream:[23]

# Pier Services Nearest tube/train Destinations Notes
1 Hampton Court Pier [15] 12px Hampton Court Hampton Court Palace Managed by Turk Launches Ltd.
2 Kingston (Town End Pier) [16] Kingston upon Thames Managed by Turk Launches Ltd. Head office at this pier
3 Kingston (Turks Pier) [17] 12px Kingston Kingston upon Thames Managed by Turk Launches Ltd.
4 Hammertons Landing Stage 10px 10px 12px Richmond Richmond upon Thames
Ham House
Hammerton's Ferry, Turk Launches LTD
5 Richmond (St. Helena Pier) [18] 10px 10px 12px Richmond Richmond upon Thames Managed operated by Turk Launches Ltd.
6 Kew Gardens Pier 10px 10px Kew Gardens
12px Kew Bridge
Kew Gardens
Kew Bridge Steam Museum
7 Putney Pier [19] 10px Putney Bridge
12px Putney
Managed by Livett's Launches [20]
8 Wandsworth Riverside Quarter Pier [21] 12px Wandsworth Town Wandsworth
9 Chelsea Harbour Pier [22] 10px Imperial Wharf Chelsea Harbour, Sands End
10 Cadogan Pier [23] Chelsea
11 Millbank Millennium Pier [24] 10px Pimlico Tate Britain art gallery Managed by TfL
12 Westminster Millennium Pier [25] 10px Westminster Palace of Westminster
Westminster Abbey
Managed by TfL
13 Waterloo Millennium Pier 10px 12px Waterloo London Eye
South Bank arts precinct
Managed by London Eye
14 Embankment Pier [26] 10px Embankment
10px 12px Charing Cross
London Eye
South Bank arts precinct
Trafalgar Square
Managed by TfL
15 Festival Pier [27] 10px Embankment
12px Waterloo
London Eye
South Bank arts precinct
Managed by TfL
16 Savoy Pier 10px Embankment
12px Charing Cross
Savoy Hotel
Covent Garden
17 Tower Lifeboat Station [28] Only for use by RNLI lifeboats; not open to the public.
18 Blackfriars Millennium Pier [29] 10px 12px Blackfriars St Paul's Cathedral
Tate Modern art gallery
Managed by TfL
19 Bankside Pier [30] 10px 12px Blackfriars Globe Theatre
Tate Modern art gallery
Managed by TfL
20 London Bridge City Pier 10px 12px London Bridge HMS Belfast
London Dungeon
Southwark Cathedral
21 Tower Millennium Pier [31] 10px Tower Hill Tower of London
Tower Bridge
Managed by TfL
22 St. Katharine Pier [32] 10px Tower Hill St Katherine's Dock
Tower of London
Tower Bridge
23 Hilton Docklands Nelson Dock Pier - Rotherhithe Canary Wharf – Rotherhithe Ferry only
24 Canary Wharf Pier 10px Canary Wharf (DLR)
10px Canary Wharf
Canary Wharf financial district
25 Greenland Dock Pier 10px Surrey Quays Greenland Dock
26 Masthouse Terrace Pier 10px Island Gardens Isle of Dogs
27 Greenwich Pier [33] 10px Cutty Sark
12px 10px Greenwich
Cutty Sark
National Maritime Museum
Managed by TfL
28 QEII Pier 10px North Greenwich Millennium Dome
29 Barrier Gardens Pier 12px Woolwich Dockyard Thames Barrier Summer only
30 Woolwich Pier 12px Woolwich Dockyard
12px 10px Woolwich Arsenal
(both 600m approx)
South Circular
Woolwich Ferry only
31 North Woolwich Pier 10px King George V Woolwich
North Circular
London City Airport
Woolwich Ferry only
32 Woolwich Arsenal Pier 12px 10px Woolwich Arsenal
(600m approx)

Fares and ticketing

Different ticket kiosks for each boat operator

Unlike the underground and bus networks, boat operators have their own separate ticketing arrangements and charge separate fares which are generally higher than corresponding journeys by tube or bus. The only exception is the Woolwich Ferry, which is free of charge.

Oyster card is valid on most Thames Clipper services for single fares, offering a ten percent discount. Most boat operators offer discounts to Travelcard holders, as well as to freedom pass holders and students.

Ticket sales at piers are managed independently by the operators, and tickets are sold at separate kiosks with no facility for cross-ticketing. Many piers have a line of several sales desks, each owned by a different boat firm. Single tickets can often be bought on board the boat, but this is down to individual operator arrangements.

Some operators offer their own season tickets and carnets of single tickets. Thames Clipper, for example, offer a one-day Roamer ticket which allows multiple journeys within off-peak hours.

See also


  1. Transport for London. "About London River Services". Retrieved 2008-04-01. 
  2. ThamesClippers: Surf the Thames!
  3. Making waves | Society | The Guardian
  4. London Transport Museum (2008). "Wherry model". Online Museum. Retrieved 2008-05-13. 
  5. London Transport Museum (2008). "19th century London - On the water". Online Museum. Retrieved 2008-05-13. 
  6. London Transport Museum (2008). "19th century London - River traffic declines". Online Museum. Retrieved 2008-05-13. 
  7. Stephen Croad (2003), Liquid History - the Thames through Time, English Heritage, ISBN 0713488344 
  8. LCC steamers were supplied by a number of different shipbuilders: Thames Ironworks, the Glasgow shipbuilders Napier & Miller, J I Thornycroft of Southampton and Rennie of Greenwich - "Paddle Steamer Resources - London County Council". Retrieved 2008-05-19. 
  9. Exploring 20th Century London (2004). "A London County Council paddle steamboat 'The Rennie' at Lambeth Pier". Exploring 20th Century London. Retrieved 2008-05-13. 
  10. London Transport Museum (2005). "Paddle steamer "King Alfred", built 1905". Retrieved 2008-05-13. 
  11. Patrick McGowan (2000-10-12). "Ideas that don't go down the river". Evening Standard.'t+go+down+the+river/ Retrieved 2008-05-13. "One thing links every Thames transport scheme in nearly a century: failure." 
  12. Exploring 20th Century London (1998). "A conductor selling tickets on a Thames river bus". Exploring 20th Century London. Retrieved 2008-05-13. 
  13. "Hansard". Hansard, 8 Apr 1998 : Column 796. 1998-04-08. Retrieved 2008-03-30. "We expect a million people to travel by boat from central London. There will be new piers and new river services and there will also be a certain number of park-and-ride facilities." 
  14. 14.0 14.1 Transport for London. "About London River Services". Retrieved 2008-04-06. 
  15. Mayor of London - Transport Strategy - River
  16. Robert Lea and Jonathan Prynn (2003-02-12). "Commuter service sold down the river". Evening Standard. Retrieved 2008-03-30. "Andy Griffiths, head of TfL's London River Services division, said that the question of subsidy for commuter river services has thus far been thrown out by TfL on a value-for-money basis. 'The capital cost of the craft and the crewing costs are just so vastly out of kilter with other modes of transport on cost-per-passenger basis,' he said. The view within TfL, Griffiths added, is simply that the Thames will just never be suitable as a mass transit market." 
  17. "Making the Thames an easier option". Mayor of London/GLA. 2009-04-06. Retrieved 2009-04-14. 
  18. Port of London Authority (2008). "About the PLA - Safety". Official website. Retrieved 2008-05-16. 
  19. Transport for London (2008). "Design standards - River". Retrieved 2008-05-14. 
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 "River Timetable". Transport for London. Retrieved June 12, 2007. 
  21. "Thames 2000 Initiative". The Millennium Commission. 2000. Retrieved 2008-03-30. 
  22. Mike O'Connor, Director of the Millennium Commission (2000-07-13). "Ken Livingstone Opens New Millennium Commission Funded Pier". The Millennium Commission. Retrieved 2008-03-30. "The Thames is vastly underused as a transport system for London. Thames 2000 is contributing much needed new piers for London which will serve a new sustainable transport system and promote greater use of the river. Visitors and residents will be able to use the Thames to reach other Millennium Commission funded attractions such as the new Tate Modern." 
  23. "Riverboat service map and guide" (PDF). Transport for London. Retrieved June 13, 2007. 

External links

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