The River Thames: an untapped asset?

The River Thames should be an integral part of London’s transport network, but steps are needed to realise its potential. Ahead of October’s Global Engineering Congress, our roundtable report explores how a wide network of stakeholders can help the river become a sustainable transport asset for the capital.

Using the Thames for freight transport can reduce pollution and boost the economy.
Using the Thames for freight transport can reduce pollution and boost the economy.

The River Thames is an integral part of London's society already, but more could be done to make it an integral part of the economy. It's an iconic waterway, a tourist attraction, a hub of industry and a feature of daily life for many of London's eight million inhabitants. But it is not yet achieving its full potential as a productive infrastructure asset.

Transporting freight is one of many challenges that London's transport system faces. A modal shift of freight traffic from road to river will help reduce road congestion and improve air quality, whilst also supporting regeneration and boosting economic growth.

While a number of initiatives are already underway to open up freight capacity on the Thames, we need to do more, together, to stimulate real change. Our recent roundtable, held in partnership with Cory Riverside Energy, set out the opportunities and the actions needed.

Why use the river?

River-based transport offers a chance to reduce the pressure on London's road network. Road traffic congestion is on the rise, with delays for journeys increasing steadily each year since 2012, especially in inner London. Road vehicle emissions are also a serious issue, contributing to the capital's critical toxic air problem and around 40,000 early deaths per year. Shifting more freight onto the river would mean we can remove lorries and vans from London's streets, making them cleaner, safer and quieter for other road users.

One such example of an organisation that uses the Thames as part of its logistics network is the Thames Tideway project. Figures from the project demonstrate the extent to which river transport can alleviate pressure on the road network. Since construction started in 2016, using the river has meant that:

  • 439,000t material moved by barge (to June 2018)
  • A total of 55,568 lorry journeys avoided (to June 2018)

What's more, Cory's own use of the river to transport waste to its Energy from Waste (EfW) facility removes around 100,000 lorry journeys from London's roads each year.

Shifting freight onto the river would have an important economic impact too. It would help tackle the UK's estimated £15bn air pollution bill and provide London's businesses with a more cost-effective, environmentally-friendly method of transporting goods by avoiding things like congestion charge and ultra-low emissions charges. It may also be quicker, given the congestion on London's roads, speeding up the supply chain.

So what's stopping us using the river?

Currently, "blue infrastructure" such as the river is not truly considered a key part of London's transport system, by businesses or legislators. The policy environment is becoming more supportive of river use, but more needs to be done to translate ambition into reality.

One serious challenge is a lack of operational riverside infrastructure in London. The need for wharves and riverside access all too often loses out when commercial and residential developers embark on a riverside project, with road and rail access prioritised above that of the river.

Positioning logistical or industrial activity next to housing is generally viewed negatively. However, it is possible to balance the needs of commercial and residential stakeholders, as shown by the Cringle Dock development, where new housing sits side-by-side with a processing facility and cargo wharf. In order to be successful, a collaborative approach is essential.

The need for collaborative action

The Mayor of London's draft London Plan has recognised water transport as one of the most sustainable modes of transport for freight, while the Port of London Authority's Thames Vision has set out an ambition to double cargo on the river by 2035, as well as the number of commuters and tourists.

Clearly, the will is there, but we need a joined-up approach between policy makers and businesses to convert the will into reality. A transport strategy which recognises and supports the needs of all common river users could significantly accelerate progress.

Existing river users have a key role to play. They need to shout louder about the advantages that the river brings so that other businesses can see first-hand how beneficial using the river is, and legislators can understand the economic benefits.

With pressure on the road network increasing, businesses must start investing in their river infrastructure now to safeguard their future operations. Provision of more wharves and riverside frontage, with adequate connecting road and rail infrastructure, is also crucial.

Overall, a cultural overhaul is needed to realise the Thames' potential as a valuable transport asset. Progress is happening, but by working together across government, industry and commerce, we can accelerate the change and put London on course for a sustainable future.

Find out more

Read the full report from the joint ICE and Cory Energy roundtable.

Join ICE, Cory Energy and the world's infrastructure community at the Global Engineering Congress, 22-26 October 2018.

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