A river runs through it

5th February 2015

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Paul Suff takes a trip on the River Thames to see how it is fast becoming an important transport route for the nation's capital city

Spanning 346km, from the Cotswolds through London to the North Sea, the Thames is the longest river in England. The Port of London Authority (PLA) is responsible for the tidal section of the river, from Teddington Lock to a strait in the North Sea, roughly between Clacton-on-Sea in Essex and Margate in Kent. This 153km stretch of river is now reprising its historical role as an important artery for moving people, goods and material, reducing vehicle traffic and congestion in the capital - helping to reduce carbon emissions and noise pollution, and improve air quality.

Inland waterway freight between terminals on the Thames increased by 62% to 5.3 million tonnes between 2012 and 2013, much of it spoil from construction projects, such as Crossrail and the Lee tunnel. According to Martin Garside, deputy director of corporate affairs at the PLA, that amount of freight is equivalent to saving 250,000 lorry journeys a year. The rising tide of freight being transported on the river continued in 2013. Just seven years earlier, inland freight amounted to just 1.8 million tonnes, albeit a 15% increase on 2005. People too are increasingly using the river to commute, with Transport for London (TfL) reporting in February 2014 that passenger numbers in the first year of the river action plan - published in 2013 by London mayor Boris Johnson and TfL - were a record 8.5 million.

Building up traffic

The Greater London Authority's London plan sets out a strategy for greater use of the river and the PLA forecasts that freight transport on the Thames in London will increase substantially over the next 10 years, primarily owing to a commitment by infrastructure projects to maximise use of the waterway. There is mounting evidence that large construction projects are helping to fuel the renaissance in the river being used to transport goods and materials.

The Crossrail project is one example. the environmentalist reported in July 2014 how the new rail link between Heathrow and Reading in the west with Abbey Wood and Shenfield in the east involves boring 42km of new tunnels beneath London. Around 4.5 million tonnes of material was excavated during the tunnelling operations. Some was taken by barge or ship to Wallasea Island, eight miles north of Southend-on-Sea, which the RSPB is transforming into 1,500 acres of tidal wildlife habitat. Veolia's Pitsea landfill facility at Holehaven Creek (see panel, p.25) also received shipments, helping to transform the site into high-quality land for public access and a chalk-grassland habitat. Excavated gravel was taken to a washing and grading centre at Tilbury for separation, with larger aggregate sold to the construction industry and finer graded material used in landfill restoration.

When Crossrail signed a memorandum of understanding with the PLA in 2009 to confirm its commitment to use barges and ships along the Thames to move excavated materials, it estimated that river transport would remove up to 500,000 lorry journeys from the roads. The river has also been used to ship in concrete rings, the segments used to construct the tunnel. One barge can typically carry the same 1,150 rings as 82 articulated lorries.

Construction of the 6.4km Lee tunnel in Newham, which will help prevent more than 16 million tonnes of sewage mixed with rainwater overflowing into the River Lee each year by capturing it and transferring it to Beckton sewage treatment works, started in 2010 and is due to be completed this year. In parts, it is the deepest tunnel ever constructed in London. All spoil - up to 1.7 million tonnes - produced by the tunnelling is being removed by barge. Tanya Ferry, environment manager at PLA, says the work has brought barge traffic on Bow Creek in east London back to 1960s levels. The moving of spoil and materials for the tunnel was a planning condition secured by the PLA, and Ferry says the authority worked with Thames Water to ensure the utility firm meets its obligations. The Lee tunnel will eventually link, at Abbey Mills, with the Thames Tideway tunnel. This will involve around 130,000 tonnes of material being shipped in via Bow Creek.

The next big construction projects that are likely to use the river extensively are Thames Water's Tideway tunnel and the regeneration of Nine Elms, the area on the south bank that includes the redundant Battersea power station. Ferry reports that the Tideway tunnel is set to be the biggest single project on the river over the next 10 years and the largest since the construction of Bazelgette's sewer system in the 19th century. Many of its construction sites are close to the river and there will be a significant increase in barge movements carrying tunnelling spoil from and building materials to the sites. The planning statement by Thames Water that accompanies its application for the site of the main tunnel boring operations illustrates the extent to which the river will be used to move materials during the construction of the tunnel.

Under the plans, the main tunnel will be bored in two directions simultaneously from the Kirtling Street site in Wandsworth. Thames Water says at least 90% of material excavated from the main tunnel, as well as the sand and aggregates imported for its secondary lining at the site, will be transported by river. The water company anticipates that 1,000-tonne barges will be used and there will be eight barge movements a day over three years associated with main tunnel construction. Thames Water forecasts that the barges will avoid 90,250 heavy goods vehicle visits (180,500 movements) on the local road network around the site.

Work has already started on transforming the Nine Elms area, which includes the extension of the Northern Line underground route and construction of a pedestrian bridge over the river.

The initial work is making use of the river for transport. In October 2014, for example, work started on dismantling the two listed cranes on the riverside jetty at the power station, which stopped generating electricity in 1983. The crane parts will be taken by barge to the Port of Tilbury for storage before restoration and, in 2017, will be put back in place. Their removal, meanwhile, enables the jetty to be used for removing spoil from the Northern Line extension tunnelling work by river rather than road.

Expanding existing operations

Much of the capital's waste has long been transported on the river and there are four waste transfer stations along its banks between Wandsworth and the Thames Barrier. One is Cringle dock at Battersea, which handles, on average, more than 250,000 tonnes of waste a year. This waste is transferred by barge to an energy-from-waste facility at Belvedere. The City of London Corporation also sends its waste to Cory Environmental's site at Belvedere by river from Walbrook Wharf near Cannon Street Station. This amounted to 58,577 tonnes in 2013/14. The corporation says this was the largest quantity since 2007/08.

In its evidence to the mayor's 2012 review of London's wharves, the corporation described Walbrook as an essential part of the infrastructure in managing the city's waste, contributing to reductions in road traffic in the capital, and helping to reduce airborne pollutants and carbon emissions.

Aggregates are the other main staple of freight traffic on the Thames. Aggregate Industries, Cemex, Hanson and Lafarge are among the major aggregate companies with riverside operations that move material via the Thames. Aggregate Industries says it is committed to using the river for transporting freight and operates a fleet of tugs and barges through its Bennett's Barges division, moving dry bulk loads from Robins Wharf in Northfleet, Kent. During the redevelopment of Blackfriars station, which spans the river, Bennett's assisted in moving more than 80,000 tonnes of material to and from the site. Hanson operates three riverside facilities. Around 600,000 tonnes of marine sand and gravel are landed each year at its Dagenham wharf and taken by barge to ready-mix concrete plants at Greenwich and Wandsworth.

Several operators on the Thames are expanding their fleets as more freight is moved on the river. The PLA reported last year that four operators - Bennett's Barges, GPS, S Walsh and Thames Shipping - had collectively invested more than £15 million in their fleets since 2012. A new tug, SWS Breda, joined the marine management services division of construction business S Walsh, while Thames Shipping added a second vessel in 2013 to meet demand for transporting aggregates. Walsh reports moving up to 10,000 tonnes of bulk cargo material each day by river, which is equivalent to taking about 450 HGVs a day off London's roads. GPS Marine, meanwhile, has invested in larger barges. Barge 2801, which entered service in December 2014, holds 2,830 tonnes of cargo and is the largest on the Thames.

Another area set for further expansion is passenger traffic. The mayor of London, Boris Johnson, and TfL committed in 2013 to doubling passenger journeys on the Thames to 12 million a year by 2020. The 8.5 million passengers using river transport in the 12 months to February 2014 shows that the 2020 target is achievable, says Ferry. Work by TfL estimates that, by 2031, a further 100,000 homes will be built in growing riverside areas. For this, new piers are planned by 2020 at, for example, Battersea power station (as part of the Nine Elms regeneration) and, to the west at Plantation wharf and at the Thames Gateway in the east.

Figures from the river bus service Thames Clippers highlight the growth in passenger numbers. The service started as a one-boat operation in 1999, carrying 21,000 passengers in its first year. It now operates 14 vessels and annual passenger numbers were projected to reach 3.6 million by the end of last year, compared with 3.3 million in 2013. To meet the rising demand a new boat is being added to the service in 2015.

Rising tide

Ferry says expanding the Thames as a freight thoroughfare into the capital is largely dependent on safeguarding wharves from developers and bringing redundant sites back into operation. A policy to protect selected wharves for cargo handling in London transferred to the mayor in 2000. Twenty-five wharves are protected upriver of the Thames Barrier and 25 downstream. A review of the policy in 2012 included recommendations on addressing a deficit or surplus in wharf capacity in different regions along the Thames and reactivating several vacant wharves.

In October 2014, the transport secretary confirmed PLA's application to buy Orchard wharf in Tower Hamlets, east London. The wharf has been unused for more than 15 years and the case for its compulsory purchase was made at a public inquiry in 2013. The planning inspector said the PLA demonstrated that Orchard wharf was navigationally viable and well placed to supply London's construction sector. The planning application forecasts that the wharf could eventually handle 350,000 tonnes of aggregates and 260,000 tonnes of cement powders each year.

According to the Inland Waterways Association (IWA), moving freight by water has significant environmental benefits. It cites data from the European commission indicating that CO2 emissions (gram per tonne-km (CO2g/t-km)) from transporting freight on inland waterways is 40-66 CO2g/t-km compared with 207-280 CO2g/t-km by road. The IWA also says that waterway transport emits negligible noise compared with road transport and that waterways use less land. Well-designed waterways may also provide opportunities for landscape enhancement, wildlife conservation, recreation, pedestrian access, land drainage, flood protection, water transfer and hydropower generation, it argues.

“The tidal Thames is the busiest inland waterway in the UK for freight and passengers, accounting for more than 70% of all materials moved on waterways in the country,” says Ferry. “Moving bulk materials by barge is a far more energy-efficient and less environmentally damaging mode of transport than either rail or road.” She cites research by the US Environment Protection Agency to back up her assertion. The agency found, for example, that an inland barge transporting one tonne of bulk liquid would travel 514 miles on one gallon of fuel. The figures for rail and road were 202 and 59 miles, respectively.

Ferry also points out that, on a tidal river like the Thames, moving with the tide provides up to five miles an hour of free energy. “The tides are highly predictable so it is easy to take advantage of this benefit.”

Working on the river

The Port of London Authority (PLA) is primarily responsible for navigational safety on the tidal Thames, and for promoting use of the river and safeguarding its marine environment. As a harbour authority, the PLA regulates work on the river. It is also a significant landowner, including sites of high value for nature conservation and biodiversity.

Environment manager Tanya Ferry explains that the river and estuary are home to hundreds of thousands of wintering birds every year, 129 species of fish, four special protection areas and eight sites of special scientific interest (SSSI). Holehaven Creek at Pitsea is an SSSI because it supports nationally important numbers of black-tailed godwits. The PLA is working with a number of organisations, including the RSPB and Veolia, to transport materials from London development projects - such as Crossrail - by barge to cap the Pitsea landfill site and expand the habitat. “The landfill site is due to close in 2017 and around 3 million tonnes of material is required to cap it,” says Ferry. “The barges deliver about 100,000 tonnes a month, which keeps over 400 lorries off the road.”

One of the PLA's environmental stewardships activities is the removal of driftwood, which can be a hazard to navigating vessels, particularly those travelling at high speed. A series of floating “litter traps” are stationed along the Thames to collect floating debris, with harbour launch crews also removing large-pieces such as timber. Ferry says the PLA works closely with other regulators, including the Environment Agency, Natural England and the Marine Management Organisation. The agency and Natural England, for example, are members, as is the PLA, of the Dredging Liaison group. The group ensures that dredging operations on the tidal Thames, which are necessary to maintain navigational channels and remove obstructions to navigation, are performed in an environmentally responsible way.

The PLA's hydrographic team monitors the natural movement of sediment along the river so that build-ups in specific locations can be tackled to ensure ships can use the Thames without difficulty. The team uses several catamarans equipped with high-resolution multi-beam echo sounders to survey the river bed. Ferry says such activity helps the PLA manage the river in a more sustainable way, as the information will ensure it dredges only when and where necessary.


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