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Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Aboard the Woolwich Free Ferry

Once a year the Woolwich Ferry ventures to Tower Bridge
for charity. Here is John Burns passing my Wapping
home and vantage point in July 2006
An often taken for granted part of the London transport system is the Woolwich Free Ferry which has been providing a link between Woolwich and North Woolwich across the River Thames since 1889.

Today I was given a very good insight and briefing into the operation of the ferry by our London River Services team and the current operator Serco.

The Woolwich Free Ferry is an obligatory link which has been provided, in turn by the London County Council, Greater London Council, the London Borough of Greenwich on behalf of the Secretary of State for Transport, and now TfL.

The three current vessels, John Burns, Ernest Bevin and James Newman were all built in Dundee in 1963. They were delivered under their own power and have been in continuous use ever since. There have been extensive improvements to the vessels during their life and there is a 5-yearly major refit which takes place on Humberside. The vessels are towed there. Usually once a year one vessel makes a charity trip to Tower Bridge but otherwise ply backwards and forwards across the Thames from 0610 to 2000 (with different times and service levels at weekends).

Although there have been various proposals for a different river crossing at this point the vessels and the attendant terminals are being upgraded to provide services until 2017. They carry 1m vehicles and 2.5m passengers a year.

The infrastructure and vessels were all built to very high standards and so remain able to deliver further service for many years to come. Their huge marine diesel engines operate at a very low level of stress (about a third of the maximum revs of the old reliable Gardner 6LX bus engine) so have a very long life and their Voith-Schnieder propulsion systems are maintained and refurbished by the in-house skilled maintenance team. One vessel can be positioned for maintenance and attention above the low tide level alongside the southern terminal.

The operation remains in the hands of numerous skilled Thames seamen and engineers, many of whom have worked for the ferry for decades. Indeed there are father/son generations working the service. The propulsion system provides incredibly precise positioning as the vessels dock and undock every few minutes. The pride and skills were very evident today when I saw them in action in the engine room and on the bridge of James Newman as we criss-crossed the Thames. A family of professionals all comfortably relying on each other to provide a safe and efficient operation. An unseen part of this vital transport link.

As with many areas of transport in London, the ferry goes about its work unobtrusively, and is only noticed when there is the occasional disruption.

From my vantagepoint on the bridge of James Newman, John Bevan
prepares to approach the North Woolwich terminal

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for highlighting this important but not well known facility. Could you persuade the programmers for the TfL Journey Planner to include it? I have just looked at Woolwich Hare Street to North Woolwich Free Ferry and it gives a 30 minute journey using two buses and the DLR, but no mention of the ferry. (A non-Oyster edit button would be helpful too).