Guess how many commute by boat?

Tuesday 15th September 2020

When I checked out the new Uber Boat brand for Thames Clipper’s service along the River Thames a few weeks ago, I noticed the journeys in the timetable specifically aimed at commuters and thought it would be a good idea to give them a try out during these ‘capacity constrained peak hour busy buses, trains and Underground’ Covid times. Another glorious late summer weather forecast for this morning seemed a good opportunity to head up to London earlier than usual and take a sail along the Thames and see how many others were doing likewise.

Journeys numbered RB6 and coloured yellow are the ones aimed at commuters. They serve the River’s West and Central zones at roughly 30 minute intervals between during extended morning and afternoon/evening peaks with some journeys continuing into the East zone.

There are six morning departures from Putney Pier. The first two (07:00 and 07:30) go as far as east as Surrey Quays the next two (08:05 and 09:00) terminate at the previous pier at Canary Wharf, while the last two (09:40 and 10:15) go further, to North Woolwich. All RB6 journeys stop at every pier as far as Vauxhall and then skip piers just stopping at the commuter hot spots at Embankment, Blackfriars and London Bridge.

I decided to take the 08:05 from Putney Pier to Canary Wharf with a journey time of 74 minutes.

I arrived in good time at Putney Pier about 07:35 and as the 07:30 sailing had not long departed, unsurprisingly no-one else was around. The pier isn’t manned and has a gate at street level which is locked shut with a red traffic light just to emphasis you’re not allowed down to river level.

There are details of tickets, a timetable and a ticket machine available as well as a ‘real time departure screen’ at street level.

The first passenger arrived about 07:50 and waited by the closed gate. Shortly after, a novice passenger arrived with her partner checking all the information out and deciding she would give the River boat a try out as her partner headed back home.

At just before 08:00 the smart looking Uber Boat branded vessel came into view under Putney Bridge, the gate automatically unlocked, the traffic light turned to green and within a couple of minutes it had moored and we were boarding. That’s all eleven of us. It was intriguing to see most passengers had timed their arrival to within a minute of the boat arriving and the body language told me they were all committed regulars – other than the aforementioned female novice, like me.

I tapped my Oyster card on the reader which at Putney is sited some distance from the boarding point so the staff onboard who supervise boarding have to take it on trust you have indeed tapped in. The cheapest way to travel for single journeys is to use Oyster or contactless (or buy a ticket online or through the Uber app) – these attract up to a 26% discount compared to buying a ticket from the ticket machines or from a ticket office where available.

We cast off (is that the right term?) at precisely 08:05 and headed east along the absolutely still and beautifully calm River Thames with the sun shining brightly ahead of us on a glorious morning. What a wonderful way to begin your daily commute.

Seven minutes later we’re mooring up at the first pier at Wandsworth where 15 passengers board in an orderly single file. It takes less than a minute and we’re off again heading towards the next pier called Plantation, seven minutes further on, where four more come on board.

I notice just how smooth the ride is and how quiet it is on board too. It really felt a relaxed and enjoyable way to be travelling through London, heading towards the City. Most passengers opt to sit at the rear of the boat outside of the cabin area.

At 08:24 we arrive at Chelsea Harbour and another six board while at 08:30 our final four board at Cadogan pier giving us a total compliment of 40 on board.

No-one was waiting at Battersea Power Station pier so we cruised gently by without stopping and pulled into the next pier at Vauxhall where our first passenger alights at 08:42 – a 37 minute journey from Putney. It would have taken just 12 minutes on an SWR train and cost £2.70 compared to £8.20 on the boat, but there really is no comparison with the pleasure from gliding along a calm river to arrive relaxed for the working day ahead.

We miss out the next three piers (Millbank, Westminster and London Eye) with our next scheduled stop, Embankment, the busiest for disembarkation with 15 leaving us at 08:53. That 48 minute ride from Putney compares to just 22 minutes on the District Line – but there’d be a better comparison using the boat if starting from Wandsworth or Chelsea Harbour piers as there are no direct alternative rail or Underground to Embankment, and especially if you live in one of the many riverside blocks of flats close to the piers.

Another 13 passengers leave us at the next pier, seven minutes further, along the River at Blackfriars (55 minutes from Putney – 26 minutes on the District line) leaving us with just 11 on board as we moor up at London Bridge City at 09:07. It’s now just over an hour since we left Putney. It would have taken 38 minutes with a change at Waterloo/Waterloo East by train or 30 minutes on the District and Jubilee lines.

We miss out Tower Bridge pier passing under this iconic bridge and once clear put our foot down (metaphorically) and open up the throttle to get us to our terminus at Canary Wharf on time at 09:19 where the final six on board alight, including our novice passenger. She’d have arrived 43 minutes earlier at 08:36 (using TfL’s journey planner) if she’d used the District and Jubilee lines or at 08:42 if using SWR to Vauxhall, Victoria line to Green Park and Jubilee line to Canary Wharf (using National Rail’s journey planner), but she wouldn’t have been able to work on her laptop for the whole journey as she was able to do on board the boat.

And the views wouldn’t have been nearly so good.

It cost me £8.20 for the single ride – Canary Wharf is just on the eastern extreme of the Central zone – using my Oyster card. A standard fare is £9 from a ticket machine. National Rail tell me the through fare via SWR and the Underground is £6.50 or just £2.90 for the entire journey on the Underground.

If I was a regular commuter it would be hard to justify the higher price; although Thames Clipper offer season tickets with attractive discounts. For example for my journey from Putney into the Central Zone a weekly season costs £52.50, a monthly £201.55 and an annual is £1,753.

A TfL weekly pay-as-you-go cap/Travelcard including Zones 1 and 2 is £36.10, a monthly Travelcard costs £138.70 and an annual is priced at £1,444.

Route RB4 is the ‘Doubletree Docklands Ferry which crosses the River Thames between Canary Wharf and Doubletree Docklands every fifteen minutes in the mornings and late afternoons. It restarted last Friday after a Covid break.

So there’s a significant variation in both price and time. But for quality of ride, there’s no better way to commute to work than gliding along the River Thames, especially on such a glorious calm and sunny morning as today.

It was good to see 40 people agreed with me.

Back to ‘depot’ after my peak time journey this morning.

Roger French

3 thoughts on “Guess how many commute by boat?

Add yours

  1. If TfL is serious about creating additional capacity to relieve over-crowded trains and Tubes (post Covid), why aren’t the fares more comparable? It must surely be more cost-effective than designing new lines (e.g.Crossrail2) or other infrastructure or rolling stock changes.


  2. I’m sure it’s a lovely ride on a nice day, but I wonder what it’s like when it’s blowing a gale and persisting down?
    It’d be interesting to know how many season ticket holders they have compared to pay-on-the-day travellers, and how many of those season ticket holders actually travel every working day. I suspect that if people can afford the cost of a Thames-side flat, they can also afford to have both a TfL travelcard and a riverboat season…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s as fine on a winters day as it is on a summers one, I can confirm. RB6 was my regular commute for a number of years (Wandsworth-Vauxhall usually, sometimes onto London Bridge) until, well, you-know-what back in March.
    It’s a glorious way to travel to work, worth every extra penny and pound from a quality-of-life perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

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