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The Woolwich Ferry was closed at the weekend. Lack of staff this time. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who uses the service. Every day is a lottery. One boat, two boats, no boats. Some staff, angry staff, striking staff, no staff.

Transport for London (“Keeping London Moving”) admits that, since the hybrid electric ferries were launched at the start of the year traffic volumes have plunged by about a third. Turns out that lorry drivers don’t want to negotiate the congested back roads of Woolwich, north and south, just to find out that, yet again, it’s a lengthy wait or a U-turn back to Dartford.

Technical problems have been exacerbated by worker disputes. There have been strikes about pay, claims of racism – which operation Briggs Marine denies – and just the sheer weight and scale of the technical snafus. These have been made worse by the fact there are two boats when previously there were three – and consequently a spare.

There used to be an onsite workshop, but that’s gone, removing the ability for maintenance engineers to deal with problems swiftly. Not that the problems with the new-gen boats are the WD-40, big-spanner type.

What’s gone wrong with the ferry service?

Transport for London, which is responsible for the service, has admitted to a “significant number of asset failures” in the £20 million-a-piece ferries. The technology doesn’t really suit the conditions, said TfL London Rail director John Fox. The Thames is not a boating lake in Weston Super Mare, it turns out.

There are two main areas of difficulty, according to Polish shipbuilders Remontowa.

  • The functioning of the power management system which switches power from diesel to electric in the hybrid engine needs frequent adjustment.
  • The automated mooring system is struggling with the changing nature of the tide with sees a tidal range of 7.6m, heavy traffic and currents up to 5m/sec. The ferries are held in place with magnets and the tolerance on the linking mechanism is +/- 150mm.

Ferry good news at the start

It all started so well. People were worried the service would be run down when the three much-loved 1960s ferries neared the end of their working lives. The Mayor’s bright and shiny East London River Crossing strategy would distract from the discreet culling of the ancient link. (This strategy, lest we forget, begat the Silvertown Tunnel, which is currently the cause celebre of the capital’s environmentalists.)

However, in 2016 there was an announcement. Two new ferries had been ordered with hybrid engines, tackling noise and pollution, bringing the latest technology to a service that has run since 1889.

Cosy sentiment was further stirred when the ferries’ names were unveiled: the Dame Vera Lynn, after the centenarian war-time sweetheart and child of East Ham; and the Ben Woollacott, the 19-year-old deckhand who drowned after being dragged overboard in 2011.

But worries started to grow after the January launch date came and went. And when the jittery service eventually took passengers, it did so like with the reliability and sensitivity of a hungover Oliver Reed giving a piggyback.

Er, we’re sorry

The Mayor Sadiq Khan has apologised for the calamity since. TfL’s general manager of sponsored services Danny Price has said “it’s unacceptable”.

He added, “The Woolwich Ferry is an important part of London’s transport and we take its operations very seriously – that’s why we’ve invested in new vessels with much cleaner environmental standards and increased capacity.”

But the increased capacity argument has been somewhat undermined by the capricious schedule of the turn-up-and-go service.

People love the Woolwich ferry, so its ignominious plight feels more personal than any number of Crossrail convolutions.

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It’s one of the few things in London that’s free, peaceful, a bit of an adventure, truth be told; it offers majestic views west, avoids the choking congestion at the Blackwall Tunnel, and  it’s free (did we already say that?)*

But none of that matters if you’re parked up in an overflow lot in Woolwich keeping the engine alive to keep warm and trigger the windscreen wipers for your uninterrupted if forlorn view of terra incognita on the other side.

The service’s target is six crossings per vessel per hour leading to some 25,000 of these tricky mooring operations per terminal per year.

Mr Fox told a ferry conference that TfL had learnt its lesson: This rough, tough environment is not the place to trial unproven technology, especially with no contingency.

Well, duh.

*Post script

On the money side, there is further bad news. The free service is thanks to the Metropolitan Board of Works Act 1885. But the Silvertown Tunnel will herald a splurge of tolls across currently free east London crossings (to keep a cap on congestion, we’re told). The Silvertown report allows for “the timely implementation of user charges at adjacent crossings if required” – repealing or amending the 1885 Act.

Read more: Round-the-world yacht race to finish at Royal Docks