Woolwich Ferry

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Template:Infobox London River Services

The Woolwich Ferry (sometimes also called the Woolwich Free Ferry) is a boat service across the River Thames, London, UK, which is licensed and financed by London River Services, the maritime arm of Transport for London. The service is operated by Briggs Marine under licence from TfL and carries both foot passengers and vehicles.<ref name="BriggsMarine">Template:Cite web</ref><ref name="BBC-Briggs">Template:Cite web</ref>

The service links Woolwich in the Royal Borough of Greenwich with North Woolwich in the London Borough of Newham. It also links two ends of the inner London orbital road routes: the North Circular and the South Circular.


File:Woolwich Ferry map.svg
The Woolwich Ferry route

On weekdays, the ferry operates from 6.10am until 8pm with a two-boat service (10 minutes nominal interval between sailings); on Saturdays, from 6.10am to 8pm with a one-boat service (15 minutes nominal interval, and the last south-to-north sailing is 15 minutes earlier at 7.45pm); on Sundays, from 11.30am to 7.30pm with a one-boat service (last south-to-north sailing at 7.15pm).<ref name="RBGreenwich">Template:Cite web</ref> The ferries can carry lorries and other road traffic across the river, plus large numbers of foot passengers (licensed capacity: 500 passengers and Template:Convert of vehicles).Template:Citation needed


A ferry service had operated across the river at Woolwich since at least the fourteenth century, and cross-river traffic increased following the establishment of the Royal Arsenal. To enable movement of troops and supplies, the army established its own ferry in 1810.<ref name=Plumstories>Template:Cite web</ref> The following year, an Act of Parliament established a commercial ferry company, but this was eventually dissolved in 1844.<ref name=Plumstories /> In 1846, the Eastern Counties and Thames Junction Railway extended its lines to include a Thames wharf branch; eventually three steam ferries operated, but these still proved inadequate to meet growing demand. In October 1880 a public meeting was held in Woolwich to discuss establishing a locally-run steam ferry, but the cost was seen as too great.<ref name=Plumstories />

However, following the establishment of the Metropolitan Board of Works, which had taken over toll bridges in west London and opened them to free public use, it was suggested that the Board should fund a free crossing of the Thames in east London.<ref name=Plumstories /> In 1884, the Board agreed to provide the free ferry service, which was instigated by Sir Joseph Bazalgette using powers granted in the Metropolitan Board of Works (Various Powers) Act 1885. In September 1887, Messrs Mowlem and company were awarded contracts to build approaches, bridges and pontoons.<ref name=RoyalBGreen>Template:Cite web</ref>

The service was officially opened on 23 March 1889. Two days earlier the Metropolitan Board of Works was replaced by the London County Council (LCC); the LCC continued to operate the ferry until it was replaced by the Greater London Council (GLC) on 31 March 1965.

The three ferries in use today were built in 1963 and the current terminals were opened in 1965.

After the abolition of the GLC in 1986 the responsibility for operating the service was transferred to the Secretary of State for Transport, who contracted the then London Borough of Greenwich to run the service. Asset ownership and operating rights were subsequently transferred to Transport for London (TfL) on the establishment of the Greater London Authority, but the London Borough of Greenwich continued to operate the ferry on behalf of TfL.<ref name=yellff>Template:Cite web</ref>

In March 2008, the London Borough of Greenwich gave TfL notice that it would cease operating the service from 30 September 2008. On 12 September 2008 TfL announced that Serco Group would take over the operation of the service from 1 October 2008. The contract ran initially until 31 March 2010.<ref name=tflas>Template:Cite news Template:Dead link</ref><ref name="serco">Template:Cite web</ref> It was later extended until 2013 when Briggs Marine won a 7-year contract.<ref name="BBC-Briggs" />

Nearest alternative crossings

If the ferry service is not operating due to vessel maintenance issues or by being suspended due to fog, pedestrians can use the nearby Woolwich foot tunnel.

A Docklands Light Railway (DLR) station, Woolwich Arsenal on the south side of the Thames, was opened in January 2009 as the new terminus of the London City Airport branch. A DLR station near to the north ferry dock is King George V DLR station.

The nearest vehicle alternatives are the Blackwall Tunnel about Template:Convert upstream to the west, or the Dartford Crossing some Template:Convert downstream to the east but both of these tunnels have height restrictions for lorries, and users of the Dartford Crossing incur toll charges.


The first ferries were side-loading paddle steamers named Gordon, Duncan and Hutton (being named after General Gordon of Khartoum, Colonel Francis Duncan MP and Professor Charles Hutton). Each was powered by 100nhp condensing engines by John Peen & Son of Greenwich.<ref name=Rogers>Template:Cite web</ref>

The initial fleet was eventually replaced, starting in 1923 with The Squire (named after William Squires, a former mayor of Woolwich), and in 1930 with the Will Crooks (Labour MP for Woolwich, 1903-1921) and the John Benn (Sir John was a member of London County Council, Liberal MP for Wapping, and grandfather of Tony Benn).<ref name="Rogers" />

The current three vessels (built in Dundee in 1963 by the Caledon Shipbuilding & Engineering Company to replace the previous four paddle steamers used since 1923) were each named after prominent local politicians: John Burns, Ernest Bevin and James Newman (Newman was mayor of Woolwich, 1923-25). These ferries feature Voith-Schneider propulsion systems for manoeuvrability.<ref name="Rogers" />

Running cost

For the initial 18 months of their contract, Serco were paid £10.7 million to provide the free ferry service. This equates to £7.1 million per year. In December 2012 Briggs Marine won a £50m 7-year contract,<ref name="BBC-Briggs" /> again equating to approximately £7.1m per year.

In 2003, when the annual running cost of the ferry was around £5 million a year, the effective public subsidy per vehicle crossing was £4.Template:Citation needed

Passenger numbers

Template:As of the ferry carried more than one million vehicles and 2.5 million passengers each year. Occupants of vehicles (including drivers) are counted as passengers.

Ferry patronage is still high for vehicles, but has fallen away to minimal numbers for foot passengers. At all times of day, but particularly at peak hours, it is common for vehicles to have to queue beyond the next ferry departure; regular users know the lengths of the vehicle queues, and when it becomes worthwhile to turn away to the Blackwall tunnel. Several rearrangements and improvements have been made to the vehicle queueing arrangements over the years, especially to avoid impact on other local traffic.<ref name="Waterways_presentation">Template:Cite web</ref>

The passenger deck is beneath the vehicle deck, and on crossings nowadays the very substantial accommodation provided, both seated and standing, is normally virtually empty.

For foot passengers, bus services converge on both terminals, on the north side there is a small bus station, but many cross-river foot passengers take the foot tunnel beneath the river, alongside the ferry route. Further competition arrived in 2009 with the extension to Woolwich of the Docklands Light Railway, which crosses under the river to the east of the ferry route.

Future of the service

Template:Update The ferry service currently exists because it provides an alternative river crossing for vehicles (especially lorries). As long as there is a demand for a vehicle ferry it is unlikely to be discontinued and in any case would require an Act of Parliament to do so.<ref name="Waterways_presentation">Template:Cite web</ref>

In 2004 planning applications were submitted for a new bridge, the Thames Gateway Bridge, close to the location of the Woolwich Ferry. However the project was cancelled in November 2008. If the bridge were to be built then it is likely that the ferry service would be withdrawn as it would no longer be required. A consultation is due to report in 2012 about the possibility of instigating a ferry service from nearby Gallions Reach, north of the Thames at Beckton, to Thamesmead in south east London, which may replace the Woolwich Ferry.


On 3 August 2011, a 19 year old ferry worker died after falling off the boat into the river Thames.<ref name="BBC-accident">Template:Cite news</ref> The MAIB report published in August 2012 blamed "unseamanlike working practices" during the unmooring operation for the death.<ref name="Standard-Accident-Report">Template:Cite news</ref>

In popular culture

"Hunter/Hunted", a 1978 episode of the TV series The Professionals, features a sequence shot on board one of the ferries, as well as external shots of the James Newman and John Burns crossing the river.

In "Strained Relations", a 1985 episode of the TV series Only Fools and Horses, the character Uncle Albert asks Rodney, played by Nicholas Lyndhurst, if he had ever been on board a ship to which he replied "Yes" but then added it was "only the Woolwich Ferry."Template:Citation needed



External links

Template:Crossings navbox Template:Transport in London