Thames Clippers is planning to add hybrid electric ferries to its fleet and has introduced new, environmentally friendly technology
Thames Clippers is juggling a range of focuses and objectives – from multiple electric ferry plans to boosting crew training and rolling out a new digital system.
At the time of this interview (April) with its chief executive Sean Collins, the UK is in lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, but that isn’t stopping the Thames River ferry operator from progressing with its plans.
Mr Collins says “While we are dependent on both the leisure and tourism industry and commuters, we are looking positively to the future ahead.”
Thames Clippers is involved in several initiatives to develop battery-operated ferries. Mr Collins singles out “the vision of the cross-river electric ferry developed four years ago that has finally been agreed to”.
The background to this is that while the Surrey Quays to Canary Wharf route has a Thames Clipper service, popular for both hotel residents and commuters, a study undertaken by Transport for London (TfL) and its cycling department signified the need for a cycle and pedestrian bridge. But Mr Collins explains the logistics and cost for such a bridge have proved to be challenging, so the ferry route has been branded the preferred option.
Battery ferry plans
This could see the single-boat service that currently offers a 10-minute frequency at peak times change to a three-boat operation of electric ferries delivering a three to four-minute headway at peak times. While Thames Clippers would operate the service, it would be provided by TfL. “The initiative has been taken over by TfL and it has engaged consultants to look at the viability of such a service. It is a positive example of where a bridge is not able to provide a solution to a river crossing in this particular instance.”
Mr Collins says he believes the ferries will be operational within the next couple of years.
And Thames Clippers is working on another electric ferry project. It is working with 123 Naval Architects and Wight Shipyard on the concept and delivery of a 220-seat high-speed hybrid vessel. The battery element will be in the same area as the emissions zone and charged by the boat’s own engines when the vessel is operating further down river at high speeds. It would also use overnight shore power.
Mr Collins says “We are developing this ferry because we are an innovative business that recognises the needs for the future. We are certainly looking to progress the electric model and this vessel will make significant inroads from a hybrid perspective.”
Thames Clippers is also a key part of a 2020 EU funded Horizons research and development project to develop a 150-passenger high-speed fully electric ferry. The project will conduct two studies for the same type of vessel in London and the inland waterways of Belgium.
Mr Collins expands “This is a research and development project to ascertain whether it is possible and direct us to how we can develop a zero emissions vessel. The Horizon 2020 ferry is fully electric but whether it can be operated in all environments remains to be seen.”
He says a high-speed fully electric ferry for Thames Clippers was more likely to come from a hydrogen fuel concept as the weight of the battery for a full-electric model would make it hard to take the weight of passengers as well.
Mr Collins says “We have looked into hydrogen fuel cells and it is all about having infrastructure from the land side interface to fuel the vessels.” He says while this is not ready yet, “it is something we are working with the authorities on”.
Moving to Thames Clippers’ current fleet, the operator has been using new, environmentally friendly technology. It re-engined its Hurricane Clipper vessel with a “very sophisticated” SCR engine. Mr Collins comments “It was a bit of a research and development programme to see how to take our new class of build to the next level and we will be using it within our new hybrid electric model. We have seen up to 70% reduction in NOx and SOx using it on Hurricane Clipper.”
Boosting crew development
Another key area Thames Clippers is focusing on is training and crew development. Mr Collins says “The areas we are focusing on the most is training and crew development. We have always trained people internally up to the level of captain and 80% of captains come up from apprentices to deckhands and even onboard customer service assistants. The career development plan from the beginning to fully fledged high-speed master is four years. We have appointed a full-time training manager who has been with the business since he started 19 years ago as an apprentice. He is now head of training and focused on taking training to a new level to satisfy future development plans.”
Elsewhere, there is a continual focus on infrastructure for the company. Thames Clippers purchased North Greenwich Pier this year, one of the biggest piers on the River Thames. Mr Collins comments “It will allow us to support aspects of our business and improve the customer journey. We have been using it for many years, it was originally the property of Greater London Authority. We have carried out the purchase with a property developer for the area and will give it a facelift with passenger and staff amenities, and ancillary support infrastructure.”
Thames Clippers opened a new pier last year, the Royal Wharf, delivered and funded by a local property developer, which has already carried 16.5M passengers during peak commuter periods.
Thames Clippers opened its own maintenance facility at Tilbury docks a few years ago. “It is working extremely well and is for our annual drydock and maintenance programme. We are currently carrying out major mid-life refit and refurbishment of Typhoon-class vessels there. We have a fleet of 20 vessels and deal with both unplanned and planned maintenance. We have a turnaround of boat movement through its doors every 1 to 10 days and it means we have much more control over our maintenance,” says Mr Collins.
Finally, Thames Clippers is launching a new digital passenger information system.
The company wanted a system that would consider the intricacies of the ferry operation, commissioning Hogia to create the system. It should be up and running in Q3 this year.
Mr Collins says “It is the best boat system for the ferry industry and customers see in real-time where the next boat is and potentially what capacity. For piers that are manned, our front line team have access to the system by iPads to have better information and customer updates. For unmanned piers, our fleet control centre will deliver messages to individual piers about any disruption or service changes. Customers can also sign up to alerts for their journey patterns.”
Snapshot CV: Sean Collins (Thames Clippers)
Sean Collins has been at the helm of MBNA Thames Clippers since the start of the business in 1999.
Mr Collins began his career aged 16 in 1984 when he was apprenticed to the Company of Watermen and Lighterman and is a third-generation Waterman. This includes serving as a Waterman to HM The Queen since 2008.
During his career on the River Thames, Mr Collins has worked as a captain on passenger vessels and tugboats. Mr Collins has also been a national rowing champion and represented Great Britain at an international level, including the World Rowing Championships.