Most missions are possible

Peter Rabbit, floating football or the delivery of several giant tunnel boring machines? Just a few elements in the balancing act that must be achieved in the ‘middle’ district of the tidal Thames.

Is there anything that can’t take place on the Thames? The iconic setting of the river is constantly in demand as a backdrop for films and TV series, and for memorable marketing stunts and promotions.

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The past year has seen a stuntman jumping out of a six-storey building for the Jack Ryan series and filming for the newest Peter Rabbit and Mission Impossible films. An entire football tournament took place on a 400-seater floating stadium in August 2018, and plans are advanced for the Illuminated River project which will light up bridges in a unique piece of public art.

“We find ways to help people do things,” says Mark Towens, harbour master (upper). “Our focus is always on facilitating activities on the river, working with all concerned to resolve any problems while also ensuring safety.”

The PLA’s team overseeing the ‘middle’ district of the tidal Thames may not see the giant cargo ships that are handled further east, but what they do have is a highly visible stretch of river in the centre of the capital. There’s a careful balancing act to be achieved between the needs of cargo and passenger vessels, major projects, cruise ships, leisure users of the river, tourists and visitors, and, of course, those filming and marketing activities.

Dominating it all right now is the Thames Tideway Tunnel ‘super sewer’ project, which progressed rapidly throughout 2018; by the end of the year, no less than 12 marine sites related to the project were up and running, the first tunnel boring machine had started work, and barges loaded with spoil were making their way out of the capital.

“Through the course of 2018, our work with Tideway really intensified,” says Mark Towens. “For most of the year, this was around getting the marine sites consented and operational – the preliminary works before the start of the actual tunnelling.

“By their nature, all of these sites create restrictions in the river. Our job has been twofold – managing the work at the sites and minimising the impact on river traffic as much as possible. The key point is that there was always going to be disruption. You can’t dig up the M1 and say everyone will be able to carry on driving as normal – but you can minimise that disruption.”

During 2018, the project’s three large-diameter shafts were completed, ready for the tunnel boring machines (TBMs) to be lowered for operation. The first TBM started tunnelling westwards at the Kirtling Street site in November.

Looking ahead to 2019, Mark Towens says: “We will still have all the marine sites but the work in forming them will have been largely completed. We will, however, have the operational phase, with barges taking spoil from all three shaft sites – and materials such as tunnel lining segments arriving – so it will be the same level of challenge but a different type of challenge.”

The PLA has been working towards the use of ‘smart motorway’ signs on some of the bridge arches, to help ease traffic congestion under the bridges.

Suicide prevention

About 30 people die every year in river suicides in the Thames. But as well that, there are nearly 600 situations where a person is at risk, but ultimately a tragedy is prevented.

These are shocking figures, and the PLA is committed to preventing river suicides as a key part of its ‘zero harm’ strategy within the Thames Vision.

During 2018, the PLA developed a strategy for dealing with accidental and self-harm drownings, working with a number of partner agencies including the RNLI, police, ambulance service and others.

Part of this is ensuring support for a person who has been prevented from jumping or is rescued from the river. “A mental health nurse is now embedded with the police and can ensure that the person is not just left to go away without any support,” says Mark Towens. “They get the right type of care package put into place after the incident.”

The PLA has also engaged with the suicide prevention minister, Jackie Doyle-Price MP, and is working with local boroughs to persuade them to improve lifesaving equipment. Work is under way to survey all such equipment along the river, and this information will be fed into the PLA’s GIS (Geographic Information System).

“We will then be going to the boroughs to encourage those with poor lifesaving equipment,” says Mark Towens. “The boroughs have responsibility for providing this and we are in the influencing role.”

Reducing incidents

It goes without saying – probably – that the river can be a dangerous place. The PLA works hard with all partners and stakeholders to manage safety on the river and this work delivered a welcome reduction in serious incidents in the upper river during 2018.

“We have been taking the partnership approach. Instead of all partners picking up little elements that they are responsible for, it’s a matter of working together as a collective group,” says Mark Towens.

In particular, the PLA has been working with Transport for London, which owns the main piers through central London, to develop a risk register. With a Thames Vision target of doubling the number of passengers travelling on the river, the importance is clear. Serious incidents would include where people suffer minor injuries or there is significant damage to a vessel.

“If we don’t want to see a rise in incidents, we have to do things more safely just to stand still. If we want to improve safety, we have to go even further. That has been a big part of our focus over recent months developing this with the MCA, Metropolitan Police and TfL.”

Underlining all of this work is that word ‘partnership’. “We don’t work in isolation,” says Mark Towens. “We can’t deliver the Thames Vision on our own or ‘zero harm’ on our own. We need to work with partners and build good relationships – we are embracing and focusing on the ways in which we can pool our efforts to deliver our objectives.”

Illuminated bridges

Incorporating up to 15 bridges, from Albert Bridge to Tower Bridge, the Illuminated River will be the longest public art commission in the world, stretching 4.5 nautical miles in length.

The first phase is due for completion in the early part of 2019, when the first bridge will be switched on. The entire installation is expected to be viewed more than 200 million times each year.

“We are very keen on this project, which will improve the night-time economy of central London; it will provide an opportunity for a night-time experience on the river and it engages people more with the Thames,” says Mark Towens.

Floating football

A game of football on the river, anyone? Adidas decided a floating football stadium in the heart of London was the best way to publicise the launch of its new Champions League football and a selection of new boots.

Livett’s and the PLA worked closely on this one. First, a flat top pontoon was delivered by Livett’s from the Netherlands to the Port of Tilbury. The Adidas Football Creator Dock, a working stadium with a specifically sized pitch, was then built on the pontoon, and the completed vessel was then towed upriver to Butler’s Wharf Pier.

As Livett’s says, there were many questions regarding health and safety
and the stability of the vessel, especially given that a floating stadium of this nature was a first for the River Thames – but all questions were answered and more than 500 people attended the four-hour evening football event in August 2018. Livett’s also provided a safety boat and camera boat and the event was streamed live on YouTube.

The pontoon was towed back to Tilbury in the the early hours in preparation for the de-rig and then its return across the North Sea.

“This was a very challenging event in terms of how we managed it because it pulled together a floating structure and a football stadium – and there are plenty of regulations for both,” says Mark Towens.

“We had to understand what the situation was and ensure the safety of all concerned. As a result of working closely with Livett’s, the event went off really well.”

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