The Thames in London: meeting the challenges

More passengers, more freight, more recreation, more houseboats. The Thames is set for even busier times ahead.

Hosting the naming of the cruise ship Viking Sea; coordinating filming for Absolutely Fabulous; overseeing the University Boat Race; encouraging safe recreation on the river; preparing for the Tall Ships in 2017.

There are probably two words that sum up the PLA’s activities in the ‘middle’ district of the tidal Thames – variety and flexibility. And as all indications point to an increasingly busy river in the coming years, the PLA must continue to focus on safety, while balancing the needs of everyone with a connection to the Thames.

Thames fireworksRiver spectacle: fireworks display for cruise ship Viking Sea, named on PLA’s Greenwich moorings

“What came out in the Thames Vision was effectively more of everything – more passengers, more freight, more recreation, more houseboats,” says Mark Towens, harbour master (upper).

“We must balance all of this extra activity with the river as a finite resource. The big challenge is, how do we manage navigational safety with all of the extra business coming in? We are doing this in several ways.”


The PLA, in conjunction with London River Services (part of Transport for London), is undertaking a review of passenger services and timetables. Just as traffic light phasing and other controls keep vehicles moving on dry land, the aim of this review is to optimise traffic flow on the river.

“How do the boats move and when? What are the timetables like? For example, we discovered that there were four boats leaving Westminster Pier at 11am. That affects congestion and could impact on navigational safety,” says Mark Towens. “This work is being done as part of the central London capacity study.

We have also finalised and implemented changes to the way in which RIB operators work in London, including introducing ‘no manoeuvre’ zones, to ensure safety and reduce the extra amounts of wash created by RIBs manoeuvring.”


The PLA has introduced new regulations that allow ‘pushing’ of barges in central London, where historically barges have been towed (pulled) by tugs. “The practice of pushing barges ahead is widely used across continental Europe and it is what a lot of operators want to move towards,” says Mark Towens. “So we have updated our regulations, which were initially put in place when towing was the usual practice.”

Pushing barges is safer and more fuel efficient, he explains. “There is fuel efficiency when pushing because the wash goes behind the tug; and it is safer because you have more control and can stop more quickly.

“Projects like Tideway and the Northern Line extension are giving operators the confidence to invest in new equipment because of the amount of work in London. This is an opportunity for them to modernise their fleets, and we have supported operators in this by changing our regulations to allow for changes in technology and new ideas in towing.”

There are probably two words that sum up the PLA’s activities in the ‘middle’ district of the tidal Thames...variety and flexibility.

upper riverAlongside travel and trade, the river in London is host to ceremonial events including river pageants.


The PLA has produced a new recreational users’ guide, to help leisure users get the most out of the tidal Thames.

The river attracts thousands of recreational users, from stand-up paddleboarders to canoeists, rowers and motor boaters. The updated guide provides practical tips for safe navigation, and also includes points of interest, details of visitor moorings, important phone numbers and useful web links, clear maps and ebb tide flag warning advice.

The Rowing Code of Practice has also been completely revamped and is available online as an interactive PDF, and the PLA has also just completed a new Paddling Code of Practice.

Making headlines

The River Thames and its iconic landmarks are often in demand by filmmakers, and the PLA regularly provides coordination, advice, practical support and safety back-up for this sector. Recent films have included Absolutely Fabulous and the latest Transformers movie.

“This is something we are very positive about – it gets London on the map, promotes the river and encourages tourism and passengers,” says Mark Towens. “We provide moorings and support services to assist river operators who promote the Thames as a film set”

The middle district is also frequently used for stunts and promotional events, and the PLA and other operators on the river will support and advise on these and provide a range of services.

“This is our customer-facing side; what can we do to support that sort of growth? While still focussing on safety, we act as a facilitator to identify how we can make this work? It is about trying to find a way to make something happen, giving ideas and connecting people.”


In May 2016, central London hosted the official naming ceremony of the 228- metre-long cruise ship, Viking Sea, on her maiden voyage. The PLA’s moorings at Greenwich were again specially lengthened to accommodate the cruise ship; her sister ship Viking Star had called the previous year, setting a port cruise ship record.

“We were very proud that they chose London to name the ship. It was a great event and we actively participated,” says Mark Towens.

Easter 2017 will bring a whole clutch of high-profile visitors, as the Tall Ships’ Transatlantic Race starts on the Thames.

About 40 tall ships, including some of the larger vessels, are expected. Planning and preparation is well under way for the event, which will feature a ‘Parade of Sail’.

tall shipsTall ships are set to return to the Thames for the Rendez-Vous 2017 Tall Ships Regatta in Greenwich.

Saving lives

Suicide is the main cause of people drowning in the River Thames; and these sad stories make up nearly one-third of all suicides in London. The PLA and other organisations are working together to try to reduce these tragedies.

In 2015, the RNLI decided to undertake a review of its operations after 15 years on the river. The RNLI Thames Review project team also includes representatives from the PLA, HM Coastguard and Fire, Police and Ambulance services.

The teams are putting together a community water safety assessment for the tidal Thames, in order to establish a framework and recommendations for a community lifesaving plan. The focus is on landside prevention (such as fencing where appropriate) and education as Upper River much as it is about actually rescuing people from the water.

“It is about encouraging voluntary organisations/patrols to cover bridges and developing suicide prevention training for first responders, and we are also looking at a public safety awareness campaign,” says Mark Towens. “It’s really a package of things to prevent suicides. The Thames Review is a really good example of partnership working. While it is being driven by the RNLI, there is input from so many authorities and bodies.”

The review will also encompass event safety.