The invisible extras

Connecting, diving, tracking, reporting – you may see none of them, but the PLA’s marine operations are the bedrock of the port’s success.

PLA Marine ServicesTowering success – the new radar tower at Northfleet takes shape

It’s easy to take things we don’t notice for granted – and the ‘invisible’ services provided by the PLA behind the scenes might fall into that category.

You might be a mariner depending on tidal windows and receiving guidance from Vessel Traffic Services (VTS); you might be a member of the public accessing information on tomorrow’s tides. What you don’t see is the tide gauges in place along the river, their maintenance and monitoring, and the communication links that feed information back to Port Control and enable the hydrographic team to compile highly accurate tide predictions.

You might be aware of some of the PLA’s 19 radar sites feeding back to the two navigation centres. What you don’t see is the ‘electronic string’, whether microwave links, data cables or broadband links, delivering that information.

You might know that vessels being used for the Tideway project are mooring up in new places along the river. What you may not have seen is the PLA’s teams putting in the new moorings or the PLA’s divers checking out underwater structures.

You might know that plans for the new Thames crossing are moving ahead. What you may not be aware of is that the PLA’s professionals have been providing expert advice and data to support the design and location decisions. You might have noticed a major refurbishment project at the Savoy Pier; but did you notice the PLA’s divers and hydrographic team carrying out the support work?

“We are responsible for the things people don’t normally see,” says Peter Steen, the PLA’s director of marine operations. “Another example is our work to implement an Asset Management system, which is part of a wider ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) development.

It might not sound particularly exciting, but measuring and analysing all of our assets, including buildings and vessels, radar towers and radars, lighthouses and beacons, and even the river bed itself, is allowing us to track the whole life of those assets, to deliver the best possible efficiency and cost- effectiveness.”

All the information gathered is fed into the Asset Management system; this produces work orders and schedules and enables the marine operations team to track and analyse how much is spent in maintaining and running each piece of kit or on surveying and dredging a particular section of the river bed.

Hybrid cutter

The big, and very visible, news for marine operations will be the delivery of the 13.6-metre pilot cutter, named Leader . Being built by Goodchild Marine at Great Yarmouth, the Leader will transport pilots boarding and landing at Gravesend Reach, and for cross-river transfers.

But guess what: the casual observer might not notice what’s really important about this vessel – it’s clean and green.

The Leader is one of the world’s first hybrid powered pilot cutters and will ‘plug in’ at Royal Terrace Pier. It will replace the Patrol, one of the PLA’s older vessels, and instantly reduce the PLA’s carbon emissions by 10%.

Looking ahead

London River House, the PLA’s main office building at Gravesend, will undergo a £3 million refurbishment in 2019. The work will include replacing wiring, heating and air conditioning. “We will focus on making the building more energy-efficient and more environmentally friendly,” says Peter Steen.

New VHF and new radar display systems are being planned for VTS.

An upriver maintenance gang will start work in 2019. They will concentrate on rebuilding revetments on the river bank, keeping vegetation cut back, looking after steps and stairs and ensuring safety of access. All of this work increases safety and access for rowers and other leisure users of the river, and for people walking along the river bank.

Seek and you will find

The PLA’s teams deliver plenty of other hidden extras. Steps and stairs cleared of undergrowth; lights that work; Central London cruise moorings maintained; a recently installed 70-tonne capacity boatlift at Denton Wharf.

The team is responsible for the safe working of 44 navigational buoys, 19 light beacons and a lighthouse. “It is just assumed that they all work. But all of these have to be checked in the background – that is part of what we do,” says Peter Steen.

Major projects in 2018

The construction of the new Northfleet radar tower was completed. The new tower incorporates a spiral staircase – much safer for maintenance staff than ladders, it’s a hidden safety feature.

An engine-monitoring system is now in place on all major vessels that will help the PLA’s engineers remotely check on the performance of the engines. This will allow them to look for early signs of problems or drop-off in performance and greatly assist in the drive to deliver maximum efficiency.

A new six-seater aluminium dory has joined the PLA fleet. Named Ray, after the Thames tributary, the vessel will become a familiar site in central London working with the rest of the Driftwood fleet keeping the river clean and safe to navigate.

“We work very closely with the environmental charity Thames21 helping them remove tonnes of debris from the foreshore every year and the Ray will help our crews in this y important work,” say Peter Steen.

PLA DiversThe PLA’s divers provide an essential service.