Safety, accountability, innovation

The Red Tape Challenge, a wholesale review of rules and regulations, is just one example of the way in which the PLA focuses on safety and efficiency.

If there’s something we can all agree on, it’s probably this: the pace of life isn’t getting any slower. Business requires quick and nimble decision-making; customers expect a rapid response; innovation is driving everyone to challenge the norm and embrace new ways of working.

For the Port of London Authority, the priority is to build on the expertise and experience of decades, including insistence on the highest levels of safety, while also seeking new efficiencies and being open to new technology and the opportunities it brings.

PLA Harbour MastersOn scene control – harbour masters on the Thames.

One part of this has been the PLA’s ‘Red Tape Challenge’, which has involved a review of all its regulations, rules, procedures and guidelines to see where these can be reduced and simplified – or even removed, if they are no longer required. And that is just the start.

“We are looking for a cultural change – in our own workforce and also in our river users, and that encompasses the safety aspect and also the business aspect, in terms of getting things done,” says chief harbour master Bob Baker. “It is all about accountability and responsibility.”

There are three points to drive forward here, he says – “and we have embedded all three into the way we work”.

Becoming even more customer focused

Making people accountable for their actions

Focusing on innovation. It goes without saying that the baseline is always ‘wraparound safety’, he says; but accountability ties into that. A reluctance to make decisions can have a knock-on effect on safety.

“So, our drive is to encourage people to be slicker, quicker, more accountable and more effective. The rise of technology in society is obvious everywhere we look. At the PLA, we are looking closely at technology in the marine and port industry, how this could impact on us, what opportunities there are, and how we can be ready.”

Allied to that is the issue of cyber-security. The PLA has been running cyber-security courses for its staff, and these have been enthusiastically received.

“Of course, the importance of cyber-security applies to home computers, banking and online shopping as well,” says Bob Baker. “Yes, cyber-security is a challenge. But we are providing the training, and our IT department is working hard to ensure we have protection in place.”

As an example, the PLA’s pilots are all equipped with tablet devices which they take onboard with them – these are highly secure and set up in a way that does not allow downloading of non-work related apps that could compromise that security.

Red Tape Challenge

In 2016, the PLA embarked on a wholesale review of all its codes of practice, byelaws and regulations – the purpose being to put them into a standard format, consolidate them and remove any that are no longer required.

However, this was not a matter of pulling long-forgotten documents out of dusty cupboards – a rolling programme of review has been in place for decades. The Red Tape Challenge was designed to take a more ‘joined-up’ approach.

The result? “It has gone really well and we have reduced the paper mountain,” says Bob Baker. “I would estimate that we have taken about 50% of the paperwork out and our new slimmed rules and regulations are now out to consultation. “This has all been done in-house by a small working group, and they did a great job.” The result, once finalised, will be a more harmonised set of regulations, with any complicated or possibly disjointed elements firmly removed. For port users and visitors, regulations that are simplified and easy to understand are also far easier to conform to.

Emergency response

The tragic events of 2017 clearly demonstrated how the River Thames can be at the centre of a terror attack or other incident, and also that the PLA can play a key role in any emergency response.

The Port of London Authority is already well established in the capital’s emergency response structure, working closely with the Mayor’s office, police and security services.

In the past year, the PLA has stepped up its emergency response exercises and training. And, specifically a new Marine Emergency Centre has been instigated – this is a dedicated room, which can quickly be staffed with a response team, at the PLA’s navigation centre next to the Thames Barrier.

“If there was an incident on the river which needed emergency response, we would run that incident from the emergency room, while VTS continues with the day-to-day management of the river,” says Bob Baker. “We are also continuing to work closely with the Mayor’s office and Metropolitan Police on security and resilience on the river.”

Resilience is a key word here. Millions of people’s welfare and day-to-day needs depend on a resilient Port of London and River Thames – for imports of food, fuel, paper, construction materials, raw materials and other daily requirements, and exports of household rubbish, tunnelling spoil and construction waste.

The PLA has clear emergency plans and a strong contingency plan in place. Two years ago, a specialist consultant reviewed the PLA’s emergency plans, procedures and command structure, bringing all of this up to date; this included a focus on cyber-security as well as physical response plans.

The increased focus on emergency training has come as a direct result of the newly written emergency plan.

Pilotage – more demand, more supply

Fifty million tonnes and counting...more cargo means more ships. More ships means a higher demand for pilots.

The Port of London Authority has been breaking records in terms of the tonnage of ships calling at its ports and terminals, and that has certainly put pressure on the pilotage system. More pilots have been employed, and there are more to come.

“We have had an ongoing problem with pilotage delays, due to the increasing demand, and we have been working to resolve that problem,” says Bob Baker. “For the past two years we have taken on 12 pilots a year, and we intend to take on another 12 in 2018. As a result, we are steadily increasing the number of fulltime equivalents, to keep pace with the increased business.”

In parallel, the PLA is working the software company Insiris, to create a program in which complex algorithms will assist pilot coordinators with the allocation of pilots to achieve the best and most efficient use of resources.

PLA PilotsSetting the course – PLA pilots guide over 10,000 ships to and from Thames berths every year

Much of this demand has been down to the success of DP World London Gateway, where the PLA’s pilots are regularly handling some of the world’s largest container ships, safely guiding vessels up to 400 metres in length, loaded with more than 18,000 teu, to/from their berths.

Recruitment is one thing – but bringing in new pilots can never be an overnight solution. Guiding some of the world’s largest, most unusual or most challenging vessels into and out of the Port of London demands an extraordinary level of knowledge and experience. The PLA’s pilots must be able to do their work in all weathers, in all tides, and at all times of the day or night. From the outer estuary all the way up to central London, the River Thames has its quirks – depths, tidal currents, jetties, piers and bridges.

All of the PLA’s pilots are highly trained, experienced mariners. But that is just the start. Although new recruits will be experienced senior officers, they start as trainee pilots and work their way up through the classes. “There is no shortcut to the top – training is detailed and thorough, and safety is paramount,” says Bob Baker.

A crucial factor in the training of pilots is the PLA’s highly advanced ship’s bridge manoeuvring simulator at Gravesend. As well as being used for actual training, this facility is also used for ‘mocking up’, planning and preparing for handling vessels in all kinds of conditions.

Two years ago, the PLA invested another £250,000 upgrading the simulator, adding a full tug bridge simulator. This upgrade integrated the latest hydrographic modelling, allowing trainees to learn the characteristics of the Thames from the North Sea right through to the centre of the city.

The simulator includes full engine controls, bow and stern thrusters, radar, ECDIS, speed logs, a portable pilotage unit, and Azimuth control device propulsion and steering. More than 70 ship types can be simulated and the variable parameters include flood and ebb tide, wind speed and direction, fog, rain and snow.

All of this is hugely important for a safe and efficient river – pilots have the chance to experience all kinds of ships, including tankers, container ships, cruise ships and car carriers, before they head out to sea, climb the ship’s ladder and take control for real.

The simulator is also invaluable for helping customers in planning new developments. They can check out new berth plans or see how new ships will handle on the Thames – sometimes when those ships are still under construction in the shipyard. This allows customers to adapt plans if necessary and reduce the risk of any unforeseen issues when the ship arrives in the Thames.

The PLA also issues Pilotage Exemption Certificates (PEC) to officers regularly bringing vessels into the port, and the simulator is used for PEC training and assessment. Specialist training is also available for ships’ officers, tug masters and pilots from other port authorities.

Planning, preparing, pioneering... PLA Vessel Traffic Services (VTS)

Vessel Traffic Services is all about keeping things moving – safely and efficiently – on the River Thames.

More than 10,000 large vessels make their way in and out of the Port of London every year; cruise ships, container ships, roll-on/roll-off ferries, tankers, bulkers and general cargo ships. Controlling and coordinating all of that traffic is like overseeing a 600 square mile floating, moving, multidimensional chess board.

PLA Bridge SimulatorTraining for the future – trainee pilots busy in the PLA ships bridge simulator

The PLA’s responsibility spans 95 miles of the Thames, from Teddington Lock, out to the North Sea. Currents, tides and weather ensure that the chess board is constantly changing. Vessels are coming and going from 70 different terminals and wharfs along the length of the river. Then there’s berth availability to consider, and pilotage and towage to coordinate.

The challenges will only increase as the Tideway project really gets up to speed in 2018, thanks to a combination of river-based construction and tunnelling works, and a significant amount of Tideway related traffic, including barges transporting tunnel spoil downriver.

Nothing is left to chance; the VTS team constantly looks ahead. That means predicting if there is going to be higher traffic levels and a risk of congestion on the river, and planning around this. It also means re-jigging slots if a ship’s arrival time changes. Everything is based on fact, and the VTS team work closely with the various terminal and wharf operators to ensure a smooth flow of traffic.

Time is definitely money for ship operators and efficiency is vital to avoid delays or difficulties. But safety of navigation takes top priority every time.

The PLA has two VTS Centres – the Port Control Centre in Gravesend and the Thames Barrier Navigation Centre in Woolwich. From here, the VTS area is closely watched and controlled, around the clock, every day, all year. Each VTS Centre is led by a duty officer with the delegated powers of the harbour master, supported by a team of VTS officers and shipping coordinators.

All the PLA’s VTS personnel are fully trained to International Association of Lighthouse Authorities (IALA) and Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) standards.

The PLA has a network of 18 radars, which provide the VTS team at Gravesend with a bird’s eye view of activity on the busy River Thames. There is an ongoing programme to switch the network across to solid state coherent radars.

The PLA is investing £1 million in a project to replace its radar at Northfleet, Kent. A new radar tower is being built on Tarmac’s site, which offers an excellent line of sight along two busy reaches of the Thames. Construction of the tower will be followed by installation and commissioning of the radar and communications equipment.

The PLA benefits from having its own highly sophisticated VTS simulator, which is regularly updated and expanded. This facility supports training and is also important in preparing and planning for unusual or particularly challenging ship calls.