Along the River Thames, terminal and wharf operators are investing, supported by the PLA as ‘Custodians of the tidal Thames’.

PLA Thames A river for many usesA river for many uses – commerce and recreation sharing the Thames

Confidence. One word that sums up the Port of London Authority, as it builds on more than a century of experience and expertise, and sets out clearly just how much can be achieved in the years ahead.

When the PLA launched its Thames Vision in 2016, one of its six goals was to achieve the busiest ever Port of London, handling 60-80 million tonnes of cargo a year.

But why stop there? Some goal posts are meant to be moved. 2016 was the year in which trade through the Port of London exceeded 50 million tonnes for the first time since 2008. The Port of London was confirmed as the fastest growing port in the UK – and by a significant margin.

“Our original goal was to be the busiest ever Port of London. We have shifted that target – our goal now is to be the top port in the UK in the near future,” says PLA CEO Robin Mortimer.

The Thames Vision was always about raising the profile of the port and the river as a really vital part of the infrastructure of London, the South East and the UK overall. The result has been a complete turnaround in attitudes. The message is hitting home.

“We are being consulted. We are part of the discussions about infrastructure. People have really listened. Our Thames Vision goals have all been embedded into the new Mayor’s Transport Strategy and Greater London Authority (GLA) goals, and that in turn has fed into the new London Plan,” says Robin Mortimer.

An important step was the launch in 2017 of the new Port of London Infrastructure Group, which brings together representatives of the 70 ports and terminals on the Thames and the bodies that influence the port’s success, including the GLA, Department for Transport, Transport for London, Highways England, Network Rail and the local authorities.

“We have never had such a group, public and private sector, acting as one voice for the port, discussing the challenges and what is needed to make it a success. Until we had the Thames Vision, we didn’t have something for people to coalesce around. In some cases, those involved are competitors – but it is worth working together. We want to be the biggest port in the UK; how are we going to get there and what is important to help us to achieve it?”

Passing 50 million tonnes once more was a major milestone for the Port of London, adds Mortimer.

“With major developments moving ahead along the river, including Tilbury2 and the expansion of Cobelfret’s C RO Ports London terminal in Purfleet, the Port of London is well on track for further growth,” he says. “We are also seeing steady growth in intra-port trade, especially as work progresses on the Thames Tideway Tunnel. Vital to this is the Thames Skills Academy, which is developing new accredited apprentice schemes for boatmasters. And, in line with our Vision, we are also working hard to increase the use of the river for sport and recreation.”

Overall, Robin Mortimer says: “Our goal is a smart, sustainable port.” He highlights two key areas of particular focus for the PLA as it moves into 2018 and beyond: air quality and digitalisation.

Air Quality

Towards the end of 2017, the PLA published its draft Air Quality Strategy – the first ever for a UK port. Following a consultation period, a final document will be produced in 2018.

The strategy covers the tidal Thames from Teddington Lock to Southend and aims to reduce emissions to air from marine sources, while also facilitating the continued growth of the port and the capital.

“Air quality is an environmental priority in the UK and has been identified as being one of the top issues for ports in Europe,” says Robin Mortimer. “The aim with this strategy is clear; we want to reduce emissions to air from marine sources on the Thames. By achieving this, we will also be able to meet the growing demand to use the river as an essential part of our transport network, whether for passenger travel or moving freight.”

The Air Quality Strategy follows on from the PLA’s Green Tariff, which was introduced at the start of 2017 and offers a discount on port dues for environmentally efficient ships. There are 19 proposals in the strategy, including exploring onshore power, trialling new emissions-reducing technology with MBNA Thames Clippers through the retrofit of engines, and running an ‘Expo’ to share the emerging best practice with Thames operators.

Pla - developments at BatterseaDevelopments at Battersea dominate the skyline as traditional Thames cutters race.

The baseline for the Air Quality Strategy was the first ever port-wide emissions inventory carried out on the tidal Thames and undertaken in partnership with Transport for London; the PLA worked closely with MBNA Thames Clippers, Cory Riverside Energy and Thames Shipping to gather and analyse real-time data and develop the strategy. A Five Year Action Plan will run from 2018 to 2022, to include continued research and studies.

Another key element of a sustainable future is the need to consider the move away from fossil fuels. Other ports are also talking about energy transition, says Robin Mortimer. “At present, fossil fuels make up 25% of our cargo volumes. We are considering a study into energy transition and what would replace that tonnage as we reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.”


Digitalisation has been described as the third industrial revolution; certainly, ports must embrace the digital world and find smarter ways of working, based on Artificial Intelligence (AI), data collection and analysis, and the options offered by the Internet of Things.

That’s not to say that ports are not already on the way; for example, 98.5% of all vessel calls into the Port of London are now booked through the PLA’s PISCES system. The aim, of course, is to retain and increase that.

“We are all getting to grips with the potential in new technology,” says Robin Mortimer. “For example, when we invest in the next generation of Vessel Traffic Services (VTS), we are considering a joint project to look at what a fully digitalised VTS would look like. That would be more exception reporting based, and certainly it could be more efficient and safer.

“What we do recognise is the need to move forward in line with the advance of digitalisation. Ports that get left behind will find it is more expensive to catch up. We are following and analysing developments closely.”


No port discussion can take place without mention of Brexit. As for the PLA, it’s a case of dealing with the uncertainty and being flexible in response to that uncertainty.

“We are working closely with our customers to make sure we are prepared for any changes that might be necessary as a result of the UK leaving the European Union – as well as capitalising on any opportunities,” says Robin Mortimer

Vessels readying to depart the ExCel Exhibition CentreNight time moves: vessels readying to depart the ExCel Exhibition Centre.

More Port of London...
Facts, figures and fantastic achievements

Along the tidal Thames, terminal and wharf operators continue to invest in new and improved facilities and equipment.

The Thames Tideway Tunnel, the biggest construction project in Europe, took a massive leap forward in 2017, with work starting in earnest at 19 of its 24 riverside construction sites. The first of six tunnel boring machines (TBM) required for the super-sewer arrived in November; 147 metres long and weighing a total of 1,350 tonnes when fully assembled, the TBM was brought into central London by barge. The PLA is playing a huge role in this project – supporting, licensing and enabling the construction, and overseeing the safety of all river traffic while this vast enterprise progresses.

The Port of London generates £6.4 billion GVA (gross value added) and total river-related employment is put at 140,000. River operators plan to invest more than £1 billion in their businesses over the next five years.

Ten million passenger trips are taken on the Thames every year. This is projected to double over the next 20 years as new piers and vessels are introduced.

Peruvian Wharf stands as an important symbol of the PLA’s drive to safeguard and reactivate wharves on the River Thames. Investment at the site during 2017 will lead to it reopening in 2018; Brett Aggregates will open a state-of-the-art concrete plant, supplying the local area and also major projects in the East London area.