Thames Clip­pers CEO Sean Collins on fast ferry growth

CEO Sean Collins talks about the Thames Clip­pers and his plans to in­tro­duce fur­ther ferry ser­vices

The Wharf - - Canary Wharf - Jon Massey

De­spite grey weather and a sea­sonal cough, Sean Collins is in ebul­lient form when we meet. Trav­el­ling down the river from Ca­nary Wharf to­gether, the MBNA Thames Clip­pers CEO talks en­thu­si­as­ti­cally of growth.

His fleet of fast river buses, op­er­at­ing on a net­work that stretches from Put­ney in the west to Wool­wich in the east, have just car­ried their 40 mil­lionth pas­sen­ger – a mile­stone barely con­ceiv­able when he launched the busi­ness 19 years ago.

“When we started, I don’t think I en­vis­aged that we would reach 40 mil­lion pas­sen­gers,” he said. “I cer­tainly didn’t see the busi­ness grow­ing as much as it has.

“I al­ways knew that it was go­ing to be a big chal­lenge be­cause the his­tory of fast ferry river ser­vices was not that great, with many fail­ures.

“How­ever, we took a slightly dif­fer­ent ap­proach and were pre­dom­i­nantly fo­cussed on the cor­po­rate sec­tor of Ca­nary Wharf be­cause that was the ob­vi­ous ap­proach, with the vol­ume of peo­ple the area was at­tract­ing.

“In 2006, AEG bought a ma­jor­ity stake in the busi­ness and con­tin­ues to re­tain that to­day.

“AEG ac­quired the stake to en­sure The O2 – the world’s No 1 en­ter­tain­ment venue for the past 10 years – would have other forms of trans­port to sup­port it in ad­di­tion to the Ju­bilee line, which at the time was prov­ing to be un­re­li­able.

“I’m pleased to say now it’s a very, very re­li­able line and as a re­sult of that, our busi­ness as­so­ci­ated with the venue is a frac­tion of our over­all oper­a­tion – it’s less than 2%.

“But AEG owner Phil An­schutz shared the vi­sion I had for the de­vel­op­ment of the Clip­pers and he’s sup­ported me 100% on that jour­ney, pro­vid­ing in­vest­ment in the boats where good busi­ness cases have been put for­ward.

“And here we are to­day, with a fleet of 17 large craft and an ex­ec­u­tive launch. We are re­ally pleased in the way the busi­ness has de­vel­oped, se­cur­ing a pier at Bat­tersea Power Sta­tion in 2017 and com­menc­ing that ser­vice in Novem­ber.

“That is go­ing to be a growth sec­tor for us in the fu­ture and that will al­low us to re­ally link up the east with the west in a way no other trans­port sys­tem does.”

In the im­me­di­ate fu­ture, ex­pan­sion looks like an 18th boat for the fleet, due in Fe­bru­ary, with a ca­pac­ity of 224 peo­ple but us­ing sig­nif­i­cantly less fuel than the cur­rent 200-plus ves­sels in ser­vice.

Then, in Oc­to­ber 2019, ser­vices are set to start run­ning to a new pier at Bal­ly­more and Ox­ley de­vel­op­ment Royal Wharf – the Clip­pers’ first stop on the north bank of the Thames in Royal Docks.

How­ever, per­haps of great­est im­pact is Sean’s am­bi­tion to roll out ferry ser­vices across the east, should an im­proved link be­tween Rother­hithe and Ca­nary Wharf come to fruition and be suc­cess­ful.

The idea comes in lieu of the de­liv­ery of a pro­posed pedes­trian and cy­cle bridge be­tween the two, which has won back­ing from the Mayor of Lon­don but has also been crit­i­cised for the cost as­so­ci­ated with its con­struc­tion.

“We have de­vel­oped a plan for an in­terim stage be­tween Rother­hithe and Ca­nary Wharf,” said Sean, 50.

“We can see the bridge is not go­ing to be with­out its chal­lenges in cost, de­liv­ery and timeline.

“We strongly sup­port the Mayor of Lon­don’s vi­sion for bet­ter con­nec­tiv­ity be­tween the south and north sides of the river all the way down that Thames cor­ri­dor to Thames­mead and Barking.

“We strongly be­lieve that the in­tro­duc­tion of a pas­sen­ger and cy­cle ferry en­hance­ment to what’s al­ready been run there for the last 25 years would be a very quick al­ter­na­tive solution that we could prob­a­bly mo­bilise in two years. “That would deliver the de­sired ac­cess the mayor wants for the area. “It’s an es­tab­lished ne­ces­sity and needs to con­tinue if there isn’t a bridge. “We’re say­ing we can sig­nif­i­cantly en­hance the fre­quency and the util­i­sa­tion of it. “The pro­posal we’ve put for­ward, in part­ner­ship with Beck­ett Rank­ine Marine De­signs, means the pier and land in­ter­face would work ex­tremely well with the ferry con­cept we’ve de­vised. “It will be a three-boat ser­vice that would deliver a ser­vice ev­ery two min­utes.” With an

When you look at our sea­son ticket prices and com­pare that to the train jour­ney from Wool­wich Arse­nal to Lon­don Bridge and Char­ing Cross, we’re cheaper Sean Collins, MBNA Thames Clip­pers

ap­pli­ca­tion for a new pier out­side The In­ter­con­ti­nen­tal Lon­don – The O2 on Green­wich Penin­sula, Sean be­lieves there’s am­ple op­por­tu­nity to roll out such a scheme fur­ther down­stream too.

“That ser­vice could be repli­cated at the tip of the Green­wich Penin­sula, be­tween Thames­mead and Barking and Da­gen­ham and Belvedere,” said the third gen­er­a­tion wa­ter­man and lighter­man, who founded the Thames Clip­pers af­ter a ca­reer in row­ing and as a tug mas­ter.

“There’s a whole growth op­por­tu­nity of iden­ti­cal ferry routes that will not im­pede nav­i­ga­tion or the height of ves­sels, that will al­low the river to func­tion how it’s de­signed to and will al­low con­nec­tiv­ity over the di­vide.

“The added ben­e­fit of the Penin­sula pier will be from a coach per­spec­tive.

“There are a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of events tak­ing place on a day-to-day ba­sis at The O2 as op­posed to just con­certs and with the level of con­fer­ence and ban­quet­ing that is tak­ing place there now, there is a need for con­nec­tiv­ity from cen­tral Lon­don that is seam­less.

“Unless we get this, where we can trans­port large groups from the City and the West End out to the east, you’re not go­ing to al­low that re­gion to grow as it should do. It will re­ally en­hance the ac­ces­si­bil­ity for cor­po­rate use of The O2 and the ho­tel.”

To help en­sure that fu­ture pros­per­ity and the con­tin­ued de­vel­op­ment of river trans­port, Sean said greater col­lab­o­ra­tion was nec­es­sary be­tween Trans­port for Lon­don, the own­ers of other piers on the net­work and the lo­cal au­thor­i­ties on both sides of the river.

“There’s a def­i­nite need for the ex­pan­sion of river ser­vices,” he said. “It can be mo­bilised rel­a­tively quickly and there’s rel­a­tively lit­tle in­fra­struc­ture.

“But it does need bet­ter joined-up think­ing be­tween the bor­oughs both north and south of the river, where they recog­nise the need to link up dif­fer­ent modes of trans­port.

“Royal Arse­nal is an ex­am­ple of that. When we started dis­cus­sions with the con­sul­tants there for their trans­port plan, it was al­most too late and they man­aged to re­ar­range things to ac­com­mo­date buses very close to the head of that pier. Un­for­tu­nately that was some­thing that didn’t come to fruition. There was go­ing to be a bus ser­vice and it’s a shame that never hap­pened be­cause that would have re­ally lent to the po­ten­tial in­ter­face be­tween trans­port net­works.

“When you look at the vol­umes of peo­ple who are us­ing buses to get into North Green­wich, to get onto the Ju­bilee line, there’s a limit to how many can. We could end up with an Ox­ford Street sit­u­a­tion on the Penin­sula at peak hours if we’re not careful. There’s an op­por­tu­nity for the river to play its part. We’re al­ways go­ing to need buses to feed in but the po­ten­tial vi­sion of the whole net­work is dras­ti­cally needed for the fu­ture vi­sion of the east.

“And de­vel­op­ers must think about river trans­port. The likes of Green­land and Mast house Ter­race piers all came out of the vi­sion of the Lon­don Dock­lands De­vel­op­ment Cor­po­ra­tion.

“If it weren’t for them be­ing there, Thames Clip­pers wouldn’t be here to­day be­cause we could never have af­forded to in­stall piers.

“We’re lucky we have the likes of Bat­tersea Power Sta­tion, Berke­ley Homes and Bal­ly­more and Ox­ley, which have com­mit­ted out of the pri­vate sec­tor to put in piers.

“They are sup­port­ing the fu­ture of river trans­port in Lon­don. They don’t need to be do­ing it but they’re do­ing it be­cause they’re place­mak­ing.”

And for those scep­ti­cal of the cost of tak­ing a boat, Sean had a very sim­ple mes­sage.

“When you look at our sea­son ticket prices and com­pare that to the train jour­ney from Wool­wich Arse­nal to Lon­don Bridge and Char­ing Cross, we’re cheaper,” he said. “We are more ex­pen­sive on a daily ticket and Oys­ter but, that said, we’re not sig­nif­i­cantly more, even though we don’t re­ceive a sub­sidy on the ma­jor­ity of our routes.

“I be­lieve we pro­vide great value for money – ev­ery­body gets to have a seat. You’re not crammed in so there has to be a bit of a pre­mium for that lux­ury.”

Sip­ping a freshly made cof­fee from the on-board li­censed bar as I glide back to Ca­nary Wharf, it’s clear what he’s talk­ing about. Go to thamesclip­pers.com

Sean Collins, CEO of MBNA Thames Clip­pers, is proud of his fleet of speedy river buses and has plans to ex­pand fur­ther

PA­TRICK STRAUB

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