If you’re a Londoner, you could be forgiven for dismissing ferries as the stuff of rip-off tourist trips and one-time novelty outfits.
Despite various attempts by TfL and the Mayor’s office to make them seem like a credible option for commuters, London’s ferries are, at best, a bit embarrassing. They run vaguely and half-heartedly between Putney, Westminster, the City, and Docklands. A journey can set you back £7.20 if you’re in possession of an Oyster card, and £8.20 if you’re not.
They’re not exactly practical, either. A journey from, say, Embankment Pier to Canary Wharf for a morning commute – ignoring for a moment the fact that nobody actually lives at, on, or near Embankment Pier – takes 29 minutes via the RB1 route (River Bus 1, for those lacking in Holmesian deductive abilities). It’s a 21-minute ride via the slightly speedier RB6. The journey by tube takes 15 minutes.
It’s a pretty bleak picture: expensive, sluggish, and generically corporate without the blissful accompaniment of smooth efficiency. The last time a real-life human was heard uttering the words “My morning commute is so quick and easy I just hop on the RB3 and I’m at the office in a jiffy” was approximately never.
Elsewhere, though, it’s a different story. On the other side of the planet, Hong Kong offers one model of how to make the ferry work as a means of public transport. The Star Ferry is a veteran of the system, founded in 1888 as the Kowloon Ferry Company, and still nips back and forth across Victoria Harbour at an impressive speed.
In the interests of full disclosure, the Star Ferry has most definitely seen better days. Alternative means of transport have left the service out on a limb, and in 2011 it shut one of its key routes, between Hung Hom (no giggling at the back, please), Central, and Wan Chai. This was in part no doubt due to the relocation of the Central ferry terminal from Edinburgh Place (just outside the City Hall) to Man Kwong Street (a generic and tedious covered walk away from the International Finance Centre) in 2006. But there’s no doubt that Hong Kong’s ferries aren’t at their zenith.
These caveats aside, though, they still chug along happily, and the atmosphere on them is nothing like on London’s boats. They’re not entirely tourist-dominated, and travelling on them at rush-hour has more in common with taking a commuting-hour Piccadilly line train with a couple of Heathrow-bound passengers than it does with hopping aboard a so-called “River Bus” at teatime in London.
Indeed, that’s part of the point. Travelling on the Hong Kong metro at rush hour is a complete nightmare of crushing human flesh and a totally un-British lack of personal space. Though the metro crosses the harbour in just a fraction of the ferry’s time, I raced a friend from one side to the other – they took the metro, I took the ferry –and, thanks to hordes of humans pushing up against the doors of full train after full train, I just about beat them.
Aboard the Star Ferry. Image: Getty.
They’re still pretty cheap, too, especially considering Hong Kong’s status as one of the most expensive cities in the world. A single trip from the centre of the city – the imaginatively named “Central” – to Tsim Sha Tsui, the principal neighbourhood across the harbour, sets you back HK$2.0. That translates to about 20p in post-Brexit sterling, or 17p in the good old days of before 23 June. Which is really not bad at all.
The service seems to matter to Hongkongers, too. In the sixties, a 25 per cent increase in fares was proposed. In protest, a student went on hunger strike at the old Edinburgh Place terminal; his arrest was a trigger for the 1966 Hong Kong riots in which dozens were injured and almost 2,000 arrested.
Just a few years ago, the aforementioned relocation of the Central pier sparked petitions, protests, sit-ins, and a march on the Government’s HQ. One of the protestors was a monk by the name of So Sau Chung – the student who’d protested the fare increase some forty years previously.
Hong Kong’s ferries aren’t just relics from the past – they’re a key relief for the city’s congested transport networks, and an important part of the city’s psyche as an island city and a harbour city.
If London wants to make its waterways pull their weight as part of a public transport network, they need to be both useful and enjoyable. The Thames is beautiful, but if its River Bus services are no more than a pleasant novelty, they can’t serve any useful purpose.
Reducing the fares would be a start, as would better integration with other means of transport. Would the world end if River Bus lines were included on the Tube & Rail maps up around stations? Probably not. Would that encourage more people to use them, relieving other services? Almost certainly.
London could make better use its other waterways, too. A River Lea stopping service could be a valuable addition. Such a service would connect Tottenham Hale (change here for the Victoria line and National Rail services), Hackney Wick (London Overground), Bromley-by-Bow (Hammersmith & City, District) and Canning Town (Jubilee & DLR). It would show that east London means business, whilst also pandering to the whimsy of its resident hipsters.
A Regent’s Canal service might be more challenging, thanks to locks and the preponderance of canal boats. Were it possible, though, it could connect more residential areas such as Westbourne Park (Hammersmith & City, Circle) and Warwick Avenue (Bakerloo) with cultural and business centres in Camden, Angel, and King’s Cross. You could even throw in a handy plug-in to the rail system at Paddington Basin.
Other global cities have shown that there is a role for waterways in the hectic crush of a modern urban public transport network. If an upstart crow like Hong Kong can make a success of cross-harbour transport in the 21st century, it’s about time that London – the grandfather maritime hub of the world – steps up to the plate.
Or the Basin.