A London commute that is actually fun

Justin Merrigan chats to co-founder and CEO of MBNA Thames Clippers, Sean Collins

A London commute that is actually fun
This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2015 issue of International Cruise & Ferry Review.

One cannot fail to be impressed by the growth of MBNA Thames Clippers, which has been described by Mayor of London Boris Johnson as one of the most reliable and relaxing commutes in the country.

Last year the business celebrated its 15th anniversary of serving London’s commuters and visitors on the Thames, with passenger numbers for 2014 reaching 3.6 million – a remarkable achievement for what started as a one-boat operation in 1999 carrying 21,000 passengers in its first year. Since launch, a total of 28.5 million passengers have travelled with Thames Clippers. Co-founder and chief executive of the business is Sean Collins, a passionate leader with a remarkable vision that harnessed sustainable growth, delivering a unique travel mode for London’s commuters and visitors with a focus on customer service delivery.

Thames Clippers has grown from one vessel carrying 62 people to its current fleet of 16 vessels, carrying just under four million passengers, explains Collins. “We currently operate six fast and frequent river bus routes, serving 19 piers over 25kms of London, spanning from Putney in the West to Woolwich in the East. An express service also operates to The O2 during events, from London Eye and London Bridge.”

The business has a track record of success with an innovative approach to service delivery. Last year the company announced a new relationship with MBNA, a leading UK credit card provider. The Mayor and Transport for London, in their River Action Plan of 2013, committed to doubling passenger journeys on the Thames to 12 million a year by 2020. The investment by MBNA into the Thames Clippers service will give a significant boost to achieving this aim.

“In our 15th year I was delighted to have a new partner onboard. The partnership with MBNA is helping Thames Clippers expand the service by growing the fleet and ensuring we contribute to the Mayor’s ambitious passenger growth targets for the Thames,” says Collins.

And growing it is, with two brand-new ferries recently delivered by Incat Tasmania. “The two new vessels will provide additional capacity in excess of 300 seats, almost doubling the current capacity on the route they will be deployed to the majority of the time, that being our RB6 route from Putney to Blackfriars,” he says.

Representing a £6.5million investment from MBNA Thames Clippers, the two 35m passenger vessels are named Galaxy and Neptune and are the first additions to the company’s fleet for seven years. Commercial and Customer Experience executive Michael Donald says of MBNA’s role: “MBNA is making life easier for our customers, partners and the communities in which we operate. The MBNA Thames Clippers relationship injects valuable and essential private investment into London’s infrastructure, making life easier for commuters and visitors to get around the Capital.”

Sean Collins is excited by the new additions to the fleet. “The arrival of Galaxy Clipper and Neptune Clipper is not only a major milestone for our business, but also for the London transport network,” he says. “London is in its infancy compared to other cities in the world when it comes to commuting and travelling by river and we are excited to be leading the way in making more of the River Thames as a key part of the Capital’s infrastructure.” He adds: “Currently all areas of our business are strong, which is very satisfying because commuting has seen a couple of years of relatively slow growth but property development is now taking place at a rate of knots along our route and we are seeing significant growth in this sector and plan to meet the demands.”

The vessels themselves are built by Incat, a yard well known for its large high-speed craft designs. “I think our boats were a significant change of concept to Incat, but they adapted very well and have provided a level of fit-out equal to that they would have done on the larger vessels,” says Collins.

Featuring a new resistance-reducing hull design by One2Three Naval Architects of Sydney, Australia, the vessels have been developed with groundbreaking engineering, allowing them to operate in the unique strong tidal conditions of the River Thames whilst minimising power.

If there is one struggle MBNA Thames Clippers grapples with, it is the ever-growing list of regulatory and environmental requirements, especially with the latest two boats. Says Collins: “These have been built to class and comply with the vast majority of the high-speed craft code, including double bottoms. Ensuring this compliance has been a significant challenge given how relatively small the vessels are, with the key focus on trying to make them lightweight, reducing power and therefore emissions. “I believe that the time has come for a specific screening of the High Speed Craft Code that would apply to vessels operating in sheltered rivers and estuaries, which embrace the safety requirements needed whilst concurrently satisfying other design criteria.” But perhaps the biggest challenge for MBNA Thames Clippers over the next couple of years is in the area of river activity. “The Thames is getting busier and we are concerned to ensure that we have adequate water space in and around London, to maintain a fast and frequent service for our customers,” says Collins.

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Justin Merrigan
By Justin Merrigan
Thursday, January 14, 2016