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Page first written 2 September 2003
Last updated 8 August 2011
Woolwich Free Ferry
Britain is definitely one of the world's leaders of bridge technologies. This fact is not only supported by the older examples, such as Ironbridge, first cast-iron arch span built in 1779, or the magnificent Forth Rail Bridge opened in 1899. For example, Humber Bridge, which carries a major road across River Humber near its mouth to the North Sea, has retained its record of being the world's longest span since its opening in 1981 until 1997, when Great Belt Link Road Bridge in Denmark broke the record. (In 1998, Akashi Straight Bridge in Japan broke it even further, and has retained its position since then). In addition, we should not forget that, some years earlier in the 1970s, the Severn Bridge heralded the era of "European style" suspension bridges incorporating girders with wing-shaped cross-section and non-vertical hangers.
These facts make it even more surprising that, in Woolwich in the eastern suburb of Greater London, we can find a ferry service which is so heavily used.
The Woolwich Free Ferry carries pedestrians and vehicles alike across the River Thames, free of charge, probably because the ferry is considered as part of the road system.
The history seems to date back to as old as 14th century when the ferry service that links the towns of Woolwich on both sides of the Thames for £10. However, it was not until 1889 that the steam ships entered service. The three Diesel ships currently in use were built in 1963, out of which two are in service on weekdays and one on Sundays.
The reason for the decision in the 19th century of not building a bridge was technically clear.
Woolwich is fairly far from the centre of London. The width of the Thames here is about 300 metres or so. However, although there is still long distance left to reach the sea, there is only one bridge going across the river between Woolwich and the river mouth, which is the toll road forming part of London Orbital motorway M25. The nearest bridge in the western direction is, surprisingly, the Tower Bridge!
River Thames was, and still is, a major route for ships, as indicated by the fact that Tower Bridge was designed as the bascule-type drawbridge, and bridges, if built, must have sufficient height underneath to let large vessels pass. Before the construction of Tower Bridge, there were proposals of high bridges, which were rejected in favour of the drawbridge. This clearly shows the limitation of 19th century technology.
However, we are now in the 21st century when the technologies are available; even if bridges are not affordable we can consider building a tunnel underneath the river. In fact, there are a number of road tunnels that link both sides of the Thames between Tower Bridge and Woolwich, let alone the old foot tunnels (one of them is in Woolwich as well). It requires staff to operate the ferry; two magnificent piers with the distance of only 300 metres, the approach road to which being supported by timber, should also be maintained.
I believe it is much cheaper to construct either a bridge or a tunnel than to maintain the ferry service. It must probably be the British culture to maintain some of these, even when it is "economically unreasonable". In addition, the ferry is already a speciality, or even a pride, of the area. If it were just a tunnel I would never have visited Woolwich at all in my life.
We should take into account the fact that London's City Airport gives the guarantee that the traffic demand across the river at the site will never become too heavy for the ferry to cope. That said, this ferry service, being here for more than a century and still functioning, certainly gives a hint to Japan, where new bridges are built everywhere in the country, bringing the government budget close to bankruptcy...
Well, so much for the thoughts. The glasses of beer I had at the pubs near the piers were certainly nice!
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TAKAGI, Ryo email@example.com (c) R. Takagi 2003. All rights reserved.