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Tales of the riverbank

As the boss and sometimes helmsman of the Thames Clippers, Sean Collins is the first to make a real financial success of the River Thames in recent times

Long gone are the days when tens of thousands of Londoners earned their living from the Thames. But one businessman can lay claim to making it a working river for the 21st century – with nearly three million reasons to back this up.

That’s the remarkable annual tally of passengers who travel on board the fleet of catamarans operated by Thames Clipppers, the high-speed ferry service founded by Sean Collins.

From the single ferry when he started the business in 1999 to the 13-vessel fleet today, Collins has succeeded where Clippers’ forerunners have singularly failed – running an efficient and profitable alternative to buses, trains and the Tube for commuters.

Collins deliberately kept things low key from the outset – expanding Thames Clippers by just one boat a year: “The biggest contributing factor to its success was the slow growth,” says Collins, who is a firm believer in the age-old form of marketing called word of mouth. “That’s why we still maintain a strong record on customer service and punctuality. If you’ve got something that’s good, people will shout about it. That’s been key from day one.”

There is also something magical about the river, for which Thames Clippers’ regulars appear willing to pay a premium over bus and rail. “You see people totally relaxing on their way to and from work,” says Collins. “It’s important the boats turn up on time to maintain that experience.”

The quiet rise and rise of Thames Clippers is a tale worth telling at a time of overcrowded public transport, cuts in peak-time commuter trains and much-vaunted infrastructure projects like the multi-billion-pound Crossrail. By contrast, the ferry service has made use of, and added value to something that was there all along: the river. It should be noted, too, that the company employs 200 people, many from Greenwich.

In 1995, after several ventures including the ill-fated River Bus service and a stint as a professional rower, Collins set up Collins Waterage to serve the construction industry. The building of the London Eye and the Hungerford footbridges were among the riverside projects aided by Collins Waterage, which continues trading to this day.

 

Yet Collins never lost faith in the idea of passenger ferries on the Thames. So Thames Clippers launched with just one boat and Collins usually behind the helm - a cautious approach by a businessman determined to avoid the pitfalls of his old employer. “I love the river …and the marine industry,” he says. “We’ve got one of the best cities in the world but for some reason a River Bus-style service has always failed, whereas it has succeeded in many other cities around the world.”

Thames Clippers doggedly survived the early years despite facing, as Collins claims, more regulation than the old River Bus.

All that steady-as-she-goes helmsmanship paid off, however, in 2006 when AEG, the entertainment industry giant and owner of the O2 arena, acquired a majority stake in the company. The deal led to the departure of Collins’s business partner and co-founder, Alan Woods, but all of a sudden there was the financial backing to invest in more vessels and accelerate the company’s growth. There was also the opportunity for a high-profile sideline – transporting VIPs and celebrities to and from the O2, including Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni, Neil Diamond and U2.

Of course, the O2 was not around in the days of the River Bus. Nor were the thousands of riverside homes built during the last housing boom. River travel’s time is now, if only because of the sheer volume of household numbers. It’s no coincidence that Thames Clippers’ service stretched to Woolwich following the massive residential redevelopment of the old Woolwich Arsenal site by the Berkeley Group.

The prospect of further developments downstream – and tens of thousands of homes are planned for the so-called Thames Gateway – could see Thames Clippers trebling its current 20km route, according to Collins. Ferries need their own infrastructure – piers and ticket offices – but as Collins remarks wryly, it would be “less than the cost of a feasibility study” for a tunnel or bridge. “The river has got to be given the same opportunities and be integrated with other forms of transport,” he says.

If that sounds self-serving, Collins is unapologetic. It comes from spending a lifetime on the water and still taking the helm when time permits. Can any train or bus company boss claim to have such first-hand experience of their particular mode of transport?

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