IN THIS week's absurd public transport meltdown, one of the very few links between Greenwich and the rest of the world which mostly kept going was also the least well-known, but arguably the best one, of all.
Even now, astonishingly few people seem to realise that there is a fast, regular and frequent riverbus service between two piers in Greenwich and central London - with rush-hour and evening service to Woolwich, too. It runs every 20 minutes for most of the day - see the timetable on the Thames Clippers website here - and on the fairly rare occasions when I don't cycle into town, it's my method of choice.
I several years ago largely gave up on mainstream public transport - a course of action I cannot recommend too highly. Buses and tube, in particular, are now exercises in low-level misery; until you stop using them, you just don't realise quite how much they blight your life, how much time and mental energy they waste and how much money they screw out of you.
But there remain a few public transport options that are a genuine pleasure to use - and now, with the roads still a bit slippery for cycling and the Southeastern trains not back to a full service, is the time to discover one.
It's time to liberate yourself from your cattle-truck carriages, your subterranean holes full of other people's germs, your traffic jams and points failures; time to travel to work with the wind in your hair and the matchless spectacle of the world's greatest city before your eyes.
As well as the views, you will find a seat, a good punctuality record and even a little counter selling tea and coffee.True, the single fare from Greenwich (£5) is about twice the train price - but if you buy a monthly season (£100) and work within walking distance of one of the central London piers (Tower, London Bridge, Blackfriars, Embankment or Waterloo) you will pay almost exactly the same.
The neglect of the river is one of London's great transport scandals. We have spent the last twenty years - and will probably spend most of the next ten - tying ourselves in knots about Crossrail, with still a quite serious chance that it will not be built. But we already have a waterborne Crossrail, an almost unused six-lane highway through the middle of the city, which could be brought into the full embrace of the TfL system for a fraction of the cost.
Yet the existing service isn't even integrated with the rest of the network - no Oyster pay-as-you-go (yet), no Travelcards (Travelcard holders do get a one-third discount).
Greenwich council has recently started what it calls the "Clipper Campaign" calling for Oyster acceptance and a 10-minute peak-hour service. Very laudable aims, although I should point out that TfL had already promised to install Oyster readers for pay-as-you-go on the river service several months before the council started its campaign. Could Greenwich be trying to claim credit for achieving something that is going to happen anyway?
The council website says that "the Mayor of London has given no date for installing the Oystercard equipment on the boats." That is perhaps a little misleading: I'm not sure what Boris himself has said, but his Transport Commissioner, Peter Hendy, told the last meeting of the TfL board that Oyster PAYG on the river was a "Mayoral priority" which "could be introduced by mid-2009."
Answers last month to the Tory London Assembly member Gareth Bacon suggest that Greenwich's "campaign" for the riverbus does not, so far, seem to have involved any contact with either the Mayor or TfL. As the local Tory leader, Councillor Spencer Drury, said: “I am curious what sort of campaign fails to contact the person or organisation which it is seeking to influence."
It's also worth pointing out the serious possibility that the Thames Clipper service will in fact contract, not increase, in the next few months. The extension from Greenwich to Woolwich is subsidised by TfL and the council, and was originally supposed to end this month, after the opening of the new DLR station. The subsidy has now been extended by another six months. It would be a shame if the next action of the leaders of the "Clipper Campaign" was to actually, well, clip the funding they give to the thing they're trying to promote.
Still, let's not bash the council spin-doctors too heavily this week. Their overall aim is good, and even once Oyster is available on the service, the real battle - for Underground-style fares and Underground-style frequencies - still needs to be waged.
In the meantime, take to the water. Even if it snows again, the Thames is most unlikely to freeze over.