Yesterday, Boris Johnson and I launched a new pamphlet for the Policy Exchange think-tank, At A Rate of Knots, advocating a dramatic expansion of the Thames Clipper commuter riverboat service. I confess that, given the weather forecast, we had high hopes last night of a repeat of February's total snow shutdown - when Thames Clippers was more or less the only public transport in London that kept going, and certainly the only link between Greenwich and the rest of the world. What more demonstration of the river's usefulness could you ask?
Looking at the fairly light snowfall in inner London yesterday, I thought we were destined to be disappointed; and certainly the main roads were clear, with buses, DLR and Tube running well. I reckoned without the unique and seismic hopelessness of Southeastern Trains.
This ridiculous company decided on Tuesday night to axe two-thirds of its daytime service and its entire evening service, hours before so much as a flake of snow even fell. The daytime frequency was cut to half-hourly and the last train from London to Greenwich was at 7.47pm. It is doing exactly the same today, even though there has at the time of writing been no snow for eighteen hours and none is forecast until a very light shower at 3pm.
Southeastern (in its earlier guise as Connex) is of course the company that cancelled trains because the sun was shining, memorably described by Connex announcers as "adverse weather conditions" (it got in the drivers' eyes, or warped the rails, or something.) But this performance over the snowfall, or in south-east London the snow-dust, is far worse. As far as I can tell from their websites, every single other London commuter operator - including those in areas of the capital with much heavier snowfall, such as South West Trains - is trying to operate a proper service today, though there will no doubt be cancellations. Southeastern isn't even trying, even though there's not actually that much snow in its part of London.
Since Southeastern can no longer be seen as a serious transport operator for several months of the year, it has made my case about the river for me. I confess that I didn't go to the launch last night by Thames Clipper - I used my lovely new Boardman mountain bike - but I should have done. (The bike's thick tyres and the full suspension are more suitable for this weather than my normal hybrid - but it doesn't, unfortunately, have mudguards, meaning that I arrived at the high-powered event with a brown stain down the back of my trousers.)
The riverbus would have whisked me from the launch at the Shell Centre, Waterloo, to Greenwich in about 35 minutes - about the same time as the train, now you nearly always have to change at London Bridge (another Southeastern triumph.) They run every 20 minutes during the day, and every 30 minutes in the evenings, with the last one from Waterloo Pier at 12.15am - half an hour later than Southeastern, even on a normal day. That last boat, and the entire service, ran normally yesterday and is expecting to run normally today.
If Southeastern stops bothering with us, it is time to stop bothering with them. If you travel every day between Greenwich and central London, the riverbus price is almost exactly the same as travelling by train. And it is about a million times nicer, with a guaranteed seat, even in the rush-hour, guaranteed no jams or points failures, an on-board coffee bar and a view of the world's greatest city unfolding before your eyes.
Our pamphlet proposes that the service be jacked up to operate every ten minutes, and that there be a second, westerly route between central London and Putney - making the riverbus the equivalent, in passengers carried, of about half a new Underground line, in a tenth of the time and for about a thousandth of the cost.