The shambles of the Greenwich Foot Tunnel restoration

I took a trip out on the borrowed bike yesterday afternoon – through the Greenwich Foot Tunnel, up through the Isle of Dogs and up the canal to Hackney. I found riding along the towpath a bit nerve-wracking, but the mutual respect shown by both cyclists and pedestrians there makes it all work nicely. A ride around Victoria Park, a quick break at London Fields, then a speedy trip back along the canal and through the Docklands to the foot tunnel to get home in good time for Charlton’s match against Bristol Rovers.

Fat chance of that. At ten past six in the evening, right in the middle of the rush hour, the Greenwich Foot Tunnel had been closed. No explanation, no apology notice – the contractors looked like they’d locked up and buggered off.

In the place of any notice, there was just a constant stream of cyclists pulling up, together with the odd pedestrian, and discovering the bad news for themselves.

It’s not the first time I’ve been caught out by the foot tunnel being closed – I got caught out one afternoon about six weeks ago. From chatting to some of the fuming cyclists being forced to turn around and ride back up the Isle of Dogs, it seems like a regular occurrence.

I can’t help thinking no tunnel would be better than a tunnel you can’t rely on. The stairs inside the tunnel have been closed for refurbishment for some months, with the lifts – which themselves are due to be replaced – providing the only means of access. So if one of the lifts goes down, the shutters go up. Why the lifts – which themselves are only 18 years old – couldn’t have been replaced first hasn’t been explained, although this approach has gone wrong at the Woolwich Foot Tunnel, closed until March 2011 thanks to “structural weaknesses” in the stairs.

A cyclist I talked to told me he found Thames Clippers often unwilling to take his bike on their boats, despite the service being touted as a replacement for the tunnel when closed. (Thames Clippers’ recent cutbacks have not helped this situation either – the tunnel closes at 9pm on weeknights, 49 minutes before the last north-south boat and after the last south-north boat.) Before he headed off to find a pier, he claimed one of the lift attendants was in the habit of arbitrarily closing the tunnel if he fancied knocking off early.

Obviously this is completely unsubstantiated, but with no sign of any life at the tunnel’s north portal in Island Gardens, we could only wonder what the hell was going on down there.

We were the lucky ones, though.

Just before I set off on my six-mile detour to the Woolwich Ferry, a white sub-contractors’ van pulled up, and a man walked out. As he approached the tunnel entrance, I told him it was closed.

This gentleman wasn’t best pleased. He was due to man the lifts for the evening, having paid a babysitter and driven a long distance to do the job. Nobody had called to tell him not to bother coming in – and this had happened a couple of days before as well.

It’s the 21st century, and Greenwich Council could use contemporary technology to inform people about tunnel closures – such as e-mailing or texting people, or using its excellent Twitter feed. But if it, or contractors Dean & Dyball, can’t even be bothered to tell its own staff about problems in the foot tunnel, then something has seriously gone wrong under the Thames.


  1. I often ride this route and it rates highly with me – there’s also a great circular you can do over the Woolwich ferry and along the Greenway – but have avoided it since the foot tunnel works for this very reason. The thought of having to make a long detour at the end of a pleasant ride totally put me off.

    Leaving aside all the arguments about the engineering aspects of the work that is being carried out, it would have been a very simple matter for the council to have written something in to the contract requiring the contractor to put measures in place to inform the public of short-notice closures.

  2. Such a disappointing end to a great cycle ride. Unfortunately my personal experience with council organization or use of contractors regularly end like this. There is so little sense of pride in their work, and so little attempt to inform or provide basic levels of service or communication. If we behaved like this in business, our contracts would never be renewed and we would deserve to get the sack. With so few reliable modes of river crossing to the East, what there is so vital and yet the council/tfl just don’t seem to give a damn. Shockingly bad. We could do so much better, we need a complete rethink and overhaul of this mentality that thinks “nothing is my fault or responsibility, I am not accountable for anything so I’m off early for my tea”. Rant over. Love your blog and your new charlton champion one too. Regards.

  3. Yep, I got caught out by the tunnel being closed due to a lift breakdown last week. Luckily I was on foot so I could hop on the DLR. Surprised to hear the comment about Thames Clippers and bikes. It’s never happened to me and I’ve taken my bike tens of times.

  4. I cycle every day from Canary Wharf to Chislehurst, and the tunnel is a vital link. Two evenings in a row (Tuesday/Wednesday) the tunnel has been closed around 6-7pm. Cyclists head to the ferry – who do allow cyclists on, but only 10 – and last night 10 were left to wait another 15 minutes in the freezing cold wind. Their only other option is to cycle up to the Rotherhithe ferry and cycle on the West bank – adding about 30 minutes to the trip.

    However I concur with the author that had I known the tunnel was closed I would have headed straight for the Rotherhithe ferry. If the tunnel is to be closed for whatever reason (hey things happen – mechanical failure, people are ill etc etc) we just need to know to plan our route home accordingly. And please fellow cyclists don’t have a go at the ferry guys – they are only following orders of their company – its a crazy rule when it involves one stop across the river, but its outwith their control.

  5. I’ve often wondered (mostly while on the boat across the river) if the extra expense incurred due to the, frankly crappy, availability of the tunnel could be charged back to Greenwich Council?

    If we’re all sending in our extra travel cost receipts maybe they would be a little more focussed on a) making sure the tunnel is available during the day, and b) that the works are progressing as fast as possible…

  6. The chap who told me he’d been having trouble with Thames Clippers said he was saving his tickets to bill the council…

  7. The last time I got stuck the Clippers had laid on a special service just going across the river and back again. They were more than happy to accept bikes on that, so I assume the ‘rules’ are flexible depending on how much money they can make…

  8. The towpath’s not that scary! 🙂 Just make sure you slow down and ding your bell at the bridges, and you’ll be fine.

    I just clicked through to Greenwich’s twitter page, and see that their most recent post is about the tunnel being closed, so perhaps someone’s paying attention after all.

  9. Darryl, there were some hastily tied on signs I think – but put there by the Clipper company – effectively along the lines of “Stuck? Try our emergency shuttle service…” (no mention of charges until you were almost on the boat of course – then normal fares applied. Not that I really mind, they’ve got to run a business after all, but I think Greenwich/Tower Hamlets Councils have some responsibility to provide an equivalent alternative to the tunnel if their actions are going to result in it being closed…

    I think the main reason the Clipper shuttle isn’t there each time is that the tunnel restoration people don’t necessarily tell the Clipper people when they are shutting it — you’re right that it’s all about a lack of communication…

    For me the point is about realistic alternatives – for both pedestrians and cyclists – who rely on the tunnel for their journey.

  10. Thanks James, that’s interesting. I’ve asked Greenwich Council to comment on this, but have so far heard nothing back.

  11. I’ve made around 15 journeys over the river in the past two
    weeks and the tunnel has only been open twice. Luckily (well,
    strategically really, luck had nothing to do with it) I have a
    folding bike and so was permitted to take it on the DLR. Part of
    the reason I cycle is to save money but I’m ÂŁ20 worse off as a
    result of this in the past fortnight alone. I feel sorry for people
    who opt for the ferry and end up paying twice as much, or those who
    have to use the Rotherhithe tunnel and end up with a lungful of
    fumes. I’m glad the council have started putting reports on their
    twitter feed but otherwise information is scant and this is really
    the worst thing about the situation. How hard would it be to put up
    a sign pointing out alternative routes? In fact I might stop
    whining and just make one myself and blu-tak it to the door next
    time I swing by.

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