Could this be the last season for Colliers boat trips?

Colliers, the local family firm who have run pleasure boat trips on the Thames for forty years, may have to close if proposed new safety regulations become law. The firm operates boat trips between Hampton Court and Westminster Bridge between April and the end of September, but the 2019 summer season, which started on Saturday, could be their last.

Proposals to bring safety standards for older boats in line with modern vessels require that some operators will have to take out seating at or below the waterline, so that boats could remain afloat if the hull was damaged. Danny Collier, one of the two brothers who operate the boats from Kew and Richmond piers, says that they would lose three out of their four boats, as they couldn’t afford to make the changes. They have both been skippering boats on the Thames for almost 40 years, running pleasure cruises mainly in daylight hours in the summer months, and neither one has ever had an accident.

Historic vessels

Princess Freda, built in 1926, took part in the Dunkirk evacuation during WW2, ferrying troops from the French beaches to larger naval vessels. The rescue of 300,000 Allied troops was described as a ‘miracle of deliverance’ by Churchill. Dan says Freda has since carried half a million passengers on day trips up and down the Thames, but to meet the regulations, the refit would cost around £250,000 and result in a loss of 50% of seating capacity. He and his brother John say it would not be commercially worthwhile and put them out of business.

Photographs: Collier family, Dan, John and John’s son Alex, an apprentice boatman, in the middle

Their other boats are also classed as ‘historic vessels’. Queen Elizabeth was built in 1924 and Connaught was built in 1911. The Clifton Castle (built in 1926) has already been remodeled, losing the saloon and 50 seats but retaining most of the seating capacity; it would be the only boat in their fleet to meet the new regulations. There are as many as 20 boats on the Thames which would be similarly affected.

“Hampton Court trip would be lost”

The Collier brothers say the trip to Hampton Court would be lost completely, as fellow operators Lorraine Maynard and Ed Langley have also said they would no longer be able to continue. Operators of pleasure boats have been consulted on the proposed regulations, which would also legally require the installation of fire detection systems and mechanical bilge pumps, and the provision of life jackets and life rafts for all passengers. The Colliers’ boats already comply with most of these requirements, including life jackets and life raft capacity for all of those on board.

Photographs: Mooring at Hampton Court; Hampton Court Palace: View from the boat at Teddington

What’s prompted the new regulations?

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), who are behind the proposals, say the current review of ‘Grandfather Rights’ associated with standards for older domestic passenger vessels began in 2016 against the backdrop of the Thames Safety Inquiry on the Marchioness accident. 51 people on boat the party boat lost their lives in 1989 when it was hit at night by the Bow Belle, a far larger vessel. The inquiry report was published in 2000 and as a result a Formal Safety Assessment of Domestic Passenger Vessel Safety was subsequently carried out for the MCA. This resulted in safety legislation for new vessels being increased. ‘Following this step change for newer vessels, it was found necessary for older vessel standards to be brought, as far as possible, up to an equivalent level of safety, to provide a consistent safety standard for the travelling public’.

Dan Collier points out that one of the conclusions made during the Inquiry was that the Marchioness would have rolled over even if she’d had the kind of ‘damage stability’ now being introduced, because she was hit by a vessel which was six times bigger and she was pushed under the water.

Cross-party support for Colliers

Colliers have won cross party support from MPs Ruth Cadbury (Labour), Zac Goldsmith (Conservative) and Vince Cable (Liberal Democrat). Ruth Cadbury has raised the issue with Secretary of State for Transport, Chris Grayling in written questions, asking what effort he has made to find out the impact of the proposed regulations.

Ruth Cadbury MP for Brentford & Isleworth told us: ‘’I’m concerned that these new regulations could force historic boats and businesses across the Thames to be scrapped. I’ve contacted the Department of Transport to urge them to make sure that any new regulations consider the historic nature, and value of older ships.’

Zac Goldsmith MP for Richmond said: ‘I enjoyed spending time on the Princess Freda with the Colliers, but it is patently obvious that these new regulations will put them and others like them in the sector out of business. They have been around for a very long time, and the boat itself is nearly 100 years old. But more than that, the many thousands of passengers who are drawn to Richmond every year to spend time on their boats are enormously important for our local economy. The government is going to have to rethink its approach.’

Vice Cable MP for Twickenham told us: ‘I recently visited Eel Pie Island Slipways whose boatyard business is also at risk if Colliers and others who operate the older passenger boats no longer need the maintenance work to be done as before’. If the Maritime and Coastguard Agency are ‘inflexible’ he says he will try and secure a parliamentary debate on the issue.

Lord Salisbury, who organized the Diamond Jubilee Pageant, has also written to Chris Grayling about it. Princess Freda, with John Collier at the helm, led the royal procession in 2012.

Decision expected later this year

The MCA have suggested that historic vessels may be granted exemption from the rules in ‘exceptional circumstances’. They say:

“We recognise that certain ships have intrinsic historical value and form an important part of UK maritime heritage. That said, we cannot make a wholesale exemption for historic ships as a group … any future exemption request put forward by one of the Dunkirk Little Ships (or indeed any other historic passenger commercial ship) would be looked at on its individual merits, on a case by case basis.”

The MCA told The Chiswick Calendar that any exemption requests would need to demonstrate that any risk posed would be low or mitigated by special circumstances. The MCA is now considering the operators’ comments, and consulting further, before making firm proposals to go to the Secretary of State for a decision.