It sounds like something from an unbuilt London archive: a tram running beneath the Thames. But this isn't a chapter in London's history books — it's a current plan, which could come to fruition in the next few years.
Introducing KenEx, a (terribly named) plan to build a tram line underneath the River Thames, connecting the counties of Kent and Essex, to the east of London.
What is KenEx and where will it go?
KenEx gets its nickname from the two counties it will join together, but as it's a short sniff away from Kleenex, we'll be avoiding that moniker — it's officially known as Thames Gateway Tramlink.
In short, it's a tram service, which will take pedestrians (no vehicles; no word yet on bicycles) from North Kent to South Essex and vice versa, via a 1.2km twin bore tunnel under the Thames between Grays and Ebbsfleet.
More importantly, the route. The proposed map is shown above — the core (11 miles/18km in length) runs from Gravesend to Purfleet on Thames, via Northfleet and Ebbsfleet on the Kent side, and Grays and Chafford Lakeside (for Lakeside shopping centre) on the Essex side.
The Fastrack BRT 'B' Link, shown in green, is a proposed bus route to link the tram service to Bluewater shopping centre and Darent Hospital.
The 'under evaluation' section, depicted by the dashed line, is merely a possible future extension at this point, so don't get your hopes up. DP World London Gateway is one of the eight new free ports announced by the government in 2021. In an interview with ITV Meridian, Gordon Pratt of Thames Gateway Tramlink talks of hopes that the tram would allow people in Kent to fill some of the thousands of new jobs this will create.
When will the Thames Gateway Tramlink open?
According to that ITV Meridian report, 2030 is being mooted as an opening date for the Thames Gateway Tramlink. However, there's no guarantee that it will happen at all. The Thames Gateway Tramlink website admits that, as of April 2022, "actual construction designs and site details are not due for some time yet". Given the sorts of delays these projects tend to entail (*cough* Crossrail *cough*) we're not buying a season ticket just yet.
Cost is another consideration. Meeting the estimated £800 million price tag from public funds is unlikely. Kenex's business plan instead leans heavily on the private sector. According to Kenex, "Having taken the initial risk, the Company provides an attractive investment package for major investors and developers interested in taking the project forward." Reading between the lines, it seems big developments like the proposed London Resort (see below), Lakeside and Bluewater, would be asked for a contribution in return for greatly increasing visitor numbers.
Why here and now?
There's a lot going on in this area of the Thames Estuary at the moment, particularly on the Kent side of the river.
Currently, the much-maligned Dartford Crossing, consisting of two tunnel bores and a bridge, is the most easterly road crossing of the Thames (there is a Tilbury-Gravesend ferry further east, but that's for foot traffic only). The tunnel opened in 1963, and the bridge followed in 1991, but as anyone who drives the route regularly knows, the crossing struggles with modern-day traffic volumes.
Enter the Lower Thames Crossing, a planned road tunnel running underneath the Thames further east, connecting Gravesend in Kent with Tilbury in Essex, which aims to reduce the volume of traffic using the Dartford Crossing. Again, plans for this one have been kicking around for several years, and have been revised several times. It's still in the planning refinement stages, with no construction underway.
As well as connecting Kent and Essex, steps are being made to connect this part of Kent with London. Thames Clippers could soon be running regular riverboat services between Gravesend Pier and central London, offering commuters an alternative to road and rail travel.
And finally, this part of Kent has been in the news due to plans to build the London Resort on the Swanscombe Peninsula. For several years, plans for a huge theme park and entertainment complex have been floating around, resisted for several reasons, including the possible damage to wildlife habitat in the area. In March 2022, the plans were withdrawn, though they're expected to be resubmitted later in 2022. The London Resort is marked as a stop in the latest KenEx plans, drawn up in August 2021 and shown above. It would go a long way towards making the tram viable.
Want to see the area for yourself? There's an official walking route linking London to the Kent coast, via Dartford, Swanscombe and Gravesend.
How will this affect London?
In theory, not very much — it's outside of the capital and won't be operated by TfL. However, currently when the Dartford Crossing is either closed or extremely congested, drivers are forced along to the next road route across the river — which is the Blackwall Tunnel, thus increasing congestion in London.
While KenEx won't take vehicles, it does offer people an alternative way to cross the river, which may have a knock-on effect of reducing traffic to the Blackwall Tunnel. The Lower Thames Crossing is likely to have a bigger impact on this though, offering drivers an immediate alternative to driving into London to cross the river. And of course, TfL's Silvertown Tunnel, located east of the Blackwall Tunnel, is due to open in 2025.
But even if you have no business in Kent or Essex, can you honestly say you won't head out that way, just to have a cheeky ride on KenEx?