JUST as the Thames seemed set to become an eight-lanewater highway, easing the plight of motorists traveling bumper-to-bumper on London's crowded roads, the river has become the focus of controversy. London's river has been enjoying a renaissance for the last decade. Its newly pollution-free waters began carrying an ever-increasing flow of traffic.
A river-bus service now will take you, for 5 ($7.80), from Charing Cross to a new airport in the heart of London's Dockland. Thus, the journey from the foot of Nelson's Column in the center of London to Charles de Gaulle Airport near Paris can take less than three hours.
But this waterborne travel boon, which has included a massive increase in pleasure-boat activity, has been thrown into question by the worst accident on the Thames this century.
On Sunday, a boat carrying more than 100 revelers was rammed and overturned by a river dredge more than four times its size and weight.
With a casualty toll likely over 60, questions were being asked about how much traffic the Thames can safely take. While river traffic is expected to continue to increase, strict new rules likely will be instituted.
The inexorable increase of road traffic through inner London has been the main stimulus for taking a second look at the river the Samuel Pepys and Charles Dickens both used as a thoroughfare.
Thames traffic has been getting steadily thicker, especially since the Docklands began its transformation from a derelict port area into the fastest-growing residential and business development area in Europe.
But the river's change from a murky, smelly ooze to a majestic waterway has involved more than a search for an escape from London traffic jams.
Thanks to an assault on industrial and domestic pollution, trout and salmon again thrive in Thames waters for the first time since the 18th century. Swans again cruise in its deceptively lazy looking currents. Even the banks of the Thames have begun to take on a new lease on life.
Thanks to careful planning by the Countryside Commission, a riverside footpath is beginning to take shape. By early next century, the commission hopes it will be possible to walk the 180-mile journey from near the mouth of the Thames to the river's source in Kemble, Gloucestershire.
But it was the potential of the Thames as a traffic artery that created the most excitement. It seemed to answer so many questions.
When the Daily Telegraph moved its office from Fleet Street to the Isle of Dogs, journalists moaned until the newspaper's management came up with a bright idea. Why not run a river bus from Chelsea to the Telegraph's Docklands doorstep? The vessel began shipping journalists to their office and back to Chelsea each day.
Soon the same company offered river bus transport to other Docklands companies. It then opened a public service linking Charing Cross with the Docklands airport, which serves Paris and other European capitals.
Last weekend's accident, as well as taking many lives, has reminded Londoners that a river highway, like a thoroughfare on dry land, must be carefully regulated.
Commercial river freight on the Thames near central London is less frequent than it once was. The gravel barge that struck the Marchioness is one of the largest vessels still plying Thames waters. But sightseeing launches heading for such destinations as Greenwich and the Tower of London are more numerous.
Responding to the sinking of the pleasure boat, Marchioness, Simon Hughes, a member of Parliament whose constituency flanks the Thames, suggested an extensive review of safety routines on the river, including wider use of radar and radio contacts.
``It is vital that navigation rules suited to our times be devised and applied. The Thames is a river reborn, but we must be more careful how we use this great artery,'' he said.