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Sunday 1 July 2012

Cable Car To Nowhere

So now the cable car across the Thames has opened: in time for the Olympic Games – and fair play to the design and build team for making that deadline – the newly named Emirates Air Line is ready for business. It runs from, well, somewhere on the south bank of the Thames quite close to North Greenwich tube station, to somewhere on the north bank not far from the ExCeL centre.

Expected hordes of visitors strangely absent

On Friday afternoon – the day after opening – I went along to see how the new attraction was coping with the burgeoning demand. The answer was, with no difficulty at all, as there wasn’t very much of it. Some of the 10-person cabins were running empty. There was only one other punter in mine. And there were a lot of staff on hand to ensure everything ran smoothly.

The views! Apartments! Disused docks! Factories and warehouses! A main road! The DLR!

What will happen to them as the service beds in? Will they be sent on their way, or kept on and added to the everyday cost of the thing? Bozza wasn’t answering these mildly inconvenient questions as he reprised his camera friendly persona as the snappers clicked away. But the facts remain that the project cost £60 million, with Emirates putting in £36 million and the EU another £8 million.

More apartments! More industrial units! More road and DLR! And, in the distance, the Thames Barrier

That leaves TfL to put up the £16 million balance – and then there is the day to day cost of running it. As I suggested some time back, the cable car has a premium price, with Oyster Pay As You Go (PAYG) accepted but not included as part of the daily price cap. Travelcards are not accepted. A single PAYG fare is £3.20, more than twice the Tube and DLR equivalent for the same journey.

Look, the ExCeL centre! It's closed! And cranes that haven't moved for decades! And more disused docks!

So what of the much-vaunted views? Ah well. These consist of the Dome, the distant skyscrapers of Canary Wharf, the yet more distant Thames Barrier, the ExCeL centre, and then a load of factories and warehouses. There are the usual signs of attempted gentrification in the form of identikit apartment blocks here and there. And there are roads and the DLR. And that’s that.

The Dome and Canary Wharf. Pity it's so far away

Moreover, if there is nothing going on at ExCeL, as there wasn’t on Friday, and little going on at or near the Dome, then there is not going to be much demand to ride the cable car, er, sorry, Emirates Air Line. After the Olympics and Paralympics, for much of the time this new addition to the map looks very much like it will be moving lots of empty cabins back and forth across the river.

Nice shiny Emirates gondolas - But for how long?

And, as the gondolas are fixed to the cable, it will only be a matter of time before the more adventurous graffiti artists begin the competition to see who can be first to “tag” one or more of them. Security costs are going to increase dramatically as a result, and the drain on TfL’s budget will only get worse. Of course, they could have had the Cross River Tram, but that would benefit places like Peckham.

Peckham? Stuff them, they vote Labour. It was ever thus in London.


Anonymous said...

The gondolas are stabled, when not in use in the North Greenwich side if the line, where all the maintenance is carried out.

It's a shame it is not fully integrated into the Oyster pricing zonal system, for the journey distance, it's way too expensive.

allegoricus said...

You're not supposed to call it "the dome" any more. ;-)

Alex Macfie said...

When I travelled on it with my wife on late Saturday afternoon, it was doing brisk business, with all cabins at least half full (and no, there was nothing happening at ExCel then either). It's certainly possible that a lot of them were people like us: tourists travelling on it to see what it was like. There was a long queue at the ticket office, although quite likely a lot of the people in the queue didn't realize that they could use Oyster... perhaps the many staff on hand could have made more frequent announcements to this effect.

But anyway you can't judge the success or otherwise of a new public transport service by patronage in its first week of operation. Generally it takes at least 2 years to bed in.
It has premium fares... so what? So does Heathrow Express, and that doesn't seem to have put people off using it. It would be nice if the cable car had some sort of discount for travelcard holders, as without this the value of the service for such travellers is diminished. But it's a faster and more pleasant journey than the equivalent Tube journey. People need to travel to both centres and the areas around them; if the cable car offers enough added value to be used instead of Tube, people will use it. I would wait and see.