UK’s First Urban Cable Car

On Thursday 4 October I had the pleasure of travelling on the Emirates Air Line for the first time. Passengers cross the River Thames at heights of 90 metres between two brand new terminals (Emirates Greenwich Peninsula and Emirates Royal Docks), improving connections between the O2 and ExCeL, whilst in close proximity to existing Tube and DLR systems.

Opened on 28 June 2012 by the Mayor of London Boris Johnson, it is the UK’s first ever urban cable car with a cable span of 1,100 metres connecting three helix towers. The crossing is intended to encourage regeneration in the area, assist people to access attractions, and bring tourists to the Greenwich Peninsula and Royal Victoria Dock. It could also help to relieve pressure on the Jubilee Line. It will open up access to the Royal Docks Enterprise Zone and play a key part in attracting businesses and investors to the area.  More than 60 people are employed by Mace Macro to operate the Emirates Air Line.

There are 34 gondolas, each with a maximum capacity of 10 passengers. The service is accessible for pedestrians, wheelchair users and cyclists. They can board one of the cabins every 30 seconds. The Air Line has the capacity to carry up to 2,500 people per hour.

The scheme provides an interchange with the Jubilee line and Docklands Light Railway. The cable cars will operate seven days a week. During the summer passengers can board from 07:00 to 21:00 on weekdays; 08:00 to 21:00 on Saturday; and 09:00 to 21:00 on Sundays. Winter closing time is 20:00. Extended operating hours for major events will see the cable cars operating until midnight Monday to Saturday and 23:30 on Sunday.

The cable car is not fully integrated into TfL’s ticketing system, but discounts are offered to Oyster and Travelcard users, as with London River Services. Boarding passes are purchased from vending machines and ticket offices at both terminals. A standard adult single ticket is £4.30. A single fare using Oyster will cost £3.20 (child fare £1.60). There is also the option to take a non-stop return journey. There is a ‘frequent flyer’ pass for regular users, which allows passengers to make 10 single journeys for £16.

Journey times during commuter hours (07:00 to 10:00 and 15:00 to 21:00 during the summer) are approximately five minutes. In recognition that some visitors will want to experience the journey for as long as possible, the scheme operates at slower speeds during non-commuter periods meaning a single journey could last up to 10 minutes.

The cable car system is designed in most weather conditions. For safety reasons, the service may close for a short time (less than 20 minutes) due to the threat of lightning and thunder, before the storm passes and service resumes. Very strong winds are likely to lead to a longer interruption as wind speed tends to reduce at a gradual rate.

On 4 July 2010, TfL first announced plans to develop a cable car crossing over the River Thames. A planning application was submitted to the London Borough of Newham in October 2010. In October 2011, it was announced that Emirates would provide £36 million in a 10-year sponsorship deal which included branding of the cable car service with the airline’s name. Construction began in August 2011. The main construction involved more than 1,500 people.

In May 2012, TfL said that the cable car would be operational by the summer of 2012. They stated that, originally, there were no plans to open the crossing before the 2012 Olympic Games. However, there were contingency plans in place in case it was possible to open in time. In fact, the scheme was operational during the Olympics.

The cable car is based on Monocable Detachable Gondola (MDG) technology. This system uses a single cable for both propulsion and support, and is also used on the Metrocable in Medellin, Colombia (see an earlier post on this Blog). The MDG system is reportedly cheaper and quicker to install than a more complex three-cable system which would allow for larger-capacity cars.

The cable car provides a crossing every 15 seconds, providing theoretical capacity for up to 2,500 passengers per hour in each direction.

TfL initially budgeted for a scheme costing £25 million and announced that this would be entirely funded by private finance. This figure was subsequently revised to £45 million, and by September 2011 the budget had more than doubled to £60 million. The cable car is the most expensive cable system ever built. There have been reports that this cost escalation occurred because TfL had not taken full account of the costs of legal advice, project management, land acquisition and other costs. TfL planned to make up the shortfall by paying for the project out of the London Rail budget, applying for funding from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and seeking commercial sponsorship.

Critics have dismissed the Cable car as an impractical solution, which may appeal to tourists, but is unlikely to attract a large number of cross-river trips by local residents and workers due to its location and costs. Further criticisms surround the project’s £24 million-plus cost to taxpayers, caused by the budget overrun. The Mayor of London originally said that the cost of the scheme would not be underwritten by taxpayers.

On 19 April The Guardian ran a story in which it was reported that

“A project that was supposed to be delivered by private sponsorship has ended up being largely funded by the public purse after costs ballooned from an early estimate of £25m to more than £60m. Sponsors, Emirates, have made their way on to London’s tube map – breaking, opponents say, pledges to keep the capital’s transport infrastructure free from such indignity – while footing barely half the bill.

Official projections are that 2 million people will use the cable car each year. According to TfL the O2 is the most popular entertainment centre in the UK and Excel is the busiest conference centre venue in Europe.”

It is interesting to note that Emirates is the first sponsor to feature a company logo on the London tube map.

TfL has made an application for a further £8m of European Regional Development Funding (ERDF) which will cover  part of the capital cost of the project and minimise costs to the taxpayer. Apparently it is envisaged that the revenue generated will, over time, cover all costs.

According to Mayorwatch, the cable car is currently running significantly below capacity despite the capital enjoying a tourism boost from the Olympics. TfL says around half a million passengers have used the cable car since it launched in June, and that “more than 20,000” journeys have been taken each day. It is estimated that the maximum daily capacity is 35,000 passengers during its 14 hours of weekday operation. According to Mayorwatch 10,000 of the first 0.5 million were free trips offered to local residents who were each given two complimentary return journeys to “thank them for their patience during the building phase.”

The Mayor has previously confirmed that receipt of the full sponsorship sum by Emirates is dependent on the cable car’s performance.



About djtplan

Independent Transport Planner
This entry was posted in New Modes, Transport Planning, Uncategorized, World Cities. Bookmark the permalink.

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