What next for the cable car? It still has no Oyster card commuters…

Greenwich cable car, 18 December 2015

Last year, this website told you there were no Oyster card commuters. Guess what? There still aren’t any. There’s more in this story I’ve written for Londonist: Cable car still has no regular users.

It’s the fourth year I’ve surveyed cable car usage in a typical October week. In 2012 and 2013 I did it for Snipe, just for this website in 2014, and for Londonist in 2015, where the week was 11-17 October. If you want more, Diamond Geezer has drilled down into the full dataset to see just when you can guarantee a cabin all to yourself. (All this is thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, currently under threat from the Government.)

The easy figure to home in 2012 was the number of people using it to commute, since Boris Johnson had banged on about it being such a vital link. Back then, 16 people tapped in with their Oyster cards more than five times in a week, enabling them to obtain a rebate on their fares. The following year this dropped to four. Last year, there were none at all. And it’s the same this year.

The handful of people who do commute on it use paper multi-trip tickets, which are valid for a year, and are less fiddly to use. About 30 are sold each week, although because the tickets are valid for a year, it’s hard to tell who’s using it to work and who is using it for fun. This year, I’ve seen figures for these paper tickets going back to opening day in June 2012, and sales don’t seem to tally with big events at the O2 or ExCeL, either. That said, a load were sold on 23 December last year, so maybe someone was giving out a load for Christmas presents (and they’ll have to be used up by today).

It does seem rather strange that TfL runs a public transport service that it discourages regular travellers from using its main public transport ticketing system on, but there you go.

Here’s a table of the week’s journeys:

0700-
0759
0800-
0859
0900-
0959
1000-
1059
1100-
1159
1200-
1259
1300-
1359
1400-
1459
1500-
1559
1600-
1659
1700-
1759
1800-
1859
1900-
1959
2000-
2100
2100-
2200
2200-
2300
Sun 11th 115 291 550 681 771 807 903 968 791 543 397 154
Mon 12th 18 19 44 230 191 206 210 218 200 238 189 214 122 72
Tue 13th 26 27 61 98 193 262 226 225 245 174 189 158 129 95
Wed 14th 22 46 74 249 294 231 307 244 213 263 197 183 111 115
Thu 15th 22 123 148 175 291 195 298 219 282 300 157 200 161 105
Fri 16th 21 33 40 149 225 217 230 232 241 213 211 250 181 137 96 85
Sat 17th 42 167 393 563 670 809 793 854 894 727 591 463 348 180 134

Individual Emirates Air Line journeys, hour by hour, between 11-17 October 2015. Source: TfL.

And here’s a graph:

Cable car hourly usage, October 2015

It’s bad news all round. Usage is pretty much the same as it was last year, the only rises coming from the opening hours being extended to 9pm on weeknights and 11pm on Fridays and Saturdays.

Tourist-friendly tickets were also well down in our sample week. Combined “experience” tickets, which allow admission to the Emirates Aviation Experience at the Greenwich Peninsula terminal, were down from 5,292 sales to 4,099. Sales of tickets allowing travel on the cable car and Thames Clippers river buses were also down, from 539 in 2014 to 291 this year.

Sun 11th Mon 12th Tue 13th Wed 14th Thu 15th Fri 16th Sat 17th
North 3,154 960 890 1,029 1,150 1,095 3,479
South 3,817 1,211 1,218 1,520 1,526 1,466 4,149
TOTAL 6,971 2,171 2,108 2,549 2,676 2,561 7,628

Total Emirates Air Line journeys, starting at north and south terminals, 11-17 October 2015. Source: TfL

Here’s how it compares with previous years:

Cable car usage 2012-15

So the cable car opened with a bang on 2012, slumped in 2013, rose slightly on the back of some touristy promotions in 2014, and has been lifted by night flights in 2015. What happens for 2016?

Not a lot, I imagine. We’ll have a new mayor who’ll be less beholden to mayor Johnson’s little projects. But the next mayor’s hands will be tied by the Emirates sponsorship contract signed by TfL in 2012 which, among other things, bans the next mayor from criticising that contract, and mandates a minimum level of service (which is why it opens up at 7am for a handful of punters – albeit a bigger handful than in the very early days.

TfL wanted the cable car because it wanted a river crossing that would bring in an income. Furthermore, it needs that income to pay off the £16m in taxpayers’ money that has gone into building it (plus £8m from the EU and £36m from Emirates). But it’s only made £1m in three years. The last TfL commissioner’s report states that usage will go up as the area around the cable car develops, and the cash will start rolling in.

But will it? At present, most development is going up on the Greenwich Peninsula – if you’ve moved there, would you want to pay a premium fare to go to the Royal Docks? (Would you go to the Royal Docks at all?) On the north side, development is around Canning Town station (notably the hideous London City Island) or at Royal Wharf to the east – too far from the cable car to be convenient.

It’s likely that it won’t be the next mayor’s call what to do with the cable car, but the one after – whoever is in charge in 2022, when the Emirates contract ends. By then, there might be some critical mass on both sides of the Thames, but will a premium-fare link be a help or a hindrance?

Another sponsorship deal could wipe out the loss, then the fares could be cut and it could just become part of the transport network. Or it could just be sold off as a tourist attraction.

That’s all a long way off, though. The more I find out about the cable car, the more questions seem to come up. Whoever wins in May, the Dangleway’s going to be an object of curiosity for some time yet.

More at Londonist. Thanks to Excel ninja Clare Griffiths for the graphs.

10 comments

  1. Jonny Guitar

    The cable car was one of the reasons my partner and I moved to the Peninsula! Really! Whenever friends and family stay we either take them to the Royal Docks for a drink (really lovely in the summer) or even just a return journey! It’s actually very good value for money, especially if you bundle it with a clipper ferry journey.

  2. fromthemurkydepths

    There’s a couple of substantial developments coming along which are very close to the northern cable car station. Not that I think they’ll do much for ridership. Two towers are coming at the ‘Hoola’ development, which I’ve just seen is being developed by HUB, who last week bought the site by Abbey Wood station. Another is the Pump House tower next to it. Both will be very close to any northern entrance of the Silvertown tunnel as well. I wonder if the buyers know?

    On the Greenwich side Knight Dragon have just started piling works for their towers beside the cable car, but they’ll complete long after those to the north (around 2017/18). But as with the north I can’t see it doing too much for numbers.

  3. Paddy

    The peninsula and the Royal docks are being developed massively and will change beyond recognition over the next decade or so, in a way I suspect you are not too happy about (what is so hideous about the City Island development?). I reckon the cable car will become part of the fabric of this part of London, partly as entertainment and partly as public transport. Personally, I think it’s great. If it were in another global city I visited, I would probably go and have a look. And as the area develops and becomes more and more a part of central London, it will probably end up paying for itself.

  4. Darryl

    Hoola! Thank you, murkydepths, had forgotten what that development was called.

    I think that without either the Peninsula or western Royal Docks becoming a major centre of employment, and without the other one being a major source of the staff for those employment centres, the cable car will always struggle while it charges higher fares.

  5. Shivanee

    The Cable Car is very popular with tourists and rated highly on TripAdvisor. In the long term, both the Peninsula and Royal Docks will see high residential density. If the Jubilee line is down, the Cable Car is the only alternative to connect on to tube lines as Westcombe Park, Maze Hill and Cutty Sark all involve a bus ride and sitting in traffic.

    Perhaps a bit of a folly but why not? Stratford has the rather ugly Helter Skelter and the Garden Bridge is coming soon to central London. Both the London Eye and Dome were initially criticised but now regarded as iconic. Agree with Paddy, the Cable Car will become another defining feature of London’s emerging skyline as the area becomes more prominent.

  6. Shivanee

    Also forgot to add, yes some of us do go to the Royal Docks! The Crystal is great (and willfully under-marketed) and there’s a really good Thai restaurant as well. Very nice in the summer.

  7. Maggie

    It’s a pleasant jaunt with children in school hols and they are marketing tickets including river travel. The Royal side will be improved when the rubbish dumping centre moves. It can get very smelly, so hope this happens before more development. Otherwise, as has been said, we locals accept it as an odd attraction for our visitors, despite the TFL rep telling Parliamentary committee it was the river crossing alternative available for cyclists…

  8. Jonny Guitar

    Hi Maggie – Please can you tell me where the rubbish dump is and when it’s set to move away? I’d recently moved into the area (lower riverside – east Greenwich Peninsula) and wondered where the smell was coming from! Thanks, Jonny

  9. Darryl

    There’s a few whiffy businesses on the Silvertown side – there’s a scrap yard directly beneath the cable car, which is occupying land TfL wants to use for the Silvertown Tunnel.

    Bad smells, however, are most likely to come from a firm which renders animal remains little to the east (search for John Knight Animal By-Products Ltd in Knight Road E16 and you’ll see where it is).

  10. Shivanee

    Jonny, the smell you are experiencing may well be from the recycling plant at the bottom of the Peninsula. Yes, GLA gave building permission for new homes without thinking to close that first. Or it may be from Westminster Council’s rubbish barge on the Thames (been going on for centuries apparently) or from waterworks and cabling for the new building on the path near the Jetty. Local residents in continuous discussion with both developers who are very aware of the various Peninsula smells!