Emirates Air Line: Bringing jobs and growth to the crisis PR trade

Thames Cable Car, 27 June 2013
The cable car was a year old last Friday, and almost as if to celebrate, I saw an unusually large number of people using it as I passed underneath it on my way to North Greenwich station at about 9.15am. Yes, a whole SIX passengers were using it – up on one passenger on the previous Tuesday, and nobody at all on the Monday.

To mark the anniversary, TfL issued a press release, entitled “One year after opening the Emirates Air Line is bringing jobs and growth to east London”. But the only growth industry sparked by the dangleway is that in increasingly desperate PR.

Well, I don’t know about east London, although the Siemens Crystal, which opened next door to the cable car’s northern terminal last autumn, was already going through the planning process at Newham Council when TfL announced its plans to build the cable car in July 2010.

As for south of the river, I’m pretty much certain that with the exception of the cable car’s own staff, contractors and associated workforce, and the tea van that pops up next to it, the Emirates Air Line has not created a single job in Greenwich. If you know of any, I’d love to hear about it.

The Emirates Air Line is successfully supporting regeneration and increasing footfall in Greenwich and Newham.

Today marks the first anniversary of passenger services on the UK’s first urban cable car, the Emirates Air Line, and the Mayor says it continues to play a key role in supporting growth and regeneration in east London.

Since opening, the Emirates Air Line, connecting Greenwich and the Royal Docks, has flown more than 2.4 million passengers across the Thames and customer satisfaction remains consistently high. Today, Transport for London (TfL) confirmed that it is working with AEG Europe, the owners of The O2, to make Emirates Air Line boarding passes available on The O2 website from August. That means passengers will be able to buy e-tickets for a flight on the Emirates Air Line at the same time as they book their visit to The O2, or their Thames Clipper travel.

The Emirates Air Line was built to support current and future regeneration in east London and the balance between leisure users and regular users will change as this takes place. The popularity among leisure users means the Emirates Air Line is covering its costs while encouraging people to visit Greenwich and the Royal Docks.

Those running costs, incidentally, are about £5.3 million a year – or £14,600/day – judging by the answer to a Freedom of Information request put in by Poplar-based campaigner Alan Haughton. At 2.4 million journeys since opening, it probably is covering its costs.

Remove last summer’s Olympic/Paralympic traffic (worth at least 200,000 journeys) and the novelty factor, though, and that business plan starts to get as wobbly as a gondola in the wind.

Of course, there’s still a £16m black hole where Emirates’ sponsorship (£36m) and European funding (£8m) haven’t covered the £60m cost of building the cable car.

“Regeneration of the area is already well under way as illustrated this month when the Mayor of London announced a £1.5bn deal with the Silvertown Partnership to transform Silvertown Quays in London’s Royal Docks into an innovative new quarter that will be able to accommodate more than 1,500 new homes, restaurants, cafes, galleries and leisure facilities both on and off the water, making it a thriving destination for Londoners and visitors to live, work and enjoy. Work on the first phase of the site is expected to begin in 2014/15.”

All very well, but development at Silvertown Quays – which will involve the demolition of the landmark Millennium Mills – hardly depends on a cable car from Greenwich. Instead, it’ll cling to Crossrail for life, and its central proposition – a park of “brand pavilions” – seems to be the sort of development that could be used to try to justify the Silvertown Tunnel.

Other exciting developments coming to the area include a new 452-room hotel next to The O2 with residential apartments in 2015. All of this development will directly benefit from the convenient and direct river crossing the Emirates Air Line provides.

That’ll be the hotel that’s been planned since at least 2009, then.

So, with the cable car having attracted precisely nothing to the peninsula, its sponsor is stepping in.

The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, said: ‘The Emirates Air Line is doing exactly what it set out to do and supporting regeneration of an area with huge potential to provide new jobs and homes. The £1.5bn deal to transform the Silvertown Quays in London’s Royal Docks is a superb illustration of how providing new transport links like the cable car can be the perfect spur for economic growth.

‘As the customer satisfaction scores show, Londoners and visitors from around the world thoroughly enjoy using this innovative transport experience and the new and exciting Emirates Aviation Experience opening in July next to the Greenwich terminal will be yet another fantastic reason to visit this rapidly developing area of London.’

Cable car terminal, 1 July 2013Yep, the Emirates Aviation Experience, which has appeared in what were meant to be retail units inside the Greenwich cable car terminal, featuring two flight simulators in a “fun, yet educational, overview of just what it takes to successfully get a 560 tonne aircraft off the ground and 40,000 feet into the sky”. PR agency Pulse (“creating happy humans”) has been recruiting for it. So the first jobs to be created by the Emirates Air Line are being created by… Emirates itself.

I heard a whisper that Boris was due in Greenwich to open it today, incidentally, presumably to thank his sponsor for doing him a favour.

Of course, none of this desperate justification would be needed if the cable car had been built as proper public transport, integrated into the Travelcard scheme and charging normal zone 3 fares, instead of £3.20 each way. There’s no press releases claiming the London Overground covers its costs – it’s accepted that throwing a billion pounds at railways in north and east London is a price worth paying for a better quality of life for hundreds of thousands of people each day. Because the cable car has been built as a tourist attraction, it has to be seen as covering its costs.

A year on, the cable car just sits there for its 16 commuters, like a strange Christmas present bought by an in-law that you can’t decide what to do with. It sits there, heading off in the wrong direction, as a monument to the failure to plan Greenwich Peninsula’s growth properly. When North Greenwich station, already creaking at the seams, can’t cope with the peninsula’s growing population, the cable car will still be sat there, useless.

And it’ll be a headache for whoever’s (un)lucky enough to succeed Boris Johnson as mayor in 2016. What should he or she do? I’d be interested to hear what you think – please assume there’s no cash to do anything like building foot/cycle bridges or moving to to Canary Wharf.

Or, if you have an even better idea, share it below…


  1. A big PR win would’ve been to open it early for people cycling to the start of the Prudential Ride London in August. As it stands anyone south east of the river needs to go through the Greenwich foot tunnel or Rotherhithe tunnel – travelling over on the cable car could’ve shortened the route considerably.

  2. Re crossrail, is the station at Woolwich going to get its funding do you know? I’d heard the meeting to decide this was on 3 July: there’s been an (ominous?) silence since then. Do you have any update?

  3. Dawn – Haven’t seen anything since the meeting, but I think it’s just a matter of dealing with the small print – and finding out who is paying what, and how that cash will be raised.

    Lee – good point. I’ve been surprised this month to see it’s been closing at 9pm, despite the sun setting later than that – not a good way to market a tourist attraction based on views…

  4. Interesting to see so many votes for the “let people use Travelcards” option. Maybe I should ask the same question about river buses some day, which are similarly niche – very useful for a small number of people – but never seem to be fulfilling their potential (probably because there’s more pressing options when it comes to funding transport).

  5. There is no way they actually believed it would be a useful commuting method during the planning process, it was surely purely just what they had to say to get it approved. It was such a joke to start with- The Cable Car to Nowhere. Even as a tourist attraction it’s not fantastic- everything of interest is way off in the distance. But as someone with kids who lives right by it, it’s great. Kids love it, it’s a good diversion when there’s nothing else to do, and it’s a direct route to The Crystal which is actually a great exhibition with a fabulous cafe. It does draw in more people than you think though- yes there are many times you can watch the cars go around completely empty, or maybe with one lone figure, but it does get loads of school groups and tourist groups during the week, and is generally fairly busy on weekends. As far as commuters go, I’m surprised there are as many as 16! I think overall it’s perfectly geared towards people like me- locals in the immediate vicinity with children, not exactly a big money-maker or what they intended. As a helpful tip- buy the 10 trip ticket. It halves the price of each trip- I’ve lost count but I’m pretty sure I’m on my 6th ten-tripper. That itself should be tied to Oyster card though- frequent fliers get the short end of the stick as you have to wait for someone with a hole punch to let you in or out rather than just scanning yourself in. Not exactly high tech. It would have *probably* been more useful had it gone to Canary Wharf- I heard rumours a while back that they were going to build an extension, any truth to that?

  6. I sincerely hope there is no extension to Canary Wharf. After being told this vanity project would cost us nothing, can you really trust these people??

    I work In Canary Wharf and the tube is perfectly acceptable to me. If it was built I would only get the Dangleway if it was free or substantially cheaper than the tube. It would certainly be a heck of a lot slower!

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