Brioche et circenses? The Thames Cable Car

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The Mayor, an erudite and eclectic author, is no doubt familiar with the context of remarks made by both Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Juvenal.

“S’ils n’ont plus de pain, qu’ils mangent de la brioche” – Jean-Jacques Rousseau

“Panem et circenses” – Juvenal

If LR readers will indulge me in a spot of Mwmbwlian metaphor mangling – Is the Thames Cable Car proposal destined to become just a “Brioche et Circenses”, (Cake and Circuses) feature of the coming Mayoral election or will it serve a useful purpose as part of east London’s infrastructure? Is there common agreement as to what that useful purpose might be?


Our thanks and copyright acknowledgements to Stukonha for the use of the picture above, which shows the Parque des Nacoes Cable Car System in Lisbon. Is this is what the proposed system could look like? Note the not visually obtrusive yet functional support columns. The system was installed to transport visitors to the Lisbon Expo in 1998 and was retained after the exhibition closed. To a large extent the scale of the structures and the size and frequency of the cars is determined by the nature of the planned traffic. Although Parque des Nacoes is now being developed for other purposes – this remains fundamentally a tourist line. The London system would probably look much like this if it is seen as, purely, a tourist attraction. Does any LR reader know if this system carries bicycles?

In time for the Olympics

Further our report on the proposed Thames Cable Car link from North Greenwich to the Royal Docks, a number of commentators have picked up that the link could be open in time for the 2012 Olympics. That would be the 27th July 2012 – or as I write 749 days way. TfL have published consultation documents that envisage a planning application being made in the autumn of 2010 followed by construction in 2011 and opening on or before the 27th July 2012. The consultation document points out that “The project is still in the early stages of development. This means there is still a lot of work to do including finalising the design, the operating hours and the prices.” There will be a lot more than that which will need to be fitted into the 749 days available – and the margin for error is narrow.


Our thanks and copyright acknowledgements to EY Busman for the above picture of New York’s Roosevelt Island Cable Car. This was built with commuters and surge capacity in mind, hence the larger cars and the scale of the associated engineering to carry the increased weight. This system has since been duplicated by the opening of new subway stations but has now been retained as a relief commuter system and a tourist amenity. Larger cable cars are found in France and Switzerland. Double deck and dual purpose cars are in use – allowing up to 200 passengers with skis to travel in comfort together with replenishment stocks of essentials of life items such as gluwein, indulgent pastries, engraved Swiss Cow Bells and knives for their army to the retail outlets at the top. The terrain and the vehicle weight can create the need for quite chunky supporting infrastructure.

The concept of a Thames Cable Car has been around for some time. A number of route variants such as Thamesmead to Beckton and the Dome to Canary Wharf have been considered. In July 2009, the TfL Planning and Corporate Panel noted that a North Greenwich to Canary Wharf link was an option:

This high profile idea has been suggested in the past by the owners of the O2 as a way of improving connections across the river and providing an additional visitor attraction. While commuter cable cars exist in other cities (New York Roosevelt Island initially opened as a temporary fix until a subway station was opened but is now a permanent fixture), potential landing sites are problematic on Canary Wharf side as the area is already significantly built out with permission for further development. Due to these land constraints, it is not supported by Canary Wharf. A route would pass very close to residential property at height, leading to significant access and privacy concerns, so there is high risk of objections from residents. It would be an iconic new feature but would not cope well with crowds during O2 events.

The panel concluded that this idea was not recommended for further work, as a ferry could provide a similar service at lower cost, with fewer risks and with more capacity potentially with access for cyclists. They did, however, note:

There may be potential for cable cars on an alternative route, such as between the O2 and ExCel, where there is less established development on the line of route. This may be something that private sector interests choose to take forward and could be considered as part of the LDA / LB Newham visioning work for the Royal Docks.

Players and Purpose

We can glean two nuggets from this. The first is that the cable car was not seen as late as 2009 as a good way of coping with peak surges either before or after O2 events – but dealing with such traffic would surely be a major feature in the rationale of private sector funder’s decision to contribute. There needs to be a common and clear vision as to the purpose(s) of the link in order to scale the systems infrastructure engineering properly.

The second is that also in 2009 the Mayor and TfL still regarded Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG), the developers of the O2 complex, (O2, the communications company, being the holders of the Naming Sponsorship rights c.f. The Emirates Stadium) that has been built inside the shell of the former Millennium Dome, as potential funders of the project. On the plus side, AEG have a track record in being prepared to invest in local supporting infrastructure. In 2006 they took a majority stake in Thames Clippers, ensuring enhanced river services to and from the 02 site. Their investment facilitated the purchase of new boats.

Following the enactment of the Gambling Act 2005, AEG had been approached over a cable car link in 2006. They offered to fund this, as part of the S106 agreement associated with the building of London’s Super Casino. This offer was withdrawn in 2007 after the independent commission, set up to evaluate bids decided that Manchester was the preferred site for the national Super Casino. AEG announced at the time that it could not then justify the investment a raft of proposed developments including a Richard Rogers designed, high-rise hotel, together with a theatre, and other extended developments planned adjacent to the dome structure. AEG are an American owned private company and hence not subject to the glare of full public scrutiny, but it is widely believed that passive provision for the super casino is still available for future developments.

Excel at the other end of the line is owned by ADNEC, the Abu Dhabi National Exhibitions Company. It forms part of the sovereign fund investment portfolio of the oil rich member of the United Arab Emirates. ADNEC bought the then troubled exhibition centre in 2008 for £178 million. The recent G20 Summit was staged at Excel and this was followed by a new £165 million pound investment in an International Convention Centre, opened by Mayor recently. This has 5,000 seat auditorium, as well as other facilities and (together with the O2) will be one of the host venues for the 2012 Olympics. The demand for accommodation created by the opening of these new facilities will drive hotel and other development along the north side of the Royal Docks.

It would appear that there are at least two potential candidates who might be willing to consider the proposal. Their attitude might, however, be conditioned that this approach for funds is not taking place in isolation – at the same time they are also being asked to fund Crossrail. In terms of delivering the project for 2012, protracted negotiations over who will fund what and how much could cause problems in meeting the delivery date.

At the moment the proposal suggests a northern terminal on the north west corner of the Royal Victoria dock closer to the DLR’s Royal Victoria Station than Custom House station – which sits immediately behind the Excel Centre. Whilst the proposed terminals will deposit travellers with easy reach of a number of hotels, the wider travelling public might be more interested in an easy connection to Custom House, which will shortly become a Crossrail Station as well as a DLR station. The contract for refurbishing the nearby Connaught Tunnel under the Royal Docks has recently been let and Arup and Atkins are currently designing the new Custom House Station.

Interestingly Peter Hendy mentions the possibility of connections to Custom House in the TfL press release – but the devil will undoubtedly be in the detail.

It is technically feasible to design a system that can call at the existing bump in the Royal Victoria waterfront and then continues along the dock to join to the link path from Custom House Station to Excel. Although the system does require the ability to climb over the Thames next to the O2 at a height that does not impede shipping, away from the Thames the height of the pylons are a disadvantage in that they must not interfere with the operations of the nearby London City Airport whose runway is aligned with the south side of the dock.

Learning from Experience

In systems engineering terms the technology of cable cars is well understood and the risks associated with construction and completion are known. There are some obvious things to avoid. However tempted by the prospect of “iconic signature designed” cars by some famous architectural or engineering practice, such ideas should be avoided in favour of proved and tested designs preferably for which construction jigs exist. It is important to learn from experience – the lessons of the NBfL design competition that resulted in the re-invention of “Ronnie the Routemaster”, which then had to be reworked into a bus design that was buildable by Wrightbus. If necessary, the Mayor in “Bart Simpson” mode must be made to write 500 times “I must avoid unnecessary distractions” before being allowed to escape on the skateboard he called at the opening of Excel’s ICC.

It isn’t only a question of learning from one’s own experience but also from that of others. If you visit the Gateshead Council website and type in Millennium Bridge you will find a glowing history that can be summarised as:

August 1996: Design competition launched
February 1997: Winning design announced. Detailed design work begins
May 1999: Construction work begins
November 2000: Asian Hercules transports bridge 6 miles from Wallsend
November 2000: Opening mechanism used for the first time
September 2001: Bridge opens to public
May 2002: The Queen officially opens Gateshead Millennium Bridge

The bridge is the kind of iconic structure that makes engineers tingle. Funded by the Millennium Commission, the 126-metre construction consists of a pair of steel arches. One deck comprises the cycle and pedestrian paths on an almost horizontal curve, supported and stabilised from above by suspension cables. The second deck counterbalances the other. The top of the arch reaches 50 metres above the water and forms an arc over the river. When ships need to pass through, the bridge opens hydraulically by tilting dramatically upwards from the surface of the water. The eight engines that drive it are housed in glass canopies at each end of the bridge. Opening and closing the bridge takes four and half minutes. The design is highly energy efficient and when built each tilt cost only £3.60. For those who spurn metric measurements it contains enough steel to make 64 double decker buses. For those who don’t, the bridge deck weighs in at more than 800 tonnes.

But it all so easily could have been a disaster. The timespan from the selection of the winning design to the opening of the bridge – which for public relations purposes had to be in the Millennium year – was a challenge especially for the client engineering team lead by Johnnie Johnson of Gateshead Council. The first thing that went awry was the obtaining of parliamentary permission to build the bridge. Major rivers are protected from developments that might inhibit shipping and the securing of a Transport Works Act 1992, (TWA) order that had been scheduled to take six months in the original project plan in fact took eighteen, taking a third out of the project schedule. The £22 million bridge was transported section by section from Bolton where the structure was made. Originally it was intended to build it on site and lift it into place as a single unit. This proved to be impossible to reconcile with the delayed 19,000 tonnes of concrete incorporated in the ground-works, which could not begin before parliamentary permission was granted, and so the bridge was assembled six miles downstream. Fortunately, there was at the time a lot of experience on the Tyne about building big steel stuff. It was subsequently brought six miles upriver on Asian Hercules II, Europe’s largest floating crane, to be positioned at Gateshead. The bridge lift worked like a charm watched by throngs of Geordies.

What they didn’t know was how close the project had come to failure – the change in construction methodology had meant that there were only two days when the tidal conditions were right to ship the completed bridge upstream. If bad weather had prevented this then they would have been left with an interesting steel sculpture sitting in a yard. The Asian Hercules 11 is also a scarce engineering asset – one much in demand for work around the world in the Oil and Gas industry and in major marine infrastructure projects. Its diary is written up for years ahead, and luckily it happened to be available – if the tide and weather had not been right it would have been necessary to ask the Queen to cancel the Millennium, at least in Newcastle and Gateshead for an embarrassingly indefinite period.

In addition to all this, Johnnie and his team had to cope with a major in situ project redesign when it was found that separate electrical feeds to both the north and south ends of the bridge would not be possible and that the south end feed would have to be extended across the bridge. Nerves became as frayed as builder’s jeans. The Millennium dawned and everyone in Newcastle and Gateshead are living happily ever after – or at least until the next time.

Johnnie Johnson then found himself in great demand at University and Industry Seminars for Civil, Mechanical and Electrical Engineers and went on to play a key role in the Government’s Rethinking Construction campaign that was intended to bring the British Construction Industry kicking and screaming into the new Millennium.

So what could possibly go wrong in London?

Without wishing to pretend to be a systems engineering guru, (As Peter Drucker once said – “Journalists call me a guru because they can’t spell charlatan”) it all hinges on mobilising and managing the stakeholders. If that does not happen the project will fail at about the same time the Mayor needs “Brioche et Circenses” to satisfy an electorate sharpening their little blue pencils.

  • Securing the financial backing necessary is integral to the process as is having a system that has a clearly defined and broadly accepted purpose. A clear vision of what this will and will not do is essential.
  • Learning from and applying the experience of others in terms of technology and project management.
  • Recognising that stakeholders are anybody who can impact on your project in any way is important. In the Mayor’s case, I would take especial care to make sure that the Port of London Authority and the Civil Aviation Authority are on board. In the case of the former, it might not be tactful to dwell too long on your aspirations to draw them into the Mayoral remit. The DfT will have an interest in granting a TWA, Orders under the power that relate to operation of an inland waterway and certain types of works that interfere with rights of navigation in waters up to the limits of the territorial sea. These include bridges, piers, barrages, tunnels, offshore wind farms and so on. (They don’t mention cable cars but I am sure they would be deemed to be within scope.).

Clarity of Purpose

Finally it will all come down to what purposes is this project intended to meet – predominantly tourist – predominantly commuter – or a coalition of the two. This is a question that needs to be explicitly addressed during the current consultation process because of the design implications.

Could I encourage all LR readers who have views on this project not only to tell us but also TfL.

Written by Mwmbwls