Not A London Cable Car Mockup

Not A London Cable Car Mockup (courtesy the Ronald Grant Archive)

Today has seen the announcement that the London Cable Car has finally found its sponsor – Emirates Airline. Emirates will contribute £36m to the project (more on this figure later), and in return will receive branding rights, naming rights and joint logo rights. [Indeed JB now owes this author a crisp fiver, for betting that it would be the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Company instead]

A London Cable Car Mockup

What this means in reality for the Cable Car (which it appears will now likely be known as the Emirates Air Line) can be seen in the flythrough video above.

It would be easy to focus solely within this post on this announcement itself, but in truth there are many questions to be asked about the Cable Car of which the sponsorship is only one.

Throughout Britain, athletes are getting ready for next year’s Olympics. As one Olympic coach said, “Everyday they tell me about their breakfast then work so hard they feel the need to show me their breakfast”. Competition is tough and to meet the challenge athletes compete in two ways. First they compete against themselves, pushing onwards for a personal best performance and second they calibrate this performance against that of their rivals. In sport, both athletic and tran, what gets measured gets managed. It is described as benchmarking.

We have written on a number of occasions about the proposed cable car in London before and in July our chum IanVisits reported in his blog on a design exhibition at the Building Centre.

With our ever child-like curiosity for new toys, we have pestered various press officers for more details of this project but somehow never managed to make a lot of progress. We asked a simple question – because the cable car uses proprietary technology which system, now in operation, was it like? E-mails went unanswered; questions of client confidentiality and/or organisational communication’s silos in the subcontractor chain were inferred. We were obliged to content our souls with patience. But recently a scintilla, if not a scintilla and a half, of doubt has crossed our mind were some of the aforesaid media interface personnel treating us to a master class of Yorkshire cricket’s famous attritive batting techniques?

There is a story of a young cricketer from Derbyshire who crossed the county boundary to play for team in Sheffield. A keen batsman with a good eye for the ball, he was asked to open the batting with his team captain at the other end. He started crisply swiping the first ball over the boundary for six and then the next for four. He then proceeded to treat the next three balls in the same manner before stealing a single from the final ball. Whilst the fielding side were changing over, he joined his captain tamping divots in the wicket expecting a brief word or two of encouragement. To his surprise, the captain glared at him. “What’s tha’ doin’?” he muttered, “Tha’s not out ‘ere to score runs, tha’s supposed to make their bowlers tired.”

So it is cap doffing time to our chum, the intrepid Tom Edwards of Auntie, for taking out the middle and leg pylons with his story on the cable car which broke the news that the cost of the project has now risen to £60 million, just three days after the TfL Board meeting.

I’ve learnt the cost of the mayor’s flagship cable car project has gone up – again.
Initially, Transport for London (TfL) estimated the cost at £25m and said it would use only private finance to pay for it.

Then the estimate increased to £45m, with TfL admitting it would use its own budget.

Now, we find out that figure did not take into account “technical and legal advice, project management and assurance, land acquisition and procurement costs”.

TfL says the total cost will now be £60m and it is actually paying for it out of the rail budget.

So far, so confusing.

This is what TfL sent to me: “TfL is forecasting to spend approximately £60m on the build cost for the cable car.

“This includes the £45.1m for Mace [the construction company] build, £9.3m for other build costs.

“In addition an allowance of £5.2m has been set aside as, with any project of this scope and scale, funding for a contingency (set at 15% of the contract value) is required to cover unforeseen costs, although this may not be used.

“TfL is seeking to recoup the build cost through a combination of sources including a commercial sponsorship, third party funding (via an application to the European Regional Development Fund) and fare revenue.”

TfL is in discussions with a potential sponsor and hopes to make an announcement soon.

Once finished, the cable cars will run 50m (164ft) above the Thames, carrying up to 2,500 people an hour between two Olympic venues: the O2 arena in North Greenwich and the Excel exhibition centre at the Royal Victoria Dock.

It is stuff like this that makes the licence fee seem such a bargain.

The following day our chum, Rachel, at the Londonist had picked up on Tom’s and exposed insult to go with injury.

Yesterday’s news that the Thames Cable Car costs have risen to £60m didn’t surprise us that much – Caroline Pidgeon got an admission out of Boris in June that it was pushing the £57m mark, but what’s made us eye-poppingly enraged is TfL telling the BBC that they’re paying for it out of the rail budget.

If TfL were swimming in cash this would be fine, but this is the same TfL that’s just announced PAYG fare increase of 10p per bus journey and an 8% rise for travel cards. A TfL that’s committed to huge upgrades on the tube network (surely a nobler cause for raiding other parts of their budget?). A TfL that’s expanding the Overground network and involved in Crossrail.

Hmm… “Eye-poppingly”- a nice revival of Barry Took and Marty Feldman’s “Round the Horn” vocabulary there, Rachel. [NB note to self – Do not challenge Rachel to play Scrabble]

As was noted at the beginning of this article, a sponsorship deal for the Cable Car is now in place. It does not require eagle eyes, however, to spot that the Emirates figure is below the £50m sponsorship target floated around before the announcement was confirmed and even further below the now anticpated £60m possible cost. Indeed it’s a point that Liberal Democrat Assembly Budget Spokesman Mike Tuffrey has already begun to vocally make, echoing Rachel’s comments on the Londonist:

Transport for London admit that this sponsorship deal only meets 80% of the construction cost. This leaves many millions of pounds worth of funding to be found from TfL’s budget. At a time when fares are set to rise by well over the rate of inflation people will be asking why the Mayor has failed to live up to what he had promised and ensured the cable car was entirely self financing.

The question of value for money seems now even more important to ask and so it is to the Gondola Project team that we now turn.

This is a Canadian blog founded in 2009 by Steven Dale, an urban planner and researcher. He believes that Cable-Propelled Transit (CPT or cable for short) is a capable and proven form of mass transit that also happens to be remarkably cost-effective. In terms of being a game changer in opening up deprived urban barrio areas around South American cities, this is undoubtedly the case.

The Caracas Cable Car

The Caracas Cable Car, with thanks and copyright acknowledgements to Venezuelan Flickrist Caracas Refurbished’s Gustavo Jimene (more excellent images here)

In order to address the fact that CPT is relatively unsung and often misunderstood, Steven created The Gondola Project – its goal to collate data and analysis necessary for benchmarking to take place. This is rather like a “highly strung” London Reconnections for both cable car fans and practitioners.

Steven’s initial appraisal of the London Cable Car is – what is the phrase? ; Ah yes, eye-poppingly and even jaw-droppingly critical.

It must be read with the caveat that he, like us, is unsighted as to the detailed background, and as we will see later details can be important. There is, however, an emerging drip feed pattern in the Cable Car’s project history of unforeseen costs and unheralded shakes in the financing scheme that will make many readers uneasy, especially those who have read our oft recommended study text on project snafus, Bent Flyvberg, Nils Bruzelius and Werner Rothengatter’s “Megaprojects and Risk”. Steven applies informed logical inference that results in a testable hypotheses; that is he is interpreting the known facts to give a plausible explanation. The economist John Maynard Keynes famously said, “When the facts change. I change my mind. Don’t you?” And as Karl Popper pointed out all such hypotheses are there just waiting to be disproved. As LR readers’ comments show we sometimes see a stick and make the wrong choice of ends. But have we, or he, done so in this case? By the way, if you read Steven’s article at source it is well worth ploughing on to read further details that emerge from the associated comments’ stream -they’re reminiscent of home here on LR.

Over the weekend it was announced that the estimated project cost for London’s Thames Cable Car (Gondola) has ballooned to an estimated £60m. For those interested, that means the system will cost roughly $100m USD per kilometre.
With the possible exception of the Caracas Metrocable, the London Thames Cable Car will easily be the most expensive gondola/cable car ever built. It’s even more expensive than the overpriced Burnaby Mountain Gondola, whose cost has also yet to be explained or justified.

The London Thames Cable Car appears to be nothing more than the latest example of largely English-speaking transit agencies’ unwillingness and/or inability to rein in costs related to transit projects.

There is absolutely, positively, completely no reason whatsoever this project should cost London taxpayers ~$100m USD. Not a single good reason:

Off-the shelf Monocable Detachable Gondolas (MDG) technology is being used.

While we have no confirmation of this fact, we can use a little something called logic to figure it out. Construction on the project started just a few months ago. As the goal is to complete the system by next summer, the only possible way in which to do that is to use MDG technology. This is the most common CPT system you’ll encounter as their low cost has made them an attractive addition to public transit systems in the developing world. Characterized by a detachable grip (where rubber drive wheels lift the cable car off the cable) which allows for intermediary stations and corner turning, MDG’s utilize a single cable (hence, monocable) for both propulsion and support. This means that the cable that pulls the vehicles is also the cable that supports the vehicle.

An example of MDG technology is shown here in Caracas. This is the system and gondola car size that is generally expected to be used in London. Note that when carrying disabled passengers the seats are tipped up to allow access and egress.

The Gondola team then go on to discuss the alternative technology offered by Doppelmayr, the London Cable Cars’ supplier, known as 3S which uses 3 ropes (cables). This 3 Seil (the German for rope) system allows larger cars to be operated and has greater adverse weather tolerance. An example of 3S technology in operation at Koblenz is shown here. The advantages of using cars this size when accommodating cyclists and the disabled are self-evident. Another feature to note is that the London Cable car is only 100 metres longer than that in Koblenz. Steven goes on to draw some pertinent comparisons

3S technology would be the sexier (possibly even better) choice here, but the reality is this: MDG technology has virtually off-the-shelf availability; 3S has to be built to order. That’s why an MDG can be turned around in such a short period of time.

Widely available renderings also indicate MDG technology.

All-in, an MDG system can be built for $10m – $30m USD per kilometre. Max.
At their most expensive, Medellin’s Metrocable systems were coming in at ~$25m USD and that included intermediary stations, turns, 4,000 passengers per hour per day (pphd) capacity (compared to London’s 2,500 pphpd), land acquisition and all station and tower architecture.

Where the technology is manufactured invalidates questions of where it’s built.

Okay, sure. Medellin isn’t London and it certainly doesn’t cost as much as London. But remember: As the majority of the cable system itself is manufactured in a western-European location (France, Austria, Switzerland and/or Italy), that means the cost of the systems’ electro-mechanical components (cabins, cable, towers, stations, etc.) will not vary much from place-to-place.

The only thing that’s likely to cause any sort of shift in price is currency and/or commodity fluctuations. But as the Euro has been depreciating against the British Pound for much of the last two years, shouldn’t the price actually be decreasing?

The one counter-argument to this could be if much of the system is being manufactured in Switzerland – in which case the rapid over-inflation of the Swiss Franc could be leading to these increases but

a) Much of that over-inflation has been recently stemmed due by Switzerland’s Central Bank.

b) As we understand it the system is being built by Doppelmayr not Garaventa.

This is important because Doppelmayr is an Austrian company that trades in Euros and Garaventa is a Swiss subsidiary that trades in Francs. In other words, somewhere between 75 and 90% of the cost of this system is being incurred purely in London alone.

The capacity of this system invalidates the need for large scale station infrastructure.

As reported, the Thames Cable Car is expected to move roughly 1,000,000 people in its first year of operations with a throughput of 2,500 persons per hour per direction (pphpd). One million looks like a big number, but it’s really not when you consider how many hours there are in a day and how many days there are in the year.

Oversized station architecture typically accounts for the bulk of costs in a cable system such as this, but given the modest number of people this system is anticipated to move, there is absolutely no reason to invest in large scale stations.

To demonstrate: The Koblenz Rheinseilbahn utilizes the above-mentioned 3S technology and moves ~3,600 pphpd. It has been an enormous success and I’m told is moving tens of thousands of people per day due to the bi-annual (and inexplicably popular) BUGA horticultural festival. The Koblenz Rheinseilbahn is also only 1 km long and cost ~$20m USD all in.

With regard to the $20 million cost for Koblenz, we feel it is worth pointing out that – like the London Eye – the facility was always described as temporary. Part of the reason for the low cost is that the plan is to reuse the equipment in subsequent 3S installations. So Koblenz is essentially renting a 3S for three years for that amount, not buying it, and the cost from Doppelmayr is based on that business plan.

Now whether as a result of its success it does get handed back is a moot point, given that temporary attractions like the Eiffel Tower and the London Eye proved so popular they were transformed from temporary to permanent structures. So the Koblenz numbers may change but probably not to the magnitude of London’s costs.

Suffice be it to say that given there was not a pre-determined budget for London’s investment and that it hinged on what turned out to be, a somewhat nebulous private funding arrangements with a promise of no public funding involvement – was there a better way of financing the cable car?

This is what the Koblenz stations look like:

A Koblenz Station

A Koblenz Station (more images here)

That’s the entire station, infrastructure and all. Now compare that to London:

Cable Car South Station

Cable Car South Station

See the difference?

Granted the London system has two things that the Koblenz system does not. Owing to Koblenz’s current status as a temporary installation, it does not have the maintenance bay and custom-designed towers that the Thames Cable Car will. Fine. But do those two items justify the Thames Cable Car’s absurd price premium over the Rheinseilbahn? Not when the Rheinseilbahn carries almost double the number of people.

Transport for London and Mayor Boris Johnson owe the people of London an explanation – particularly as they now plan to pay for it “out of the rail budget”
Suffice it to say, this isn’t going to win Urban Gondolas any fans – likely just a few more enemies in one of the most highly visible cities in the world.

So there we have it. We still do not have the answers but we do have more questions:

  1. Do the Mayor and TfL agree with the observation and conclusions of the Gondola Project analysis?
  2. Are the adverse comparisons drawn with Koblenz valid and if not, why not? If as appears to be the case, would not a similar lease or rent before you buy scheme as in Koblenz been a better way of testing the market?
  3. Has a valid analogy be drawn?

Other questions also spring to mind – against which other cable car system installation are TfL benchmarking their performance, for example? What have been the major cost drivers resulting in the apparent over-run and can a breakdown of these costs be released?

Mott MacDonald act as project advisers to TfL on this project. They are a respected engineering consultancy responsible for similar projects such as the, much longer Ngong Ping Cable Car in Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong Ngong Ping Cable Car

The Hong Kong Ngong Ping Cable Car, courtesy Canadian Flickrist YYC Rob. Note the difference in gondola size with those of Koblenz

The Running Gear of the Ngong Ping Cable Car

The Running Gear of the Ngong Ping Cable Car, courtesy Marcus Wong

They are also owners of Franklin and Andrews, a household name in households where banter about project construction costs is the norm across the breakfast table. Franklin and Andrews are collators and disseminators of benchmark construction cost standards through a series of “Black Books”. Mott’s could well be able to contribute international comparator information on this matter.

Further questions also seem pertinent – at what point in the project risk register were the cost omissions and deviations recognised and what mitigation processes were put in place? To what extent do the London specific tailored features, the pylons and the stations, impact on the increases in cost? To what extent, if any, did the imperative to get something done before the Olympics influence the life cycle project procurement and management process?

Perhaps most importantly at this stage, it is also worth asking whether a lessons learnt review been initiated. Indeed if, as reported in Steve’s comments, the Koblenz Rheinseilbahn, situated as it is in a small city in Germany, carries twice the number of passengers that London is projected to do – then it is likely also worth asking how robust the original demand study was and whether the system has been built to an expected load or down to a budget?

Finally, we have become used to mock ups of future transport systems in London – for example, the New Bus for London, being available in particular for scrutiny by the disabled and other interested parties and the design modified (in theory at least) to meet their particular concerns. Will the Cable Car be subject to the same degree of critical user consultation?

We are not unsympathetic to the Cable Car concept. Many people believe that the Mayor should have prioritised other areas of transport investment but at the end of the day taking visionary decisions is part of his job description. After all, Mayor Livingstone’s punt on regenerating Stratford came off. Some may still choose to question the Mayor’s judgement but, now that this choice has been made, a more relevant question is probably this – how well has this choice been implemented?

Has Boris made the right bet and, if he has, is it going to large enough to benefit a wide spectrum of Londoners, particularly those in dire need of improved cross river communications? Cross river cable cars, as demonstrated by Koblenz, can become popular tourist attractions and do work. We always knew that the Cable Car was a high risk project in terms of reaching its completion horizon. Indeed in our earlier article we touched on the “near miss” triumph that was the Millennium Bridge between Gateshead and Newcastle. We raised the issue as to whether the system was sized and designed with not only tourists but London travellers in all their shapes and conditions, in mind. Perhaps unfairly, alluding to the Mayor’s affection for matters Latin and his excellent book on the subject, we referred to Juvenal’s quotation on bread and circuses.

“For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple – and wrong.” With these words the famous journalist, H L Mencken was right. It would be far too easy to create a caricature default perception that London is blowing away chunks of its dough by sending in the clowns. Tempting as it might be to hunker in the bunker, with the yips and yaps and emboldened questions of running jackal blogs echoing outside, one thing is almost certain. As the electoral thermometer begins to rise, the next Mayor’s Question Time Sessions with either the whole assembly or the Transport Committee will raise these or similar questions. So even if nobody wants to respond us now – the time spent in preparing answers will not be wasted. It could well be an absolute must-watchingly webcast.

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There are 63 comments on this article
  1. Simon_N16 says:

    Absolutely beyond belief that this ridiculous BoJo vanity project will be funded at the expense of London Rail.

    If this clown gets in again next year it’ll be a travesty!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Clown? I assume you prefer Livingstone who is the bigger clown. If HE gets back in then I will happily leave London.

    This is something London needs, a new attraction, a new attraction that is different to what we are used to. Not over-spending on brand new buses every year when they are not needed.

  3. Geoff says:

    Overspending on new buses that aren’t needed? I thought that was a Boris speciality?

  4. Giles Smedley says:

    The Ngong Ping cable car is known to break down quite often. However, at least it has a function, if one knows the georgraphy of Lantau island.

    The London cable car seems in comparison to be a complete vanity project. It’s essentially a people version of those white elephants known as ‘transporter bridges’. I think the only ones left are in Middlesborough and Newport (Wales).

  5. Tim Burns says:

    Another bit of TfL’s careful constructed graphical design guidelines are eroded in this new logo I see. Hardly a “Frank Pick approved” solution?

  6. Pedantic of Purley says:

    With the possible exception of the Caracas Metrocable, the London Thames Cable Car will easily be the most expensive gondola/cable car ever built.

    If true, this is a really remarkable achievement. Cable cars typically exist in hostile terrain. Often the only way materials can be brought in is by helicopter. The cable stations at each end can be miles from the nearest road. Winter conditions can make construction impossible. Merely stringing the cable across can be a severe challenge due to it crossing an inaccessible valley or unnavigable fast flowing river. Often there is no really suitable site for a work compound.

    In London there will be road access to both sites. The river can and often does host giant floating cranes. Laying on an electricity supply could hardly be easier. The builders would be unlucky if they lost more than a few hours construction time due to high winds and they would not have to shut up shop for winter. One would not need to provide accommodation on site as the workers could simply walk to the nearest underground station, or whatever, at the end of their shift and go home.

    When will planners ever learn that the first time you embrace technology you are unfamiliar with you are liable to get your fingers burnt ? Of course it is often worthwhile to progess with a new idea so that you can learn from experience and not make the same mistakes the second time round. So to benefit from the mistakes learnt all we need to do is construct a few more of these things in the many locations in London where they are obviously the ideal solution to a transport problem.

  7. Daniel says:

    What are the fares likely to be when it opens?

  8. Patrick says:

    I would hope that the cars travel a little slower than shown in the animation as wheelchair users will find getting in and out a little difficult. I also notice that someonen was shown travelling with a bicycle. I would doubt that that would be allowed in the final version!

  9. ASLEF shrugged says:

    Or you could just take the DLR to Canning Town, pop down the escaltor to the Jubilee Line and be at North Greenwich in the time it would take you to walk to the cable car.

    Anonymous 1.58, nice of you to offer to vacate the city so someone who wants to be here can move in. Sadly I think you’re a Freddy Starr, he said he’d emigrate if Blair got in, the bugger’s still here……

  10. Anonymous says:

    I’m a bit confused. You weren’t impressed when Boris failed to fund a £70-100M footbridge which duplicated an existing direct tube line (Sustrans bridge, Rotherhithe, the latter figure from the business case) but highly critical when he chips in a few million to get a new crossing built slightly downriver? One that will attract new visitors to a growing area in real need of the jobs which will follow? To put it into perspective if the build is £45M and sponsor paying £36M, you could build about 90 of these for the cost of the upgrade of Victoria tube station, and it sounds like EU regeneration money may even fill this gap. Didn’t Ken spend about £40M on West London Tram before realising it wasn’t going to work? We don’t have much to show for that.

    Also, while some components will come from Switzerland, most is being built here by British workers (the steel for the towers is being made in England, and most of the building is being done on site, much of it over water). The towers are the second and third tallest cable car towers in the world, and being in a smart new urban quarter are of high quality design rather than being standard pylons. Could you clarify the comparative labour rates of inner London and South America, and whether you think the towers should have been ugly pylons to save a few quid?

    I didn’t vote for Boris, but credit where it’s due, he’s delivering something here which will make a real difference to this part of town, and is doing so with very little public money indeed compared with other transport projects.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Nowhere near as impressive as the one at Alton Towers..!

  12. Anonymous says:

    Just seen the BBC news. Good interview from the editor! Wonderful freudian slip from Boris when he said “this is a great deal for Emirates”, that would be like the bikes being a great deal for Barclays. I was under the impression that his job was to deliver a great deal for London. I have to say, I have been surprised by Boris – I honetsly expected him to cock it up big style before now, but I think this will just be a shape of the disasters to come if he gets back in. I know Ken isn’t perfect, it would have been great to see younger blood coming in, but Boris has spent enourmous sums on this and the new routemaster chasing vanity projects. What we need is spending of substance – cross river tram, tramlink extensions and an all round improvement on orbital links in the outer boroughs not pointless, overpriced white elephants.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Is it a coincidence that one of the stations will be just outside one of TfL’s big new offices at Pier Walk?

  14. Rational Plan says:

    Even if you consider this a waste of money or hate the new Routemaster both are mere drops in LT’s budget of £9.2 billion a year.

    As to moaning about the cost of this system compared to those in Europe, it’s not very effective stick to beat Boris with, considering the cost of building any infrastructure in this country compared to Spain or France. I mean why is Crossrail going to cost £16 billion. meanwhile Paris planning to build an orbital automated Metro line 130 km in length for just £20 billion. Where were your critical articles then.

  15. Geoff says:

    The video includes
    a) a wheel-chair user
    b) a person with a bicycle

    How are they supposed to get on-board a moving vehicle?

    Can the system be brought to a dead stand to accomodate them, the blind and those with mobility problems?

    Having recently had spinal surgery, and temporarily walking with crutches, I’ve become very aware of how many people have mobility problems.

    Seems to me this system will be unlikely to run non-stop for many minutes at a time.

  16. Mwmbwls says:

    Rational Plan, your eponymous criticism is well taken. Perhaps it is the consequence of years of auditing textiles factories as an articled clerk where I soaked up their attitude of “If you can’t trust folk with small stuff – don’t trust ’em with big stuff” which conditions my view of the materiality of these overruns.

    It’s the accountant’s version of the “broken windows” police philosophy. You are right concerning the relative costs of construction elsewhere, as Sir Roy MacNulty and prior to that Tom Windsor at the ORR have consistently pointed out.

    To my mind this makes an overwhelming case for benchmarking. Understanding how well TfL do this is the subtext of this article. You raise an extremely relevant point about Crossrail being subject to the same rigor.

  17. Greg Tingey says:

    “Diamond Geezer” ( )
    has already commented on this insanity.

    In the meantiome, wait for the inevitable LCA crash, with pane nosediving inot dock, ditto cablecar.

    And apart from fact that termini are nowhere NEAR the supposed tube/DLR stations.

    Problem is, the alternative to Boris is … someone who refuses to denounce islamist women-haters (Y. al-Qardarwi)
    Now what?

  18. Pedantic says:

    @ Rational Plan

    Where were your critical articles then?

    We do all we can in the time we have available. In addition some of us naturally gravitate to particular topics. Lets turn the question around. Where was your offer to write a piece on something that you felt needed covering and we had not done so ?

  19. Simon_N16 says:

    Anonymous 01.58

    Ken a clown? What is his transport legacy? London Overground, a massively improved, hugely important rail network for London which is still growing.

    And BoJo? Hmmmm. I guess he’s saved £7.5m in fare evasion by removing artics, at a cost of £12m.

    And the white elephant cable car.

  20. Robin says:

    Brace yourselves for the Cable Car Replacement Bus Service (or similar):

  21. Sponsorhip?? says:

    Emirates Air-Line…. is corporate sponsorship how TfL will plug all future budget gaps?

    Be prepared for a radical re-write of the Tube map:

    the Johnson’s Baby Powder Jubilee line
    the Nivea Northern Line
    Dolce & Gabbana District Line
    Hovis Baker Street station

    (you get the picture)

  22. John Bull says:

    @Rational Plan

    Fair points.

    To be honest my views tend to match Mwmwbls’ – it is a mere drop in the ocean but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be run with a good amount of the same vigour and commitment to value/benchmarking as other TfL projects.

    There is a big different between a £25m Cable Car that’s completely covered in funding terms by the private sector, and a £55m Cable Car partly covered by sponsorship (£36m) and an EU grant (£8m).

    That this project has gone from the first to the second very quickly means that there are questions that need to be asked – many of which Mwmbwls identified within the article. To those I would add the question as to how much of that £36m is being paid up front (its a 10 year deal), because if it’s yearly installments then its actually worth less than £36m due to inflation. Similarly is any of that money contingent on certain goals being met, such as the Cable Car being ready for the Olympics.

    Basically I’m completely open to the possibility that the Cable Car is good value for money, and that there are reasonable grounds for why its costs have escalated and seem to be far greater than similar systems elsewhere – I’m just not convinced that those have currently been demonstrated. We’ve seen a lot of spin so far and a lot of talk of people whizzing through the air over the river – but not a lot of the kind of detailed analysis and benchmarking that we have seen for the likes of Crossrail and the Underground Upgrades.

    Hopefully that’s stuff that will now start to surface.

  23. John Bull says:



    Sorry, but there are two points in your comment that I need to pull you up on:

    1) We have written on the Airport PSZ issue at length on here, and as a regular reader I know you’ll be aware of this. We explained the situation in great detail, including the fact that the anticipated accident ratio is 1 in 91,000 years, well within the DfT’s safety margins. If you want to question the Cable Car on benchmarking grounds or similar fact-based assessments then do so here. If you want to make willfuly misleading one liners of the kind that you regularly criticise others for, then this this is not the place to do it.

    2) This is also not the place to start some kind of Ken/Boris general mud-slinging match along similar lines – again if you want to discuss their policy approaches to the Cable Car or associated Transport then great. If not, it has no place here.

  24. timbeau says:


    Sponsors usually like to cover things that match their own house colours – it’s no coincidence that Emirates sponsors Arsenal FC and Samsung sponsor Chelsea, or Marlborough sponsors Ferrari (who, since Jaguar morphed into Red Bull in 2004, are now the only F1 team to still stick with their traditional national colours)

    So how about the Northern Rock Line? The Coca-Central Line. Waterloo & (Barclays) Bank line. The TangO-verground? (If a certain Mobile phone company don’t outbid them!)

  25. Rational Plan says:

    It’s plain there is a vocal section of the population who are completely phobic to Boris, completely contrary to his polling numbers, and so any of his works must be evil because…. “there he is just grinning away in his jolly japes way being so damned posh, arghh” etc etc.

    But at then end of the day all he’s done is trim the budget a bit and not be Ken, plus a few small flourishes (bikes, cable cars and bus) that can be squeezed out of the current budget. There are no spare billions for him to splash around, keeping the tube modernisation on track and stopping crossrail being cancelled is his real unsexy legacy.

    In fact TFL seems very happy with him. When he first came in there were calls to get rid of Peter Hendy as he was Kens creature etc etc, but he did not and they seem to get on well.

    Does anyone know where the idea for the cable car came from? I know there was a proposal for the millenium but that was to Canning Town. It just seemed to pop up suddenly without the usual 7 years of consultation and will they and won’t they, until it staggers out of the gate in exhaustion. I’ve not heard one peep about it’s origins. Did it come from the Mayors office or from TFL itself, I would not be surprised if TFL had a little ‘cheap and shiny projects’ desk looking for small highly visible projects that can get lots of corporate sponsorship.

    If this cable car works out don’t be surprised if that proposal for one between Covent Garden and the Southbank rears it’s head again.

    People say they want it to be as vigorously benchmarked as other TFL projects, but I suspect the real problem is that it is being run by TFL. It’s not Boris who’s project managing this. Let us look at TFL’s £750 million for a two new escalator shafts, ticket hall and a few passages at Victoria, how is that possible?

    Looking at the whole Gondola project article and the comments it seems the main reason for the cost increase is the massive size and complexity of the docking stations. Also it was also interesting to note that the usual British infrastructure disease was there, with legal, consultation and design fees coming in at £15 million.

    But all this increased cost is not just at TFL, it’s endemic, it effects road and rail schemes and no one seems to want to tackle it. I suspect because it would involve hacking back the thicket of studies and consultations that seem to occur these days. It’s not just one or two there often seems to be 5 to 8 stages of consultations in projects these days. But thats not the only reason. I’m no expert on construction but bet we don’t employ that many more actual construction workers in the UK for a project and I doubt we pay more than the french for example, It must lay with the pay and number of consultants involved in the design and management. Certainly no one in the industry is pushing that hard to reduce the cost.

    @Pedantic why I did not offer to write an article on Crossrail cost, well It’s not my blog it would never have occurred to me and I’m only an amateur, apart from pointing out the obvious cost differences between our and French and Spanish projects and a few speculations, that would be the length of my article.

  26. Greg Tingey says:

    In response to your partially-valid criticisms

  27. Greg Tingey says:


    Something went seriously WORNG there … trying again

    In response to your partially-valid criticisms

    1: I agree with the official figures about safety wrt cable-car/airport.
    I STILL don’t trust it.
    Reason : If it CAN go worng it WILL go worng …( eventually)
    I’ve been an avid reader of RAIB reports and Rolt and Nock on this subject….
    Sooner or later, the numbers WILL tick over, and there will be a sequential failure.
    Not having with it.
    As a qualified engineer, it gives me the heebies, where it is, sorry.

    I don’t actually like or approve of either of them.
    Ken was wonderful for Public Transport, and Boris has shown himself an idiot – the cancellation of the tram-projects showed that, never mind this insanity.
    But, there are other considerations, as mentioned.
    You are correct to point out that this may not be the right place to discuss those problems, but, excuse me, what is a London-resident voter to do?
    Vote for Ken, get good transport, and crawling to islamists, or vote for BoJo, get transport idiocies, but no religious nutters, who are seriously bad to know?
    Horrible choice, isn’t it?
    ( Yes, I know, there’s a Lem-o-Crat candidate, but erm, err …… )

    “Rational Plan”
    What’s one of those?
    And you are SO RIGHT about studying things to death, while the consultants run up insane fees, and nothing gets actually built at all.
    To echo Vladimir Ilyich: “What is to be done?”

  28. timbeau says:


    The tram projects
    – Ealing was not supported locally
    – Cross River was the wrong answer; a net reduction in capacity on the Waterloo/Kingsway axis (because not using the tunnel) and reducing capacity on the Strand, plus a pointless wander around Somers Town to get to Kings Cross, duplicating five Underground services and countless buses which take the direct route.

  29. Greg Tingey says:

    Well – there was obviously something wrong with the Uxbridge-Shepherds Bush tram scheme. Whether it could have ben “fixed” is moot.
    Disagree about X-river, though, I think it would have been very useful.
    I note you carefully avoid mentioning the real winner, which was summarily binned:
    The extension(s) to Croydon Tramlink, which would have been really useful and helpful. Funny, that – did it slip your memory?

    In the meantime, “Daimond Geezer” has returned to the fray, with a cruel analyisi of how the cable-car won’t save any time at all.

    I think I’ll close by quoting from his first post:
    “This is a vanity project, a social irrelevance, pimping transport infrastructure to the highest bidder, on the the day Boris prostituted the tube map.”

  30. GC says:

    This is more of a tourist attraction with a transport project on the side . Nothing wrong with that , provided not too much public money is involved. Similar to the status of river transport . Go for it – but its been left a bit late for the Olympics.

  31. Mwmbwls says:

    @ Geoff

    Sorry your question got overlooked in the current turbulence. As the car reaches the end of the route it is lifted off the cable on to rubber rolling wheels that enables the system to go round corners – IIRC a brief ” London Eye ” type pause is possible to enable disabled passengers to board. The Caracas video clip shows this in action at about 1 minute 50 seconds. They have a marshal travel with the passenger in the clip – we do not know if this is the plan for every disabled passenger but will endeavour to find out.

  32. Fandroid says:

    I’m guessing that the Koblenz Rheinseilbahn tower height is fairly modest as I presume (from the name!) that it is crossing the Rhine. The predominant vessels there are barges, with the capability of getting under some seriously low bridges. For the lower Thames, the PLA likes to have cruise liners visit, as well as occasional warships and tall-masted sailing vessels.

    However, the point has been very well made that the predominant usage of cable-car technology in continental Europe is in extremely difficult terrain – that is the high Alps. I don’t think I could imagine a more difficult access/weather situation. It’s madness to think that any UK cable-car should be more expensive to construct than an alpine one. And ss for the huge end-stations, what ever happened to Value Engineering. Did Mott MacDonald forget to do it?

    I wholeheartedly agree that the the ‘overheads’ seem to be out of control. Having managed a few construction projects myself, I know it’s essential to include design and promotion costs in at the concept stage. Otherwise, the interferers keep asking for checks on possible alternatives, assuming that engineers are some sort of slave-labour from the gulags, and cost almost nothing to employ. Tfl is at fault, by dumping the project promotion onto Mott MacDonald. MM are there to make money, and keep their staff in fee-earning employment. TfL needs to be an informed client, and to directly employ experts whose job is to control costs, see through the barmy proposals and discourage all thsoe little extras. Why didn’t Tfl go straight to a shortlist of German/French/Austrian/Swiss/Italian cable-car designers? They will all speak English and would be ashamed to be associated with a massively overpriced proposal. It would look dreadful on their records to have apparently ripped off London, and would jeopardise potential future commissions in their main markets.

    However, even if it turns out to be a mainly tourist thing, I think it’s really worth a go. It would just be lovely to see a UK project done at a realistic price without the usual suspects creaming off vast percentages for giving bad advice.

  33. Anonymous says:

    Covent Garden to South Bank – I can see the point of that, if not the method by which it could be done. I think knocking down the market for a station would probably be frowned upon!

  34. Anonymous says:

    Having knocked bits of the management of this project, it is only fair to say that the GCI clip is excellent in revealing the details of the system in a way that can be understood by all. For the Cable Car’s supporters they will like it and for its critics we have at least been moved from the position of not knowing where we stand to knowing where we stand and not liking it. Congratulations then to the media team responsible for its production and also to Doppelmayr who also produce an excellent range of videos of their technologies .

    Every cloud has a silver lining and an Australian blog has picked up on the story

    They see a cable car as a valuable addition to Sidney’s infrastructure and given that it is specified correctly, procured economically, delivered on time, and budget, and operated successfully there is no reason why it should not be a roaring success. The idea of asking Emirates to repeat their London experience is inspired – Having done so in London they will be aware of the reputation risks that associated their brand name with this type of project. Adding to which the Europe – Dubai – Australasia Route Pattern they operate is their honey pot operation. Promoting their profile at both ends makes good sense.

    Learning at the expense of others is yet another variant of benchmarking – so I reiterate my call for TfL to practice it with rigour. There is a story of a young man who made a “male poultry raising mistake” who was then called to his director’s office to face what he thought was going to be martial music. When he got there, here began by saying, ” I suppose you are going to fire me”. “Fire you” said his Boss somewhat puzzled – ” When I have just paid so much for your expensive education.” Let’s hope the cable car is seen in the same light – if Sidney can draw lessons from this – so should London.

  35. JP says:

    The project is clearly meant for tourists.

    The bit which annoys me is that TFL clearly has more than £60 million in its pocket or rail improvements and rather than do things like electrify the goblin which it could probably afford has decided to blow it on a tourist attraction, which is ultimately not of any great use to Londoners.

    The belief that this is a money spinner and will easily make back its money poses the question as to why it can’t be 100% built with private money? or why TFL doesn’t lend as opposed to give the money?

  36. Anonymous says:

    “why TFL doesn’t lend as opposed to give the money”

    Sorry if I’m missing some technical finance point, but surely if TfL “lends” the money for the construction, and owns everything once construction is done, then sure it has just lent the money to itself? Which is to say, just gone ahead and spent it, which is exactly what’s happening?

  37. Mwmbwls says:

    Apologies – it was very early – I managed to log on as Anonymous @ 06.00 hours instead of Mwmbwls. It was a “male poultry raising mistake” rather than an attempted talking to myself conspiracy.

  38. IslandDweller says:

    Another interesting article – thanks.

    It does seem like a huge sum for what it is. But it is not totally without merit – it is useful as another cross river option for cyclists. At present cyclists only have the ferry or the foot tunnels. The debacle that is the never-endling foot tunnel refurbishment project (both Greenwich and Woolwich) would be a suitable article for your experts to examine….

    To Geoff’s point above about boarding of wheelchair users / bicycles. Assuming system this will work in the same way as the ones I’ve used in ski resorts then yes – an operator can easily hold a carriage completely still to enable loading for those who need that. There’s additionally the option of putting a car into the cable-car equivalent of a siding for loading. As this system is designed to have a maintenance area, I’m sure a “siding” will feature. I’ve seen this done in ski resorts when they load freight – usually crates of beer for the mountain restaurant…

  39. trivial economist says:

    It’s boring but true that any benchmarking of capital projects is far more sensitive than one might initially suppose to factors such as: accounting standards, ROI assumptions, cost of capital, amortisation, implicit or explicit subsidies, environmental/planning standards etc. etc.

    So while this article is articulate, well informed, and interesting it is a long way from showing that procurement has been / will be inefficient in this case. I agree though it would be very interesting for an inside source to justify the high-by-international standards cost in detail.

  40. Fandroid says:

    Having suggested it myself, I thought I might start a bit of Value Engineering. Not in any disciplined way, but just to see what might turn up. First I previously kept calling it a cable-car, when in fact it’s really a gondola (a significant difference).

    Going from the video clip, which I admit looks very informative (I just hope the engineers were asked to verify the details):

    1 (a) The base stations: The people are seen going up and down stairs to access/leave the gondolas. My recent Swiss experience tells me that proper cable-cars (as in Where Eagles Dare – see mwmbwls first pic) usually need two storey base stations, as the cars nestle against the structure (and often carry loads underneath). Real Gondola base stations are a lot cheaper because they only consist of one storey, with all the driving gear hidden away from the public by a wall. Anyway, if Boris insists on two storeys, where are the lifts for disabled access?
    Action 1(a): review need for two storeys. Check Alpine best practice.

    1 (b) The base stations: The north station is shown to be built in water. That’s always more expensive than building on land.
    Action 1(b): review north station siting and cost a dry-land alternative.

    2. The towers: This is almost certainly where all the excess cost is:
    (a) Height. Any height reduction will reap cost dividends
    Action 2(a) Challenge the navigation clearance vigorously.

    2(b) The towers: they both have submerged bases. Simple construction costs rocket as a result. To which can be added the extremely expensive collision defence walls (remember also that these will be needed to protect the construction cofferdams as well as for the finished towers. Megabucks. I suspect that this is where most of those rising costs came from.

    Action 2(b)(1) work really hard on siting both towers on the river banks. This will almost certainly increase the tower height (to compensate for increased cable sag) but there are some massive savings possible.

    Action 2(b)(2) if both towers cannot be sited on land, look at siting just one tower there, with one in the river. Choose whichever side is best for navigation clearance.

    2(c) The towers: They look very ‘iconic’. Check out normal lattice tower costs. The alps cope with the visual aspects of bare engineering, perhaps east London could also.

    All other contributions welcome.

  41. Mwmbwls says:

    Trivial Economist
    Your points on benchmarking are well made. The bi-polar nature – pubic /private good – of the project – is it a tourist attraction or a public transport service also comes into play in the economic analysis. The prime driver for the article was that we did not sense the same general air of transparency about this project that characterises others in London and a niggling question that in the rush to get something done was the right thing being done in the right manner, It was intended to stimulate debate rather than present a definitive assessment. We would be more than happy to see our assertions refuted by the data.

  42. Mwmbwls says:

    Bang on the button.
    Multi-story base stations do exist – most noticeably in Singapore but IIRC their building is not exclusively a cable car station – using lower storeys for retail or office space could have defrayed expenditure. Mind you whether this conflicts with the dash to be ready for the Olympics agenda may have influenced decision making.

  43. George XT says:

    Some data about safety , taken from Swiss Confederation official statistic bureau

    (I think that Swiss are dependable with numbers…)

    Data from 1990 to 2010 Table ST8 Negative output
    Total number of accidents
    Railway 2387
    Road transport and tram 366 * (note : data just for 3 years , 2008-9-10)
    Cable Transport 217

    Total number of injured people
    Railway 701
    Road transport and Tram 332 * (note : data just for 3 years , 2008-9-10)
    Cable transport 177

    Total number of deaths
    Railway 439
    Road transport and Tram 31 * (note : data just for 3 years , 2008-9-10)
    Cable transport 10

    Volume comparison – ST6 Table
    Total number of passenger trips in thousands
    Rail 4.369.645
    Road Transport and Tram 14.280.859 * (note: for comparison last 3 year 3.943.976)
    Cable transport 2.348.289

    Deaths/Volume – very roughly
    Rail : 1 every 100.000
    Road & Tram 1 every 1,2 million (probabily understimated since only in 3 recent years)
    Cable transport 1 every 2,34 million ( last 8 years : 1 every 18,7 millions)

  44. Anonymous says:


    Further to my previous answer – Singapore details

  45. Greg Tingey says:

    What “public transport benefiit”?
    There is none whatsoever in this Boris vanity project expensive farce.
    Unless the base stations are actually adjacent/congruent/adjoining both Royal Victoria and N. Greenwich, there is no time/convenience benefit AT ALL, as Diamond Geezer has already demonstrated.

    George XT
    I do not believe the figures you quote on safety, for a very good reason.
    Please examine the numbers again.

    Why do I say this?
    Look at the rate for “Rail” quoting a death of 1 : 10 000.
    REALLY ??
    Normally rail is the safest transport mode.
    In this country, there are about 2.75 million passenger journeys per day, which would mean at your quoted rate 27-28 deaths PER DAY.

    Therefore, either the numbers you have quoted are totally wrong, or someone, somewhere has dropped several zeroes in the quoted rates.
    An accurate number would be much more appropriate.
    [ Possibly 1 per Ten Thousand Million, since even one per ten million would mean, in Britain, a death every 4 days, erm, err … ]

    Then we could have a rational discussion on safety,

  46. GeorgeXT says:

    @ Greg Tingey

    I have reported the links so everyone could do his maths – the files are XLS and free.

    I’ve found a detailed subdivision

    that tells us that of 701 deaths (over 20 years on rail) only 104 are of passengers – no surprising .

    I totally agree that railways have an excellent safety record, the swiss stats unfortunately report only last 3 years for bus transport (that is surely much more accident-prone even in calm switzerald) , but data tell us that cable trasport is even safer than rail.

  47. Pedantic says:

    Safety statistics in transport need to be taken with extreme caution – especially so with cable cars/gondolas (and if they are gondolas we should specifically look at that and not lump them with cable cars).

    The “safest” modes of transport are actually usually not so if taken on a per journey basis instead of a per mile/kilometre basis. The airline love quoting statistics based on the latter but if the alternative to your holiday to Mexico would have been a walking holiday in the Lake District it does not really make much sense to argue that per mile travelled your Mexican holiday was much safer than your trip to the Lake District. Similarly airlines do not include the much higher risk of injury or death travelling to or from the airport but logically that must be included in any meaningful comparable risk (to the user) assessment of different modes of transport.

    For this river crossing the only meaningful comparision is with an alternative. So if it is being used for a serious transport purpose the only sensible thing to do is compare the risk of the entire journey using the gondola for one part of it with the entire journey not using the gondola. If used for tourism purposes it would be more sensible to compare it with a ride at a theme park, a pleasure trip on the river or a visit to a museum (including the journey to and from the attaction).

  48. timbeau says:

    even taking into account that only 1 in 7 rail deaths actually involve passengers, (as distinct from trespassers or staff) some of those will be accidents not actually directly related to the mode of transport (someone falling down the steps of a motorway service area or airport terminal is not counted in the accident statistics for that mode of transport, wheeras someone falling down amn escalator on the Tube is so counted).

  49. Greg Tingey says:

    Are statistics for fatalities per passenger-km (or mile) readily available?
    I suspect that, then cable/gondola cars would come out a lot worse.
    And raliways even better …….

  50. Malcolm of Kent says:

    I agree with pedantic that per/km safety statistics are seriously misleading. But rather than per-journey, I would like to suggest per-hour. (The most likely alternative to a six-hour flight is a six-hour train journey).

    I also agree that the Swiss figures look very wrong.

  51. Guenther Ecker says:

    If you have a question abour urban ropways, I coul help you probably.

    Or have a look at my website:

  52. Fandroid says:

    An interesting fact that is not apparent from the video, but (checking back) can be seen in the figure entitled ‘Cable Car South Station, is that there are actually three high masts. This is corroborated by an article in the 10.11.11 edition of the civil engineering magazine NCE. The article focusses mainly on the foundation work, but a fair few other snippets turn up too. The piling is being done by a joint venture of Bachy Soletanche and Red7Marine, and their work includes ‘ship impact protection piles around the bases of the south tower and the north station’. As I pointed out before, there is a lot of work going on in water (expensive). Red7Marine are doing the wet work from a spud-leg barge and and a jack-up barge. Both using conventional piling rigs mounted on them. I’m not sure of the difference between spud-leg & jack-up in the civil engineering barge world (if any). Bachy Soletanche are just using conventional piling rigs on dry ground. Hence my previous comments about the extra costs of watery sites. The third tower (on dry land) is called the North Intermediate Tower and is seemingly just south of the DLR Woolwich line. It looks as if the main north tower is on dry land, as no ship impact protection is mentioned and site clearance for it required the demolition of old Whitbread Brewery buildings. The main towers are quoted as 84 metres tall, with the gondolas having a clearance of 55 metres above high water level. That is some clearance! (180 ft in old money). There is no mention of the height of the third tower. Total construction costs are given as £45M, with three years of operation as £5.5M. With the other £9.5M going to the usual suspects.

  53. timbeau says:

    Bumping an old thread, but it seems this goes live next week
    Oyster fare approximately double the equivalent tube fare, cash fare same as for tube (!), with a bulk discount of ten for £16 (which equates to two for the price of one on Oyster, or three for the price of one if you are paying cash) for those who can never tire of the view of Canning Town from the air.

  54. Greg Tingey says:


  55. Fandroid says:

    @Greg. Is Diamond Geezer sponsoring the gold bars in November?

  56. AlisonW says:

    “activities that will reconnect Londoners with their cablecar”

    I’m pretty sure that most of us haven’t connected with it yet, let alone thought about re-connecting!

  57. Fandroid says:

    @Alison W. If the access is OK for you, then I would recommend that you give it at least one go (before the sponsors stop handing over the cash). On a good day, it’s a fine trip. As a bit of transport infrastructure, it’s nonsense!

  58. Reynolds 953 says:

    Londonist website recently asked for readers’ suggestions for an alternative location for the cable car where it may be better used.

    Moving it to the proposed Garden Bridge location with, as Diamond Geezer mentions, some pot plants in each cabin, was one of the suggestions.

  59. RichardH says:

    Surely connecting Euston and St Pancras.

    I’ll get my coat.

  60. Graham H says:

    @Reynolds953 – love the idea of the pot plants! (Aspidistras, like the saloon in Volk’s seagoing tram perhaps?)

    BTW and just for amusement, I noticed,when I lived inTallinn, that the (almost exclusively female) tram drivers there personalised their charges with sunblinds and potted plants – cacti were especially popular;presumably,the morning runout was preceded by a an intensive programme of re-arranging the “artefacts” to match them to the rosters…

  61. AlisonW says:

    Fandroid – I do actually have a couple of freebie tickets I acquired some months ago. Just need to have a fine day when I’m in London and have the time to spare!

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