Where Things Stand With the London Cable Car

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Recent weeks have seen TfL’s plans for a cable car across the Thames return to the news. The London Cable Car has so far had an interesting gestation and one that has attracted its fair of spin and confusion. In that light, it is probably worth us revisiting the project and summing up the current state of affairs.

Firstly, it is probably worth giving a potted history of the project. More information can e found on the Cable Car in our previous articles on the subject (here, here and here) but in essence the scheme is relatively simple. The Cable Car will be 1,100m long stretching over the River Thames from the North Woolwich Peninsula to Royals Victoria Dock (see the map below). TfL’s last press release on the subject suggested an upper maximum of 2500 passengers an hour which (if this author’s mental arithmetic is correct) suggests a boarding-to-alighting journey time of 8 minutes. It will be wheelchair accessible and bikes will be allowed on board.

Construction of the Cable Car will start this summer with Mace as lead contractor. The original intention was to have it in place by the time of the Olympics, but delays in getting the project this far have likely rendered this unachievable (as its an incredibly tight timescale). 2012 is still the target, but an opening in time for the Olympics is now a “nice to have” rather than an “essential.”

Mace have been contracted to build the Cable Car at a cost of £45m, and also to run it for the first three years at a cost of £5.5m.

The majority of the delays mentioned above arose because of issues over the Cable Car’s route. This is a complex subject, with more information on it below, but in essence the dispute was over whether the Cable Car passed through the Public Safety Zone of the nearby City Airport, and whether this meant that planning permission for the project should never have been given (more on this here). This led to a NATS report into the scheme (which you can read in full here) to clarify whether it could proceed. This ultimately ruled that the safety risks were within the DfT’s specified minimums and thus the project has proceeded.

The above probably represents a reasonable summary of the current state of affairs for those most interested in getting an all-round picture. Anyone who has paid attention to the emerging tale of the Cable Car over recent months, however, will know that there are several topics worth exploring in a bit more detail – notably the issue of funding and that of the Cable Car’s relation to City Airport’s PSZ. With regards to both of these it is worth clarifying two things up front:

1) The scheme does pass through the Public Safety Zone (PSZ) of City Airport.
2) The scheme will be paid for out of public funds.

Of course both the above statements do not represent the full picture. Bullet points are easy, reality isn’t. Hence whilst both statements are factually correct, they need to be given wider context, something that to a certain extent has been lost from recent coverage on the Cable Car.

With regards to the Public Safety Zone, there has been much talk about whether the Cable Car enters it or not. This would seem to be a binary question, but there has been a certain amount of Yes-Ministership with regards to the answer at times. This is because there are actually two PSZs relevant to the discussion – that which was in place at the time the planning request was lodged, and that which is in place now.

To quote from the NATS report linked to above:

Transport for London (TfL) submitted planning applications for the construction of a pedestrian cable car crossing of the Thames in October 2010. The cable car would link the north Greenwich Peninsula to the Royal Victoria Dock, and consequently the O2 Arena and Excel centre event locations. The proposed route of the London Cable Car (LCC) development crosses an area of land which is part of the revised western Public Safety Zone of London City Airport.

Public Safety Zones (PSZs) are areas established at major airports to safeguard the public and their exposure to areas at most risk in the event of an aircraft accident. HM Department for Transport (DfT) oversees Public Safety Zone policy and the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) establishes and revises PSZs at UK airports. A PSZ marks an area within which the risk of an accident is sufficiently large that land use control measures must be applied.

As a result of the recent granting of planning permission for London City Airport to increase movements up to 120,000 per annum, the PSZ for the airport was revised in December 2010 and now overlays a part of the LCC development area.

This, therefore, was the root of the problem and why there has been confusion (or, less politely, some spin) about PSZs – The Cable Car wasn’t in the existing PSZ when the planning application was lodged, but the expansion of City Airport had already been agreed and it should have come as no surprise to either TfL or particularly to Newham Council when the CAA confirmed in December that the airport’s PSZ was going to be expanded.

It was this that caused the delay to the project. As it meant the above NATS report had to be commissioned before it could proceed.

The report actually makes interesting reading, as it highlights some of the complexities of making risk assessments on “moving targets.” Ultimately NATS elected to take a “worst case” approach and assumed that if a plane impacted the main cable it would result in the loss of every gondola, although they admitted that in reality it would be more likely that only 26 would be truly vulnerable (the others would be on separate station cabling at the time). Based on this, and TfL’s assumption that the average passenger would be a commuter making average journeys equivalent to five days a week, 365 days a year, this would give an average fatal accident ratio of 1 to every 91,000 years. This put the Cable Car within recommended DfT limits and thus it is on this basis that it has been allowed to proceed.

With regards to the project’s finances, the controversy here has largely arisen due to the somewhat over-enthusiastic initial promotion of the scheme as something that would be entirely funded by the Private Sector. This was a prominent promise early on (as can be seen here), but since then has been gradually watered down. In the same way, the original estimated cost at that time was £25m, which increased to £40m and then to the final figure of £45m now. To a certain extent, increasing costs were to be expected as the project was properly scoped, but in combination with the gradual weakening of the private sector funding promise it is perhaps unsurprising that this has attracted comment from various parties – including Caroline Pidgeon:

The Mayor must now come clean and state why as recently as July 2010 he was claiming the cable car would cost £25 million, but already its projected cost has doubled.

Most fundamentally the Mayor must explain to Londoners why just a few months ago he was boasting that the cable car would be entirely privately funded, but now Transport for London are set to fund all the upfront costs – possibly diverting money from other important transport projects.

As it stands, a TfL spokesperson has confirmed that the current approach to funding will be taken:

In order to progress the cable car TfL will provide upfront funding, it remains our intention to recoup as much of the cost as possible through a number of sources including adverting, sponsorship and fare revenue.

There will no doubt be plenty, however, watching to see just how much of that promise comes true.

Finally, when talking about the Cable Car it is also worth considering one further question to all the above – why is it going ahead at all? As is hinted at in Caroline Pidgeon’s statement, there are plenty of other transport projects that could have benefitted from the money.

It is obviously easy to see why the scheme would have appealled to some in the Mayor’s office – for it’s a very visual and high-profile piece of infrastructure. Indeed the official press release announcing the contracting of Mace featured, perhaps unsurprisingly, some rather florid turns of phrase from the Mayor about the Cable Car “gliding serenely through the air.”

The presence of a short note about the Cable Car’s benefit to commuters crossing the river in the editor’s notes on that press release likely provides a hint to the real reasons, however – and this is that the issue of Thames Crossings is becoming a critical one. In the absence of new bridges or improved ferry crossings (the possibilities of which have featured prominently in the Mayor’s plans before), a Cable Car would at least represent some small visible step towards alleviating the crossing situation.

In that regard, therefore, it is probably worth leaving the final words for now to TfL who were kind enough to provide a comment on this subject when asked:

The Mayor’s Transport Strategy recognises the need for additional river crossings east of Tower Bridge for pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles. A range of options for new vehicle crossings are currently being examined.
However many of these measures will take many years to implement, so the cable car offers a solution in the short term improving connections across the river for pedestrians/cyclists and providing much needed resilience while the road links are progressed in parallel. In order to progress the cable car TfL will provide upfront funding, it remains our intention to recoup as much of the cost as possible through a number of sources including adverting, sponsorship and fare revenue.

New passenger ferry links are one of the measures included in the Mayor’s Transport Strategy. However, at this location the cable car option would be more cost effective. A passenger ferry, although supported in principle, would require new pier infrastructure on both sides of the Thames, the purchase or lease of a boat and is likely to require ongoing public support. In addition, a passenger ferry would only link the river banks, unlike a cable car which can link ExCeL and development sites in the Royal Docks with existing leisure attractions on the Greenwich Peninsula.

Written by John Bull
John Bull is the Editor of London Reconnections. A transport journalist and historian, his writing often focuses on the political or strategic challenges facing London's transport network and beyond.