Cable car baggage ✔ vanity project ✔ financially unviable ✔ waste of public money ✔ pimped out to a sponsor ✔ links two business interests, not two communities. ✖ timesaver for commuters But... ✔ tourists will love it ✔ the view will be great ✔ Woo, a cable car!
Boris's planned cable car for Docklands comes with alotofbaggage. Lots of reasons why it might not be the best thing to build in the place where its going for the cash it'll cost. But let's put that baggage to one side. Let's assume that the cable car is going to be built, because it is. In which case, it had better be built well.
Mace, the construction company, held a cable car open day yesterday, although the date wasn't exactly shouted from the rooftops. It merited a mention on the back page of the project's stakeholder newsletter, flyered through several North Greenwich letterboxes, but not generally required reading. Even if you'd walked past the construction site on Saturday, you'd probably not have noticed. A single A3 sheet stuck in the worksite window mentioned opening times, but gave no indication that the place was open nor where precisely to go. An oblique doorway labelled "site entrance" led round the edge of a prefab to a security turnstile. Is this the Open Day? And yes, it was.
Up on the walls inside, all sorts of information about the construction of London's first cable car. Maps, summary text, artists impressions, even detailed blueprints of precisely what one of the cable car stations will look like. All pictured with sleek elegant curves, and probably sufficient to relieve the nearest inkjet printer of its complement of blue ink. Rather delightfully there was minimal mention of the airline whose name will be slapped across the entire project, because this was all about about the construction, not the branding. And in one corner, a selection of tiles, lamps, alarms and other fittings that'll be used to fit out the project. I was slightly concerned at first that they'd assembled this showcase especially for the handful of Open Day visitors, but no, this was the day-to-day HQ, behind the security gateline, at the heart of the project.
Shall we go outside? Here's a photo taken from the top of the stairs outside the door to the second-storey portakabin. Look, there's the southern cable car station under construction. It's got a long way to go yet, but you'll get the general idea. Carriages will swing down from the sky to a U-shaped turn - you can see the curve in the line of the roof, with the tip pointing towards the camera. On the incoming arm the passengers will step off and on the other they'll step on (safely guided by a cable car operative). The set-up reminds me a little of the London Eye, but rather more like an aerial ride at a theme park. Ten passengers maximum, two passengers minimum (for safety reasons, apparently), and plenty of flip-up-seat space for a wheelchair or bike. Would you like to see a video run-through? Go on then.
The four-minute video shows how a vector-drawn family unit might ride the cable car from north to to south. First there's a carefully abbreviated walk from the DLR at Royal Victoria, then arrival at (insert sponsor name here) Royal Docks station. Interestingly there'll be both machines and a window for the acquisition of 'boarding passes', making this possibly the last ever TfL project with a physical ticket office. They're expecting a lot of tourists, remember, indeed probably counting on them. Then it's swipe and up the stairs, or take the lift, to the first (maybe second) floor, and on you get. There's no sign of a security friskdown or metal-detecting arch before boarding, unless that's in some bit of the plans I've not been shown. And then whoosh, you're off on an aerial glide above some restaurants, some landscaped riverside, and the glorious majesty (cough) of the East London skyline.
There'll be three main towers, each an elegant twisty spike, the tallest of these up to 88m high. All the piling to support their weight is already complete, so expect to see the first tower start to be erected within the next fortnight. Uplift will continue into the New Year, and I'm told London's tallest crane will be appearing too. Eventually the cable will have to be threaded across the river, which is no mean feat, either dangled from a helicopter or lifted from a barge. Such is the pressure to complete this project by next summer that Mace are doing something highly unusual - undertaking major construction work during the winter months. If the weather is kind, they might just hit that Olympic deadline (no promises). But if it's freezing and windy and icy, well... just remember that the winter weather is out of their control. Watch the skies.
One thing that came across very strongly was how proud individual members of the construction team were to be involved in the delivery of such a major project. This is high profile stuff, and a big tick for them if they can get it up and running smoothly. They're being handsomely paid too, part by the sponsor and part from TfL's rail budget, so no wonder they're smiling. The company will also be involved in the day-to-day operation of the cable car, for at least the first three years of its operation, so it's in their interest to make everything here work. And OK, so this may still be a completely (insert baggage here) project. But if it's got to be built, then best it were built well.