It was good to see the Arabfly Dangleway being scrutinised in the news yesterday. SE London newspaper News Shopper submitted a Freedom of Information request regarding passenger numbers on the new cablecar, and got back some interesting data. Indeed, some might say shocking.
Let's take a closer look at the figures everyone's getting upset about.
of the Games
The three days
after the Games
From 1747 passengers an hour during the Olympics to 711 afterwards, that's a 60% drop. And from 1181 passengers an hour during the Paralympics to 246 afterwards, that's an 80% drop. It's a nose-dive alright. These are truly awful figures.
And yet this is rubbish data. The last three days of each Games were a Friday, Saturday and Sunday, which are three touristy types of day. The three days immediately after each Games were a Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, which are quieter, non-day-out types of day. The newspaper's not comparing like with like here, quite the opposite. Instead these are stage-managed figures, hand-picked to look more awful than they really are. Indeed, if you were to pick any other major London tourist attraction and compare the Fri/Sat/Sun figures with the Mon/Tue/Wed figures, I bet you'd see a substantial drop there too. What we should be comparing is Monday-Wednesday during the Games with Monday-Wednesday after the Games, or something similar. Yes, there's been a huge drop in Dangleway numbers, but not quite as huge as the newspaper's been making out.
As for passenger numbers being "less than five per cent" of the cablecar's capacity, that appears to be true. The cablecar can cope with up to 2500 passengers an hour in each direction, that's a total of 5000 per hour. But immediately after the Paralympics the average was only 246, fractionally below the magic 5% mark. It's a shockingly low percentage. These are truly awful figures.
And yet this is also rubbish data. In this case the problem is the number 2500, merrily splashed around by TfL in early press releases related to the Dangleway's opening. "It has the capacity to carry up to 2500 people per hour in each direction, the equivalent of 30 buses," they crowed. How fantastic it would be to have a new Thames crossing that could move so many people. But this total of 2500 relied on every gondola containing ten passengers, and there being one gondola taking off every fifteen seconds. This was blue skies drivel pumped out by TfL's press office back when they were attempting to portray the Dangleway as a mass people carrier. Alas this fictional mega-capacity has now come back to bite them, as actual passenger totals fall embarrassingly short.
To give you an idea of what a bad statistic "hourly capacity" is, look back again at those peak Olympic ridership figures. The best usage the Dangleway's ever likely to get was during the Games, with all gondolas occupied and queues at either terminal. If you flew over the Thames during the Olympics you were probably crammed in with at least one other party, probably more. There won't have been as many as ten passengers in every cabin, but they were still crowded enough that you wouldn't have wanted to share with more. Crunch the figures - 1747 divided by 5000 - and the number of passengers using the cablecar during the Games was only 35% of the theoretical total capacity. That's a scandal too, yet it's gone unreported while everyone focuses on the 5%.
As an added complication, the Dangleway's not open for the same number of hours each day - opening at 7am on a weekday, 8am on a Saturday and 9am on a Sunday. During the summer it closes at 9pm, in the winter at 8pm, but during the Games the last flight was nearer midnight. Those longer hours during the Olympics meant more traffic, so if you compare total daily passenger numbers the difference between before and after is even more stark. During the Paralympics, for example, the hourly rate of 1181 was spread out over approximately 16 hours, making a daily passenger total of about 19000 people. After the Paralympics, however, those 246 passengers an hour for 13 hours add up to only 3200 people. That's an astonishing 83% drop - the equivalent of five in every six passengers disappearing.
246 passengers an hour is the equivalent of just two double decker buses in each direction - hardly a mammoth user base. Or, looked at another way, the post-Games midweek figure of 246 passengers an hour is only four passengers a minute. That's the equivalent of only one passenger in every gondola, just one, which doesn't sound like a good use of public money to me. It's only brilliant news if you're an introverted tourist, because you're unlikely to have to share your cabin with a screaming child, a passing hen party or, well, anyone really.
However imperfect these figures may be, they correctly reveal the Dangleway as a visitor attraction, not a commuter lifeline. When it's the weekend or during a mega-event, passengers turn up. When it's a bog-standard Wednesday, passengers don't. TfL initially justified the cablecar's construction by saying it would form an integral part of East London's transport network, but that's proven to be bollocks. Instead they've built an expensive novelty sideshow for tourists and thrill-seekers, outside the Travelcard system, on a Mayoral whim.
Speaking in the Evening Standard the Dangleway's boss, Danny Price, is upbeat. "The latest weekly passengers numbers are in line with our forecast for business as usual in the first year of operation," he says. "As with all new transport links, the number of regular users builds over a period of time as people become familiar with new journey possibilities for both work and pleasure." I'm unconvinced. Riding the cablecar to work is always going to be of minor interest. The two terminals are poorly located, and there's a perfectly good tube/DLR journey between the two ends at no additional cost. I can see why passengers will come for pleasure, indeed hundreds of thousands already have, but sightseers are highly unlikely ever to become regular users.
Recent visualevidence suggests that passenger numbers are even lower now that autumn's here. Midweek September was still sort-of the tourist season, whereas grey October weekdays must be attracting even less than 246 passengers an hour. I'd love to know how few passengers there were on the Dangleway yesterday, or indeed how few there'll be on some foggy afternoon in February. To uncover the true paucity of the cablecar's commuter user base, what's really needed is a regular series of Freedom of Information requests to add to the initial data so far unearthed. Go on, who's going to be the first to submit a request? Because however bad the News Shopper's figures may look, I fear we ain't seen nothing yet.