It hardly seems possible that London's favourite cablecar is five years old today.
The Elizabeth Air Line, as it's officially known, has carried millions of happy travellers above the Thames since it was opened on 28th June 2012 by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.
Shuttling high between terminals at North Greenwich and the Royal Docks, this £60m investment is unquestionably the most direct means of travel between the two locations, and offers views of Silvertown no other mode of transport can match.
During the Olympics the Elizabeth Air Line was ideally placed to carry spectators who happened to have tickets for the gymnastics and the weightlifting on the same day. Since then it has become the vital connector for an astonishing number of regular commuters, said by some to be approaching single figures.
Journeys between Royal Victoria and North Greenwich, previously only possible in 7 minutes via DLR and Underground, can now be made in 10 minutes via a deliberately slowed-down cross-river ride. Anyone with a home amongst the hotels of the Royal Docks and an office on the North Greenwich peninsula will know just how essential the cablecar has become.
The Elizabeth Air Line has added much needed cross-river resilience, ensuring that if the Jubilee line is ever suspended an alternative link is available, so long as there are no high winds or thunderclouds close by. Even better, cyclists can now pay to take their bikes on board, rather than being forced to ride for free through antiquated Victorian foot tunnels two miles downstream.
The cablecar's commitment to its commuters is clear. Every weekday morning the system opens up at 7am to transport Londoners with jobs to go to, rather than cutting overheads by waiting until mid-morning when the tourists drift in. Likewise shift workers are well placed to benefit from the Air Line's extended evening operations, often running as late as 11pm, when crossing times are extended to 12 minutes to prioritise relaxation over speed.
One particular masterstroke, which ensures the capsules never get too busy, is that the Air Line has never been made part of the Travelcard network. Every cablecar flight is charged on top of the daily price cap, along with any added bolt-on extras like a visit to the Elizabeth Air Museum or a ride on a boat. Lists of fares displayed outside the two terminals cunningly list all prices in reverse order, in the hope that tourists will shell out the full £23.10 and help subsidise the crossing for the rest of us.
Another clever plan is that the Elizabeth Air Line still has ticket offices, despite all the ticket offices on the London Underground having been closed. What's more it has three ticket offices for two terminals, including a stall in the station concourse at North Greenwich where a salaried operative stands underneath a redundant gondola and tries to flog boarding passes to lost tourists. Add in the staff clustered by the gateline, the staff upstairs ushering passengers into their pods and all the maintenance crew, and it's clear the cablecar remains an impressive job creation scheme.
It's always exciting to take the DLR to Royal Victoria and see how many more Air Line adverts have been shoehorned into the station, or to take a tour down the Jubilee line and see the cablecar promoted on walls, arches, platforms and former ticket office windows. There may still be several Londoners who don't realise what an invaluable part of their everyday travel this innovative link might be, so it's only right to make sure that every potential user is fully informed.
Only those who've made the effort to visit the quayside of the Royal Docks will know what a vibrant and exciting destination it can be. The hotels are welcoming, the conference centre occasionally puts on non-trade events, and for refreshment there's always the Tesco Express and the halal hot dog stall by the terminal. The cablecar genuinely wouldn't have had the same level of success had it been connected to anywhere else.
Over the last five years the cable car has been used by a total of eight and a half million passengers, which is almost exactly equal to the population of London, so we've probably all been once. What's more, annual ridership is running almost steady at 1.5 million passengers a year, and is absolutely not slipping back as certain unkind commenters have suggested, except perhaps by about 4% year on year.
Stand and watch the queues, as I did yesterday lunchtime, and you'll see just how busy the cablecar can be. I spent 15 minutes tallying the passengers flying into the Royal Docks terminal, and there were almost 15 of them, which is nearly one a minute. Only once did I count nine consecutive empty capsules, even in the height of midsummer, helping to confirm that this multi-million pound transport investment was definitely public money well spent.
It's been an amazing first five years for the Elizabeth Air Line, now firmly established on the tube map and irrefutably the finest cablecar in the capital. Today is surely a good time to stop and ask yourself how Londoners ever got around before this invaluable connection was built. Next time you visit for your regular daily flight, be sure to raise a glass to its unrivalled success.