diamond geezer

 Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Whatever you do, don't book a ticket to the Olympic Park with Water Chariots.
£95 for a short boat trip isn't sustainable transport, it's daylight robbery.

Water Chariots, you may remember, are the bespoke canal-based travel service for the London 2012 Games. They have exclusive rights to run passengers up the Lea to the Park, either from Limehouse or from Tottenham Hale. They have an exclusive 15 year licence. They were helped by £300,000 of public money, provided as an investment from British Waterways, the London Thames Gateway Development Corporation and the Olympic Delivery Authority. They hoped to have a fleet of 26 barges, but they've only fitted out 15. And they're charging £95 return for a two mile journey through the backside of Tower Hamlets. No, they are not having a laugh.
» from Limehouse to our exclusive entrance at Old Ford Lock: 40 minutes
» from Tottenham Hale to Eton Manor Gate (the Park’s Northern entrance): 70 minutes

Olympic Games: Adult - £95 return | Child (Under 18) - £50 return (Price includes a complimentary glass of champagne or soft drink prior to embarkation)
Paralympic Games: Adult - £50 return | Child (Under 18) - £25 return (Price includes a complimentary soft drink prior to embarkation)
Oddly enough, this is not what was promised last summer when Water Chariots launched. Their website was very light on detail but did eventually admit that Olympic tickets would cost £20 each way, i.e. £40 return. I know this to be true because I blogged about it at the time, and came to the conclusion that £40 return was unnecessarily eye-watering expensive. Now, suddenly, that price has more than doubled, in a transparently money-grabbing "well, we might as well take them for everything we can get" kind of a way.

Water Chariots' chairman Peter Coleman is unapologetic. He's selling the WC experience as a once in a lifetime day out, hence the glass of fizz and maybe a jazz band along the way. "It'll be a Henley-on-Thames toe-tapping type of day," he says, clearly targeting his services at the cash-rich demographic who think Henley's exclusive regatta is a value day out. Many of these people won't have lowered themselves to visit Poplar or Hackney before, and may not realise that East London's canals aren't quite as picturesque as the Berkshire Thames. For example, most of the journey from Limehouse will be along the Limehouse Cut, which isn't a gorgeous scenic experience however you dress it up. There's a very pleasant bit through Three Mills, but you could see that for nothing from the towpath, no exclusive boat is required.

Water Chariots are keen to promote their Olympic offering as a guaranteed jam-free service. There'll be no getting crushed on the Central Line with the plebs, nor (for the target audience) the hassle of hiring a taxi and then getting stuck in a queue at the Bow Flyover. Instead passengers will need to travel to Limehouse or to Tottenham Hale to pick up their slow chugging barge. Corporate parties with cash to burn might choose to arrive at Limehouse by high speed water taxi from Westminster (for only £1810 return), while visitors with helicopters will be pleased to hear that a shuttle link is available to the Tottenham Hale departure pontoon. The rest of us non-VIPs will be forced to travel direct to the Park using our free Olympic travelcards, spending nothing but our time.

Tempted to take a trip? Now calculate how early you'll need to turn up. First of all, Water Chariots warn us "Please note LOCOG recommend you arrive at the Olympic Park 2.5 hours before your session time starts." I don't recognise that recommendation, especially when Water Chariots claim to have an exclusive VIP entrance to the Olympic Park at their disposal, but let's assume that it's true. The half-hourly journey from Limehouse takes 40 minutes, and on top of that Water Chariots suggest you arrive 40 minutes early for your scheduled departure "in order to clear security and enjoy your glass of champagne." All of which means that if your Olympic Park session begins at 10am, Water Chariots would like you to turn up at their pontoon two miles away at ten to six in the morning. They are, quite clearly, talking rubbish.

And don't think that your £95 guarantees you special treatment. For security reasons, you can only travel on the boat specified on your timed ticket, and times of departure cannot be changed after you've booked. All passengers' names must be submitted in advance, and there's a £10 surplus charge should you need to amend one. All tickets are 100% non-refundable in all circumstances. If security warnings from government cause the service to be suspended, for example in the case of terrorist threats, no refunds will be given. Lifejackets will be provided, but only if you request them in advance. And these are open-sided boats, so if it rains then protective drop-down canvases will seriously impair your view. This is a boat service with terms and conditions very much favouring the company's bank account and not yours.

Meanwhile, Water Chariots appear to have completely given up on their previously stated ambition of providing pleasure trips along the River Lea outside the Olympic period. These were supposed to begin last summer, but never materialised, and there's no sign of them appearing before or during the Games either. Instead good money has been spent on a water-bus-stop and jetty at Three Mills that looks like it may never be used. After the Games, so we're told, some of the fleet of 15 will be converted into self-hire vessels, not all of them local, and some may run on London's canals "to popular attractions such as London Zoo", because that's where the tourists are. If a scheduled Olympic Park waterbus ever materialises - and I have my doubts - nothing we've so far seen hints that prices aboard will be either appropriate or affordable.

Water Chariots appear to have aimed themselves unashamedly at a wallet-milking audience of VIPs and corporate clients, exploiting the Games as a one-off opportunity to make money. Their 120 return trips a day should rake in considerable profits, potentially millions of pounds over a four week period. You may well be wishing you'd thought of the idea yourself. But as for any lasting legacy hereabouts, don't hold your breath.

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