diamond geezer

 Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Things are looking up again for London's cablecar*.
* That's because it's no longer winter. Indeed, if you catch me saying anything positive about the cablecar in what follows, try adding the phrase "because it's no longer winter" to the end, and see if that explains it.

As the weather gets milder and the sun comes out, so more and more people are heading for an aerial ride above the Thames. They turned up in number at the weekend, because five minutes in the air makes for an ideal day out. Many of those present were families with small children, most of these somewhere between toddler and top of primary. A cablecar ride's wasted on anyone too young to see out, it seems, and not cool enough for young Londoners in their teens. But a very large proportion of riders weren't local, they were visitors to our city, with one group I saw in Greenwich wafting in with Harrods bags fresh from shopping.

The other clue that most cablecar passengers are tourists came from the queues at the ticket booth. There shouldn't have been queues, because anyone with Oyster pay as you go can board without waiting and is charged considerably less into the bargain. But no, the great majority of would-be riders joined the queue, and stayed in the queue even after the flight attendant had confirmed whether they really need to be there. They ended up forking out £4.30 a go, or more likely £8.60 for the round trip, instead of the £3.20 they could have paid if they were chip-enabled. From what I saw on the Greenwich side on Sunday, most spent longer queueing for a ticket than they did in midair.

Unlike the average weekday, when you're likely to spot umpteen empty pods overhead, on Sunday lunchtime the majority of pods were full. Don't expect to turn up for a quiet solo ride - instead you'd most likely be bundled in with another family and they'd spend the entire crossing silently wishing you weren't there. But this lack of privacy is good for business. Passenger numbers are back up to forty thousand-ish a week, after a few weeks in the doldrums of less than half that. Indeed the Dangleway has just welcomed its two millionth visitor, although at least a quarter of that total turned up during the Games last year.

To boost tourist revenues this spring and summer, TfL has published a full-colour leaflet entitled Fly across the Thames. There are hundreds of these leaflets at stations, even at those miles away from the Greenwich Peninsula, issued in hope of luring additional visitors aloft. On page 2 Boris introduces this "handy link between the O2 and ExCel", and mentions "jaw-dropping views of London's skyline". These views include "St Paul's Cathedral", if you squint, and "the Olympic Park", so long as you have a good zoom. Come in the evening and apparently "the skyline takes on a magical and romantic glow as darkness descends"... although the cablecar closes down before sunset for two months at the height of summer.

On the back of the leaflet is a big map showing the Dangleway's neighbouring attractions. On the North Greenwich bank that's The O2, plus Ravensbourne College (which isn't an attraction) and the London Soccerdome (which has to be booked by entire teams in advance). But on the other side of the river the selection is worse. The only yellow-shaded buildings nearby are a hotel, a community centre and the ExCel. And the ExCel may be vast, but it's like a morgue when there are no exhibitions on, and you're unlikely to want to visit one even when there are. Essentially the map, and the entire leaflet, give no good reason for visiting the area apart from the cablecar and the O2. Which would be wrong.

A major visitor attraction now exists on the Royal Docks side, which those responsible for the cablecar's cartography appear to be entirely unaware of. The Crystal - a corporate sustainability exhibition - opened in a striking glass building last September on the dockside adjacent to the northern cablecar terminal. It ought to be a natural destination hereabouts but it doesn't appear on the map, and most tourists entirely ignore it too, from what I've seen. Signage is poor to non-existent, as are hints that The Crystal's exhibition space is open to the public. Indeed you could wander right up to the front entrance before noticing the apologetic board outside announcing daily opening times in small type. The cafe nextdoor does a little better, but the exhibition itself (reviewed here) caters to but a trickle of the potential trade walking off the cablecar.

And there's more. A watersports centre has been established at the western end of the dock, complete with cable-tower wakeboarding and stand-up paddleboarding facilities. Some call it an urban beach, which is going too far, but several wetsuited punters were down here at the weekend sipping drinks at The Shack and falling in the water. As it is, most visitors seem to get no further than the opportunistic burger van parked up by the Dangleway outflow, or nipping into the new Tesco Express for provisions. Poor old Londis. They had a lonely branch here before, which I expected would thrive, but instead Tesco killed them off and the store has been reduced to a pile of mopped up rubbish in the centre of the floor. The cablecar's arrival hasn't brought prosperity to all.

So the tourist leaflet clogging up stations across the tube network is a lost opportunity. It appears to be a direct copy of the leaflet published last autumn, but with a different cover and some minor tweaks to the text inside. Nobody's thought to update the map, nobody's thought to mention the watersports, and nobody's pointed out that the Crystal and its cafe are a family-friendly way to spend an hour. Instead this is off-the-shelf publicity to drum up support for a publicly-funded tourist attraction, which has completely failed to keep up to date with the other potential tourist attractions growing up around it. They aren't yet many, but a visit to the Dangleway needn't be a five minute wonder.

3pm update from Linda at TfL: "Just to let you know TfL are working closely with The Crystal, Wake Up Docklands, ExCeL, The O2 and Greenwich and Newham Council to promote the two areas that the Emirates Air Line connects. We are also working with The Crystal to increase signage at the Royal Docks terminal and I believe The Crystal is looking at their signage too. The next leaflet with a map will include The Crystal and possibly some other additions."

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