TfL Raiding Rail Budget To Pay For Thames Cable Car

Yesterday’s news that the Thames Cable Car costs have risen to £60m didn’t surprise us that much – Caroline Pidgeon got an admission out of Boris in June that it was pushing the £57m mark – but what’s made us eye-poppingly enraged is TfL telling the BBC that they’re paying for it out of the rail budget.

If TfL were swimming in cash this would be fine, but this is the same TfL that’s just announced PAYG fare increases of 10p per bus journey and an 8% rise for travelcards. A TfL that’s committed to huge upgrades on the tube network (surely a nobler cause for raiding other parts of their budget?). A TfL that’s expanding the Overground network and involved in Crossrail.

Len Duvall has asked the Mayor about fares and how many people are expected to use the cable car. Prices will be “set at a level which includes fares that are affordable for local people” and they reckon at least 1,000,000 people will swoop across the river in the first year. Where those numbers are from is not clear (what’s also not clear is whether a more comprehensive answer is on its way), but it’s a nice round number and sounds a lot. Until you do this:
1,000,000 people over 365 days = 2740 people per day
Assuming it operates 12 hours a day = 228.3 people per hour
The system will have a maximum capacity of about 2500 people per hour
North Greenwich station, close to one of the cable car’s proposed start points, cleared around 27,500 people each weekday (12,000 on Sundays) in 2010.
(TfL can’t get figures about Royal Victoria DLR to us before Monday.)

These are, to channel Boris for a moment, piffling numbers.

TfL say they’re hoping to claw back the costs through commercial sponsorship, an application to the European Regional Development Fund and fares – but the first two aren’t guaranteed (and if the project isn’t finished by the Olympics, it will be a lot less attractive to companies hoping to plaster their logo over it). No wonder nobody’s saying yet how much a trip will cost.

Photo by Ian Visits from the Londonist Flickr pool.

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  • Dave H

    Well it’s quite dodgy that they’re raiding a rail budget for a transport link that is completely superfluous from any practical perspective.

    But I don’t see the “piffling” numbers as a problem, necessarily. So the cable car will serve about 10% of the numbers that the equivalent section of the Jubilee Line? (Actually could be more than 10%, as the 27,500 figure you state doesn’t specify which direction the passengers are travelling in, and I’d be willing to bet that the majority of them are actually travelling towards central London, not Canning Town.) But how much would that section of the Jubilee Line have cost to construct? More than 10 times the projected cost of the cable car? I don’t actually know, but it doesn’t sound infeasible to me.

    • Anonymous

      Spending £60m on a transport project that even the Mayor thinks will only be used at 10% of its capacity is yes, piffling.

      • Dave H

        Well I think that fact that the cable car won’t immediately use up much of its capacity is kind-of irrelevant to its cost (or vice versa). How many times have we bemoaned transport projects that exhaust their capacity as soon as they are opened? I’d prefer to have some room for growth built-in.

        If we’re comparing construction cost to usage, it would surely make most sense to compare that ratio with that of a transport alternative (i.e. that section of the Jubilee Line). According to Wikipedia (ahem), the JLE cost £3.5bn to construct. If we (probably wrongly) assume that each section of the extension cost the same amount to construct, then we could guess that the North Greenwich to Canning Town section cost £350m. And according to the GLA website, the Jubilee Line’s capacity was 16,500 passengers per hour (before its recentish upgrade), so the cost:capacity ratio was just short of 18,000:1.

        If we compare that with the cable car figures, we have a ratio of 24,000:1. So yes, the cable car might seem less construction-cost-effective than that section of the Jubilee Line. But, once you factor in 12 years of inflation since the JLE opening, and the fact that that section of the JLE may well have cost more than a tenth of the overall JLE cost (tunelling under the Thames cannot be a cheap undertaking), it doesn’t seem that different.

        Now yes, the fact that the cable car will only initially use 10% of its capacity does change the inherent value of that ratio. But, to be honest, I can’t see the Jubilee Line using much of its capacity between North Greenwich and Canning Town either. So what’s the difference?

        The difference, in my mind, is that the cable car is totally superflous from a transport perspective. It should be treated, and funded, as a novelty tourist attraction (and thus not paid for by TfL).

  • JohnnyFox

    Even though this thing will be virtually in my back yard and technically I’d benefit from it, I can’t see the bloody point of it since it more or less duplicates the Jubilee one-stop sector from Canning Town to North Greenwich without properly connecting at either end …

  • Beth Torr

    Like Dave, I don’t necessarily see the numbers as a problem. Their estimates don’t appear to be based on anything concrete so it’s equally possible they’ll be serving more than their 1m guess. What I feel is more of a concern is the lack of forethought around funding and the raiding of an already-stretched rail budget to fill the gap.

    • Anonymous

      Yeah, Len Duvall asked for studies and it’s not clear whether they’ll be forthcoming or whether 1m passengers is a number plucked from the ether. If it is, that makes the spiralling costs and budget-shuffling all the worse (and it’s bloody appalling as it stands now) – how can anyone justify spending £60m of money that’s clearly not there, on a project it’s not definite anyone wants or needs? You’d think the word ‘austerity’ had never been coined.

  • Stuart Gilbert

    Seems to me it’s pretty much just to make London look a bit prettier or more exciting. At least a trip on the cable car gives you a nicer view than on the train. :)

    • Anonymous

      Which is why this is a tourist attraction, not a piece of transport. TfL has as much business with it as they do with the London Eye. 

      If there weren’t 600 better ways of spending that 60 million I’d be shocked.

  • Steven

    The calculation you make doesn’t paint the whole picture. The peaks and valleys of daily/annual ridership vary widely – you can’t just average out ridership evenly across every operational hour of the year – especially given the Olympics.

    Nevertheless, this is a pretty disturbing project. I run an information resource on Urban Gondolas and Cable Propelled Transit systems and even I’m appalled by the cost overruns here. They’re completely unjustified. If you’re interested, I’ve gone through a lot of the problematic costs of this system here:

    • Anonymous

      ^ Aside from the Londonist bashing 😉 that’s a very good write up.

      I wouldn’t get hung up about the Olympics, routes already exist, this wasn’t part of our bid, and a ferry could have done the job if it’s really necessary (which could then be used somewhere where it is necessary afterwards).

      One much better scheme was the Pedestrian & Cycle Bridge between rotherhithe and canary wharf, which would have been hugely useful long term. There’s no walk/cycle-able river crossing between tower bridge and the Greenwich foot tunnel. Which would have cost – £65m….

    • Anonymous

      Steven, I think I’m pretty open about my methodology, and everyone knows transport has peaks and troughs. The passengers per hour is just one of the things I broke down, more for curiousity than actually trying to imply there will be an even spread of exactly 228 people using the cable car every hour! 228 people are much easier to visualise than 2,740, it’s just another way for people to get their head round things. I think this thread has got a bit sidetracked onto the figures – the figures are small, I think we can agree on that, and the money’s coming out of the bloody rail budget.

  • Davidandrews

    Look out for an announcement today regarding Sponsorship which should put to rest some fears!!!