Why The Hell Do People Go On The Emirates Air Line?

Harry Rosehill
By Harry Rosehill Last edited 68 months ago
Why The Hell Do People Go On The Emirates Air Line?

Spanning the Thames — and dangling up to 90 metres above it — the Emirates Air Line is a singular bit of London transport kit. On paper, it should be popular: everyone loves a view; everyone loves the Thames; and who doesn't love a gondola. Yet, depending on what you read, the Air Line has gone down as an infamous strand of Boris Johnson's mayoral legacy. Surely though, some people must still be using, and, dare we say, enjoying it?

Building sites clutter the route to the Greenwich station to the south of the Thames. A huge impetus behind the project was regeneration of the area, something that's still ongoing five years after the cable car started up. Perhaps in another five years or so plethora of cranes and building sites will shuffle away, but for now they don't make the heading this way an attractive prospect.

Once you're past the cranes and concrete, you can't fail to notice the in-your-face Emirates branding. Private corporations paying exorbitant amounts for naming rights is par for the course these days, but Emirates has taken things a step further. Having their name plastered everywhere is clearly not enough; instead they've decided to try and convince everyone this is a flight. Except those are usually in Dubai-bound planes, rather than small carriages trundling over east London.

One of TfL's persistent arguments is that there are regular commuters who use the service. Perhaps mid-afternoon isn't the time to ascertain whether that's true or not, but we asked one of the staff that worked there. She tells us that there are commuters, although we don't get the impression she sees many.

A former Greenwich resident, Xavier, commuted into the City for the first year of the cable car's existence. If any commuter was to use it, surely it'd be him. "I used it four times in one year," he says, "It only ever came in handy when one specific branch of the DLR was down."

Do you have to pay extra for naming rights for bunging Emirates on the bottom of each cabin?

We pay our £3.50 and hop on board our 'northbound flight'. Like everyone else travelling today, we have a private cabin. To anyone who's shelled out £88 to hire out their own cabin, this must be a bit of a slap in the face.

Emptiness for some, we discover, is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the trip. Dawn doesn't have an Oyster card so paid a full £10.70 for the round trip, and she would have felt "ripped off" if it weren't for the fact she and her husband Marcus got to see the sights alone. Now she's quite happy with her bargain.

They've come to travel with Emirates because Marcus work often brings him to the Excel Centre, where he gazes longingly at the cable car. "It was on my bucket list", he confides.

The greatest trick Boris ever played.

As the cabin leaves its Greenwich station, a little screen pops up with a handy reminder that the development was partially funded by the EU's European Development Fund. One can only applaud the sheer gall of BoJo. As the old saying goes: 'take their money for your vanity project, then convince a whole nation to ditch them'.

But the screen has greater functionality than reminding us about our former mayor. A video acts as a guide for the short hop across the river. Except the screen is really dark, so you can't really see the video. Then there's what the video mentions itself. It pays a lot of lip service to the area's regeneration, which, while not fascinating, is at least understandable. The same cannot be said for Isambard Kingdom Brunel's Thames Tunnel. It might be a marvellous piece of Victorian engineering and the first successful tunnel under a navigable river, but there's a problem. You can't see it. Not on the screen because it's too dark, and not out the window because — and this is a common feature with tunnels — it's underground.

Andrew and Winnie aren't impressed by the video either, but generously suggest that perhaps it's better in the evening, when the light's in its favour. And overall they're having a great time: they're here because Andrew is recovering from surgery on his leg and has limited mobility. They like to take long walks together, and as that's not an option right now, they opted for the cable car. Emirates Air Line has step-free access — and excellent disabled access throughout — so it suits their needs perfectly.

Apart from invisible tunnels, what of the rest of the views?

You can see the immediate local area clear as day — as we've already mentioned, it's not the most aesthetically pleasing sight, but it is something a bit different at least (who needs the Houses of Parliament anyway). Canary Wharf is there for those who are fans of banker watching, and The ArcelorMittal Orbit is another landmark we spot to the north. Beyond this, you need to squint.

The glamorous side of London that you can see from up high.

Veroeska doesn't mind though: "I love the way it makes the city seem so small," she says. She's a Londoner who's used the cable car with her young child a few times; it's a bargain compared to the London Eye, she explains.

Finally we find the needle in a haystack; people taking the cable car to get from A to B. Kate and David came to visit their son Tom who lives in London. Kate, it turns out, has hated the experience, although father and son are far more positive, although they add, "we wouldn't go out of our way for it". This isn't quite true as calculations made with TfL's Journey Planner state that their route — Royal Observatory Greenwich to the Olympic Park — takes an hour and three minutes. That's an extra 20 minutes than were they to bus and tube it. But we'll let them off the hook just this once.

Stepping off at Royal Victoria Docks we meet Kayleigh. She took a ride because she was meeting a friend who was running late, so was looking for something to do. "It's OK if you have some time to kill," she says.

Perhaps the most positive punters we speak to are David and Sam, in town from Leicester for a Robbie Williams gig at The O2. They'd never heard about the Air Line before, but their taxi driver told them it was worth checking out. They loved it: Sam excitedly says she found it "quite scary up there". David enjoyed it because it reminded him of skiing gondolas.

The Air Line, then, continues to be a London enigma. While many Londoners love to hate it — and it would appear there are few regulars — it carries on regardless; thrilling some, disappointing others. A TfL spokesperson recently defended it, telling us that it's paying for itself. And so for now at least, we can expect to see the dangleway hanging on.

See also: 7 Reasons To Love The Cable Car

Last Updated 28 June 2017