For the last 30 years, the lion’s share of London’s development money has been spent east of Tower Bridge. It started with Canary Wharf, a steel and glass financial centre built on derelict dockland which now employs 100,000 people. Exclusive apartments line both banks of the Thames and, to the north, 600 acres of industrial wasteland have been bulldozed, cleaned and regenerated to form the Olympic Park, the Athlete’s Village and Europe’s largest urban shopping centre.
Perhaps the most surprising addition to this new infrastructure was opened last June, shortly before the Olympic Games. A cable car line, 1 kilometre (two thirds of a mile) long and 90 metres (just under 300 feet) high flies across the river just East of Canary Wharf. Opened with great ceremony by London’s Mayor Boris Johnson (who must be sad to see his limelight-flooded year coming to an end), it was hailed as an important addition to the transport system. Capable of carrying 5000 people per hour, it was claimed to be the equivalent of 30 extra buses. Better still, it attracted £36 million worth of sponsorship from Dubai-based airline Emirates. In return for which they got naming rights. They called it “Emirates Air Line”. Someone got paid for that.
Today, however, it is operating at just 10% of its capacity. The problem is, it takes you from a car park to, well, nowhere in particular. And back again. During the Olympic Games, the route made perfect sense. It swept you from Greenwich (site of the Gymnastics and Equestrian Events) to the Excel Centre (Boxing, Wrestling, Judo, Table Tennis, Weightlifting etc.) Today, it still runs between these two venues: the O2 Arena and the Excel Centre. But how likely is it anyone will want to visit both in one day?
Next month, for example, you could spend the day at the Excel Centre visiting BETT (“the global meeting place for everyone who is passionate about the transformational power of learning technology”), then take the Air Line to the O2 to see Ronan Keating in concert. A tiny (and decidedly odd) demographic.
Very few people live near one station and work near the other, hence commuter traffic is negligible. On the plus side however, the ride is spectacular. You get great views over most of the sights in East London: the O2 Arena, Canary Wharf, the Royal Docks, the Thames Barrier and (on a fine day) the Olympic Stadium. It was not a fine day on my last visit – see picture. Best of all, on a weekday outside rush hour, the chances are that you will get a car all to yourself. At roughly a quarter the cost of a ride on the London Eye, it is unbeatable value!
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