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London Cable Car Lauded by Arnie Needs Riders as Games Fade

London’s cross-Thames cable car, which lured 20,000 visitors a day at the height of the Olympics, faces a struggle to sustain passenger levels with the games over and the subway offering a cheaper way of spanning the river. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg
London’s cross-Thames cable car, which lured 20,000 visitors a day at the height of the Olympics, faces a struggle to sustain passenger levels with the games over and the subway offering a cheaper way of spanning the river. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Aug. 16 (Bloomberg) -- London’s cross-Thames cable car, which lured 20,000 visitors a day at the height of the Olympics, faces a struggle to sustain passenger levels with the games over and the subway offering a cheaper way of spanning the river.

The 63 million-pound ($99 million) mechanism reaped a surge in traffic during London 2012 thanks to its position between two of the main venues. Prior to the Olympics it carried about 9,700 passengers a day, less than 15 percent of capacity.

London Mayor Boris Johnson touted the cable car as the “latest addition” to the U.K. capital’s transport network when he took Arnold Schwarzenegger for a trip on Aug. 12. While the ex-California governor praised the views from 90 meters (295 feet) above the Thames, locals say the ride’s location more than 5 miles from the city center means it will struggle to win passengers as days shorten and tourist numbers dwindle.

“Before the games we did have customers from the cable car, but only at weekends and when the weather was good,” said Ellen Chung, 26, duty manager at a supermarket near the southern terminal, who has yet to take a trip. “Friends of mine who live in the area have tried it once, and only for entertainment.”

Quiet Morning

The cable car runs from the O2 arena, which staged the Olympic gymnastics, basketball and trampoline contests, 1.1 kilometers north to the ExCel center, host to the boxing, judo, fencing, wrestling, table tennis, taekwondo and weightlifting.

“It’s going to be an issue once the novelty has gone,” said real-estate manager David McCullach, 63, before his first ride on the cable car. “Where people live and where they work, that’s what you have to connect. Time is important as well.”

Even during the games only about 150 people were observed using the gondola between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m., the London rush-hour peak, most of them families. Five hours later, after the start of the day’s Olympic events and during a visit scheduled by Transport for London, which oversees the cable car, five-minute lines had formed as people moved between games venues.

The number of people using the cable car is “encouraging,” operations manager Danny Price said in an interview, with passenger levels likely to be sustained by work-related travel and the 8 million annual visitors to the ExCel and O2 sites.

Winter Dip

“I do accept there’ll be a tourist market that perhaps may look to the summer season, but the commuters are going to be there in the winter and the conference center is as busy in the winter as in the summer,” he said. “The O2 is equally as busy.”

Still, the U.K. attracts 24 percent fewer visitors from October through March than in the summer, with trips about 40 percent shorter, Office for National Statistics figures show.

Extreme winter weather could also curb operations, with the cable car shut down twice even in July because of the risk of lightning strikes. The mechanism was also halted by a technical fault on July 25, leaving passengers dangling for 30 minutes.

Simon Baker, 26, a computer technician who spoke after his first outing on the cable car, said there’s little likelihood that people will use it daily to cross such a short distance.

“You don’t go to a convention at the ExCel and then leave for a concert in Greenwich on a regular basis,” said Baker, who had traveled to London from Peterborough, eastern England.

The cost of a single cable car trip -- 4.30 pounds -- would also fund travel anywhere within zones 1 to 3 of the subway network or Tube, stretching from Ealing in the west to Beckton in the east, a distance of more than 15 miles.

After Dark

Price said the attraction may prove popular in the winter for its panoramas of night-time London, with opening hours successfully extended during the games to permit viewing after dark. The cost of a journey also compares well with the 17-pound fee for 30 minutes on the London Eye, which lures 3.5 million visitors annually or 75 percent more than TfL plans to attract to the cable car, though the big wheel is boosted by its position across the Thames from the Houses of Parliament.

“The cable car might be cheap for tourists, but it’s expensive for commuting,” said Sam Scott, 34, a video-game programmer who lives locally and hasn’t yet used the system.

Costs come down to 1.60 pounds if customers invest in 10-journey “Frequent Flyer” tickets, though only 534 were sold in the first month of operation, according to TfL. Oyster-card holders are charged 3.20 pounds, falling to 1.60 pounds for one week if five trips or more are made in the previous seven days.

Emirates Deal

While the initial estimate for building costs was 25 million pounds, the final bill included 45 million pounds for construction, with the 18 million-pound balance including expenses for planning and investments in the area, Price said.

TfL paid 27 million pounds toward the cable car, which is being run by its builder, Mace Group, for three years. The local transport body, overseen by Mayor Johnson -- who on meeting Schwarzenegger asked if the actor had ever wrestled someone in a gondola -- expects to recoup its outlay via ticket sales and an application for 8 million pounds of European Union funds.

Dubai-based Emirates, the No. 1 carrier by international traffic, provided 36 million pounds in a 10-year sponsorship deal. Under the accord, the cable car is known as the Emirates Air Line and appears on London’s iconic subway map by that name, a “significant” factor in clinching the deal, Price said.

While the aim is for the ride to break even “over a reasonable period time,” it’s too early to say when that will be and targets will be reassessed once normal volumes of use have been more clearly established, Price said.

Baker, the IT technician, said following his trip on the cable car that the project has cost “a crazy amount of money” that probably won’t be clawed back.

“It is empty right now,” he said. “So I can’t see it being profitable and I wonder where it will be five years from now.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Roxana Zega in London at rzega@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chad Thomas at cthomas16@bloomberg.net

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