Is everything ok with the cable cars?
Strange things are afoot at the Dangleway. Plus: the Spy hits a huge milestone
Morning — the London cable cars have long been mentioned in the same breath as other doomed mayoral projects, like the failed Garden Bridge. But when the Spy recently got hold of the scheme’s internal finances, we made a surprising discovery. That’s after your Thursday briefing below.
Plus: heat for the Met after Pride, heat for an academic caught on camera ripping down a LTN poster, and heat under the collar for onlookers of controversial billboards in north London.
Huge milestone: We’ve passed 1,000 subscribers to the Spy! A massive thank you to everyone who’s been with us so far. It’s such a morale boost for us as we file the Spy in the depths of weeknights around our day jobs. And who knows — we’re now 1,000 readers closer to snooping on London full-time. You can help us get there quicker by pledging a paid subscription to the Spy below. You won’t pay anything yet, but you’ll be lined up for our paid editions when we launch.
What we’ve spied
🏳️🌈 The Met is taking flack over its decision to ban officers at Pride from wearing ‘Thin Blue Line’ badges. The badge, which is a black and white Union flag with a thin horizontal blue line running through the middle, is worn by some officers to commemorate fallen colleagues. But ahead of the parade in central London on Saturday, police on duty were issued with advice that stated: “No ‘Thin Blue Line’ badges/patches are to be worn whilst policing this event”. Some have suggested this was to prevent offence to the LGBTQ+ community given the badge’s resemblance to a similar symbol that has been linked to transphobic far-right groups in the US. Amongst those to weigh in is former home secretary Priti Patel, who called the ban “nonsense”, and current home secretary Suella Braverman, who demanded the Met provide more information on the decision. Met commissioner Sir Mark Rowley defended the decision on Wednesday, saying that he was “cautious” about officers “showing allegiance to any cause” on their uniform. Related: five Just Stop Oil protestors have now been charged after the Pride parade was briefly disrupted by the group. Activists sat down in front of the Coke float for 17 minutes at Piccadilly’s junction with Down Street. Just Stop Oil had warned of its action in advance, having called on Pride to stop accepting money from “high-polluting” industries. Speaking after the arrests, Pride organisers said the group had “let down” those who use Pride to protest LGBTQ+ rights.
📸 An academic tasked with independently reviewing low traffic neighbourhoods has been caught on camera tearing down a petition protesting against, er, low traffic neighbourhoods. CCTV footage shows Dr Anna Goodman removing a poster from inside a shop in West Dulwich put up to protest plans in Lambeth to create new one-way routes and ban some turns. Dr Goodman is an academic at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine who specialises in “evaluating sustainable transport interventions”. She’s now apologised for taking down the petition after being called out in a local WhatsApp group, but campaigners also want her removed as the joint lead in an upcoming £1.5 million study into the effects of LTNs.
🍆 Some risqué billboards in north London promoting an OnlyFans account have sparked complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority. The adverts, which are dotted around Harrow and Edgeware, show model Eliza Rose Watson in underwear alongside the OnlyFans logo, and have been the subject of several official complaints. One has been spray-painted over with the words “keep porn off our streets”. Watson herself isn’t phased — she told the BBC she reckons her ads are “less racy” than lingerie ones anyway.
👩⚖️ The ULEZ debate has hit the High Court as five Conservative councils try to block Sadiq Khan’s planned expansion of the ultra-low emissions zone. The councils argued that Khan "lacks the legal powers" to extend ULEZ to outer London and that he should have been subject to more legal and consultative requirements. For his part, Khan’s legal team said that the scheme was "entirely lawful" and would improve London's air quality. The judge is expected to give his ruling at a later date.
🏡 John Lewis wants to build 10,000 rental homes on its land in London. The group has filed plans for developments in Ealing and Bromley, as part of its strategy of generating more of its profits outside of retail by 2030.
📈 71% of prime central London property sales so far this year were bought with cash, according to a new analysis. Unsurprisingly it seems that interest rates are scaring off normal people who need a mortgage to buy a house. The data covers ‘prime’ London, which is an estate agent term for the area spanning Chelsea to Camden and Notting Hill and Westminster.
🚇 Fifteen disused railways in Peckham are getting re-developed. In a £3m project, the arches between Brayards Road and Consort Road will be kitted out ready for shops, cafes, offices and other light industrial uses. The arches were formerly the home of the Meridian Bronze Foundry, where some famous statues were made including the one of Winston Churchill statue in Parliament Square.
💸 The government has sought to reassure Londoners their bills won’t be affected by the feared collapse of Thames Water. “Absolutely nothing” will happen to customers' supply or bills if the water supplier goes under, health minister Neil O'Brien told Sky News on Friday, amid growing fears the business can’t service its huge debts.
TfL’s weirdest comeback: the cable cars
A strange thing has happened to the London cable cars: they’re finally making money by themselves. After a decade of critics bashing them as a vanity project of former mayor Boris Johnson, the Spy is surprised to reveal that the Thames Dangleway made a profit last year, just from fare revenue. Driving the unlikely turnaround are crowds of TikTokers, who’ve finally brought enough footfall to put the gondolas into the green for the first time since 2012 on fares alone. Sponsorship has long plugged the budget holes of the project, which has been repeatedly ridiculed for its low uptake by commuters. But in 2022/23 enough people made the Docklands-Greenwich crossing by air that the scheme made £555,000 after operating costs and maintenance. And then when you add the cash from the latest sponsor — IFS Cloud — the cable cars banked a total of £1m.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that the internal TfL finances that the Spy’s obtained — viewable here if you don’t mind a spreadsheet — show the taxpayers have yet to be paid back for the cable car’s original £60m construction costs. By our count, there’s still a missing £30m in public funds — despite initial hopes the scheme would be entirely privately funded. That’s enough to buy around 80 electric London buses. Whoops.
At least there’s a new wave of gondola enthusiasts to help us get those buses back — post-pandemic, the cable cars have a newfound virality as a #ThingToDoInLondon. There are now endless videos on TikTok touting the cable cars as a ‘hidden gem’ every Londoner needs to ‘tick off their bucket list’. TfL’s social media team is also jumping on the trend, uploading whimsical videos of the cable cars at sunset backed to acoustic Katy Perry covers, or pointing out that over 200 people have picked a cable car as a place to propose. Even things going wrong may have helped with publicity, like this clip of passengers getting stuck mid-ride with alarms going off (a commenter suggests the cars have to be paused when it’s too windy). There’s a clear impact — cable car passenger numbers hit 1.5m in 2022/23, up 200,000 on the previous financial year. Fare revenue has skyrocketed to £9.3m, nearly double the £5.5m just before the pandemic hit.
The buzz is a far cry from the cable cars’ humble beginnings. Construction of the Dangleway finished in 2012, but the idea for cable cars across the Thames goes back to the development of the Millennium Dome in Greenwich in the 1990s. In 1997 plans were announced for the Meridian Skyway, a link between the Dome and East India DLR station that would have carried 5,000 people per hour in 23 gondolas. Intended to be ready for the Dome’s opening in 1999, the project got quite far along, even getting planning permission. But then the Dome’s organisers soured on the idea, investors pulled out and the plans collapsed.
From the ashes came today’s line, initially put forward in 2010 by then-mayor Boris Johnson as he prepared to welcome the world to London for the 2012 Olympics. Except this time the link would be between the Greenwich Peninsula and the Royal Docks, with a slightly lower capacity of 4,000 passengers per hour. "A cable car spanning the majestic Thames would not only provide a unique and pioneering addition to London's skyline but also offer a serene and joyful journey across the river," was Johnson’s pitch at the time. "Passengers would be able to drink in the truly spectacular views of the Olympic Park and iconic London landmarks whilst shaving valuable minutes from their travelling time."
Also key to his pitch was a pledge the cable cars would fully fund themselves, without public cash. “The aim is to fund the construction of the scheme entirely from private finance,” said Johnson. And to do that, he needed a sponsor willing to slap their logo on the side. Among the companies Johnson first courted was Rupert Murdoch’s News International — a slightly controversial move, given the company was being investigated at the time by the Met Police over phone hacking by journalists. Eventually, Johnson struck a deal with airline Emirates, which recognised the opportunity of punny branding for the cable cars: the Emirates Air Line. The deal would see Emirates pay £36m in sponsorship for ten years — a figure Johnson would have been particularly grateful for as the opening date drew closer, since construction costs had ballooned from an original £25m to £60m.
There were already grumblings when the first gondolas set off in 2012. "While the cable car will be an attractive addition to London's skyline I question whether it will provide a practical transport link for many people on a daily basis,” said then-leader of the Liberal Democrats in the London Assembly, Caroline Pidgeon. The data soon bore her prediction out — just four regular commuters were using the cable car by November 2013, figures revealed. By the time he left City Hall in 2016 for eventually Downing Street, the cable cars were being mentioned in the same breath as other expensive Boris mayoral mishaps, like the failed Garden Bridge or the unused German water cannon.
What the finances obtained by the Spy show is that the cable cars never made a profit from fares in that time, despite a yearly average of £6m in fare revenue. In the initial years after a launch operating costs were sometimes just low enough for a profit — but this was wiped out by the capital investment needed to keep the gondolas going. In 2016/17, the cable cars lost £1m in a year before sponsorship. But their lifeline throughout was the deal with Emirates. The company’s £2.9m yearly sponsorship fees helped the cable cars to outweigh the losses, and slowly chip away at the original construction bill.
Then the pandemic hit, and fare revenue dropped off a cliff. In 2020/21 the cable cars made just £1.8m in fares but still racked up £5.7m in operating costs — slightly odd, given nobody was presumably riding them much in lockdown. Even the Emirates fees weren’t enough to offset that loss.
But now, with things much rosier, the future of the cable cars really depends on whether they keep up this uptick in footfall. If they continue to make £1m a year in profit, then the Spy reckons London taxpayers could get their money back in 30 years' time. Well, to be more accurate 50 years, after adjusting everything for the massive amount of inflation since 2012. It’s a much more precarious position than before though. The £2.9m-a-year safety net from Emirates sponsorship has gone, replaced by the more measly £420k deal with new sponsor IFS Cloud. If the cable cars revert back to their typical pre-pandemic losses — roughly £500K — then it looks like they’ll never pay themselves off.
Dangleway fans can at least take solace in TfL’s commitment to the scheme. In response to our story, Josh Crompton, TfL's Head of the IFS Cloud Cable Car, said: “The IFS Cloud Cable Car continues to cover its operating costs and generates an operating profit due to a combination of its fare income and commercial sponsorship. This operating surplus is reinvested into TfL services.
“It is unusual for transport infrastructure to pay back its capital investment from income, and wider societal benefits and the contribution to the local area must be considered.
“The cable car continues to see growth in its ridership with more than 15.7 million customers since opening, and it is currently seeing its highest number of customers in seven years, attracting new visitors, supporting local businesses and jobs.”
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