Post by Steven Dale
Over the weekend it was announced that the estimated project cost for London’s Thames Cable Car (Gondola) has ballooned to an estimated £60m. For those interested, that means the system will cost roughly $100m USD per kilometer.
With the possible exception of the Caracas Metrocable (whose finances are discussed here), the London Thames Cable Car will easily be the most expensive gondola/cable car ever built. It’s even more expensive than the overpriced Burnaby Mountain Gondola, whose cost has also yet to be explained or justified.
As we discuss here, the London Thames Cable Car appears to be nothing more than the latest example of largely English-speaking transit agencies’ unwillingness and/or inability to reign in costs related to transit projects.
Whether this is an example of scope creep, pork barrelling, corruption or just pure out-and-out incompetence is virtually irrelevant at this point because all or some clearly have a role to play in this debacle.
As someone who happens to know a little bit about cable transit systems, let be me completely blunt: There is absolutely, positively, completely no reason whatsoever this project should cost London taxpayers ~$100m USD. Not a single good reason:
ONE. Off-the shelf MDG technology is being used.
While we have no confirmation of this fact, we can use a little something called logic to figure it out. Construction on the project started just a few months ago. As the goal is to complete the system by next summer, the only possible way in which to do that is to use MDG technology.
3S technology would be the sexier (possibly even better) choice here, but the reality is this: MDG technology has virtually off-the-shelf availability; 3S has to be built to order. That’s why an MDG can be turned around in such a short period of time.
Widely available renderings also indicate MDG technology.
All-in, an MDG system can be built for $10m – $30m USD per kilometre. Max.
At their most expensive, Medellin’s Metrocable systems were coming in at ~$25m USD and that included intermediary stations, turns, 4,000 pphpd capacity (compared to London’s 2,500 pphpd), land acquisition and all station and tower architecture.
TWO. Where the technology is manufactured invalidates questions of where it’s built.
Okay, sure. Medellin isn’t London and it certainly doesn’t cost as much as London. But remember: As the majority of the cable system itself is manufactured in a western-European location (France, Austria, Switzerland and/or Italy), that means the cost of the systems’ electro-mechanical components (cabins, cable, towers, stations, etc.) will not vary much from place-to-place.
The only thing that’s likely to cause any sort of shift in price is currency and/or commodity fluctuations. But as the Euro has been depreciating against the British Pound for much of the last two years, shouldn’t the price actually be decreasing?
The one counter-argument to this could be if much of the system is being manufactured in Switzerland – in which case the rapid over-inflation of the Franc could be leading to these increases but a) much of that over-inflation has been recently stemmed due by Switzerland’s Central Bank and b) as we understand it the system is being built by Doppelmayr not Garaventa.
This is important because Doppelmayr is an Austrian company that trades in Euros and Garaventa is a Swiss subsidiary that trades in Francs. In other words, somewhere between 75 and 90% of the cost of this system is being incurred purely in London alone.
THREE. The capacity of this system invalidates the need for large scale station infrastructure.
As reported, the Thames Cable Car is expected to move roughly 1,000,000 people in its first year of operations with a throughput of 2,500 persons per hour per direction. One million looks like a big number, but it’s really not when you consider how many hours there are in a day and how many days there are in the year.
(Note: The Londonist riffs on this concept with a deplorable calculation that demonstrates how only 228 people will use the system per hour. This calculation is a gross over-simplification of the problem because it spreads ridership evenly across every day and every hour of a 365 day year. Of course we know that ridership has peaks and valleys from hour-to-hour and day-to-day especially when you inject a massive peak such as will occur during the Summer Olympics. This calculation is therefore nothing more than brazen misinformation and irresponsible commentary.)
Oversized station architecture typically accounts for the bulk of costs in a cable system such as this, but given the modest number of people this system is anticipated to move, there is absolutely no reason to invest in large scale stations.
To demonstrate: The Koblenz Rheinseilbahn utilizes the above-mentioned 3S technology and moves ~3,600 pphpd. It has been an enormous success and I’m told is moving tens of thousands of people per day due to the bi-annual (and inexplicably popular) BUGA horticultural festival.
The Koblenz Rheinseilbahn is also only 1 km long and cost ~$20m USD all in.
This is what the Koblenz stations look like:
Now compare that to London:
Granted the London system has two things that the Koblenz system does not. Owing to Koblenz’s current status as a temporary installation, it does not have the maintenance bay and custom-designed towers that the Thames Cable Car will. Fine. But do those two items justify the Thames Cable Car’s absurd price premium over the Rheinseilbahn?
Not when the Rheinseilbahn carries almost double the number of people.
Transport for London and Mayor Boris Johnson owe the people of London an explanation – particularly as they now plan to pay for it “out of the rail budget.”
Suffice it to say, this isn’t going to win Urban Gondolas any fans – likely just a few more enemies in one of the most highly visible cities in the world.
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