Docklands cable car opens for business

1 July 2012 at 12:11 | Posted in Docklands present, Photos | 2 Comments
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On Thursday this week the Emirates Air Line, a new cable car spanning the Thames between North Greenwich and the Royal Docks, opened for business. The Mayor was there for the press launch, which generated a huge amount of publicity, with TV crews from all over the world, and from midday the public could get on board. There were long queues on both sides of the Thames and a great deal of enthusiasm.

If you are interested in the development of London’s docklands, the Air Line offers an entirely new angle on the area, with superb views of the Greenwich Peninsula, Canary Wharf and the Royal Docks; and there are views to the City, with the Shard and London Eye poking between the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf. To the north the Olympic Park is visible, to the east the runway of City Airport lines up beautifully, with the Thames Barrier and Shooters Hill to its right. To the south, the Crystal Palace transmitters show their size, and down in maritime Greenwich the Naval College is clearly visible.

^^ The picture above shows the very smart South terminal, with a large area of new public realm around it. The queues are from the first Saturday.

^^From mid-flight the view across the O2 (Dome) to Canary Wharf is very special; I can’t wait to see this view at night.

^^Approaching the northern bank, and a lovely aerial view of the Royal Docks is apparent, including the runway of City Airport; in the above shot from opening day, a plane is coming in to land.

^^Silvertown remains resolutely industrial south of the DLR for now, but for how long? Meanwhile there’s a lovely view of Western Gateway, Britannia Village and ExCel from here

^^As you descend towards the north terminal in the Royal Victoria Dock you pass over the gardens of the Siemens Pavilion, which is a new office and visitor centre for Siemens, who supplied the electric motors for the cable car. This will be a free exhibition on modern technologies, so a perfect fit with the cable car outside its windows.

^^Coming back to the south terminal, it is clear how the lovely new public space is surrounded by open parking; fortunately this is not destined to last for ever, with advanced plans for development around the cable car which should give it a dramatic setting in future years.

^^A final shot shows the lovely view across the O2 (Dome) to Canary Wharf and central London on a day of sunshine and cloudy skies.

It’s easy to go for a ride; the simplest way is to pitch up with an Oyster card with credit on it, and just touch in and out; this avoids any ticket queues. The cheapest way is to buy a multi-trip ticket for £16 which gives 10 trips – that’s less than one trip on the London Eye, and you get to see a fascinating landscape that will keep on changing as the regeneration pushes eastwards. Highly recommended, just try to go in good weather as it won’t be quite the same in the rain.

Building the Blackwall Tunnel Approach Road

23 April 2012 at 20:00 | Posted in Docklands past, Docklands present, Maps and plans | 1 Comment
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The Blackwall Tunnel may be the bane of many east and south east London residents’ journeys, but imagine trying to get around the area by car without it. It’s actually been there for much longer than you may imagine, the first (now northbound) tunnel opening way back in 1897, with the second (now southbound) tunnel following in 1967. But for many years, it was a pretty local crossing, accessed by narrow approach roads and without much of a strategic function.

But when the second tunnel opened, it was part of a much larger plan for a series of urban motorways, or ringways, around London; this link was to form the eastern part of Ringway 1, or the Motorway Box.

The section approaching the Blackwall Tunnel in the south needed to be upgraded to allow the tunnel to play a larger role in the road network, and in 1968 the GLC (Greater London Council) published a leaflet setting out how this would be achieved; essentially, by ploughing an urban motorway through the Greenwich, Charlton and Blackheath borders.

The road was duly built as planned, although you’ll have noticed that the motorway box was never completed; the public tide turned against major road building in the capital in the 1970s, and the motorway box was dropped, leaving a few short sections – including the Blackwall tunnel approaches – as marooned motorways. These sections – then the A102(M) – didn’t even join up with the roads out to the edge of London, with the section through Eltham completed in the mid-80s, and the section through Leyton even later.

The roads ceased to be classed as motorways in 1999/2000, although this message hasn’t entirely got through to the designer of this newish sign I recently spotted on the A2, just before the M25 (picture from Google Streetview), which sports the road’s old A102(M) number.

The leaflet makes an interesting read, going into a surprising amount of detail, and offers a glimpse into the recent past.

Greenwich Peninsula and the mystery stadium

27 February 2012 at 19:24 | Posted in Docklands present, Football | Leave a comment
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Parts of the Greenwich Peninsula have been redeveloped in recent years, with the O2 the most high-profile new development on the peninsula and some others to follow, including the Emirates Air Line cable car to the Royal Docks. Gradually the areas to the east of the peninsula are being developed, with a commercial heart around the tube station slowly emerging, and with fairly advanced plans for more development around the top of the peninsula, including AEG’s planned hotel.

The western side of the peninsula, however, has remained strictly industrial until recently, but the sands are beginning to shift.

The first residents are living in the Lovells Wharf development closest to Greenwich, and the Enderby’s Wharf proposals – complete with a cruise ship terminal capable of handling ships up to 240 m long – gained planning permission a while ago and could come forward soon.

With all this activity in the area, the London Royal Borough of Greenwich has produced a new masterplan for the western part of the peninsula, to set out some planning parameters for the new developments which will over time edge out the current industries, if the borough has its way. The council is seeking comments on the draft until the 9th March.

New 40,000 seat arena/stadium

For me the stand-out feature of the masterplan is that it’s been planned around a new 40,000 seat arena, seemingly based on American baseball grounds in concept (or at least, that’s how it’s being presented). This would be an open bowl, with the main stands to the south and east and open views towards Canary Wharf. This would seemingly be principally for open-air concerts, and there is some logic to this; AEG – operators of the nearby indoor O2 Arena – clearly think there is a market for outdoor concerts, as this was a part of their failed bid for the Olympic Park, and they are installing a temporary venue on the peninsula for summer 2012. In addition, there has very recently been a row over concerts in Hyde Park, so a purpose-built venue for such gigs could clearly have a place in London’s summer calendar. However, you have to wonder whether one of London’s many existing stadia could perform this function, and indeed whether the plans for lots of residential property next door rather undermines the ability to play loud live music. And it seems to me that this can’t possibly be sufficient reason to build such an expensive arena.

So what of other uses? The documents refers rather obliquely to the arena being “integrated with an elite sports facility” – or, in plain English, maybe it would be used by a professional sports team. Whatever could they mean? The examples in the document are baseball arenas, but with the best will in the world I can’t see professional baseball taking off here any time soon, even though I got to quite like it when visiting the States and enjoyed a day out at the old Yankees stadium before it was knocked down. The oval shape would be well suited to cricket, and perhaps Kent could be persuaded to play some Twenty-20 cricket here – south east London is underserved by the traditional county, and Kent have shown an interest in playing in London, with a home game at the Oval in 2010 and even showing some interest in the Olympic stadium. Unlike those venues, this is within the traditional county of Kent (who have in the past played locally at Blackheath) so perhaps this would work. But one or two Twenty-20 games a year isn’t going to pay the rent any more than some outside gigs, and they’d be competing for the best summer weather.

With respect to the historic Blackheath rugby club nearby, rugby’s not a very south east London sport and doesn’t pull in the sort of crowds which would be at home in a venue of this size. Which pretty much leaves football.

As luck would have it, there is a professional club not far away in the form of Charlton Athletic. Due to their travails in the 1980s which saw the club forced out of the Valley and having to groundshare at Selhurst Park and then briefly Upton Park, the fans of Charlton are probably even more attached to their home than most fans, but in this day and age it’s becoming more accepted that at times a move can be justified.

So would Charlton be in the market for a new ground? It isn’t immediately obvious why they should be; the Valley is a pretty good ground, three of the four sides have been rebuilt since their return 20 years ago, and the 27,000 capacity is rarely met at present.

However, that 27,000 capacity is not perhaps as generous as it sounds; the club are currently in League One, and this is likely to be a temporary situation. Just the other day, a Football for a Fiver promotion brought a sell-out crowd of 26,500 (allowing for segregation) against Stevenage. The club have advanced plans to extend the Valley to 40,000 to cater for larger crowds, but this is expensive and doesn’t come without difficulties. For starters, the transport capacity getting away from the Valley on a matchday is limited, with crowd control at the station and very busy roads.

A new home on the Greenwich Peninsula would take the club out of Charlton, but only marginally, and would still be in the borough of Greenwich. The ground would still be within walking distance of the same railway line through Woolwich, albeit with a longer walk, and without the odd Blackheath line train. But there would also be the option to walk to North Greenwich for the tube (admittedly of less use for local fans but perhaps handy for some, and certainly away fans) and for lots of buses through SE London, and to walk into Greenwich for the DLR to head south. There is lots of parking for the O2, which could probably be used on a matchday provided no major events coincided, and there is a coach station nearby.

I have no idea how the finances would stack up, as I cannot imagine that the sale of the Valley would come anywhere near the cost of a new stadium, even when the extra capacity is added in; but perhaps the stadium is the catalyst which would unlock the surrounding land for the more profitable business of home building, and the extra concerts and no doubt hospitality would all contribute additional sources of revenue which could help to get it off the ground. I’ll be watching this one eagerly.

DLR extension

The plans also show Greenwich’s plans for a DLR extension towards Eltham. I have some sympathy for the concept of extending a line to the south east – south east London is under-served by public transport compared with other areas, and most of the railways by-pass Docklands and head straight for central London, putting a lot of pressure on those links which do run south (like the Lewisham DLR branch). But I’m not entirely convinced by this scheme as drawn by Greenwich; it would be hugely expensive (about £1 billion), and yet still wouldn’t provide a direct link to Canary Wharf, as once it gets to the Greenwich Peninsula, it heads for Canning Town (or even West Silvertown, if the terrible rail plan in this document is to be believed). This would simply pile more people onto the very busy Jubilee line for one stop.

If you’re going to go to the trouble and expense of building a light railway up to the Greenwich Peninsula from the south east, at least turn left instead of right when you get there, and drop people off at Canary Wharf – put a station below the southernmost West India Dock, just as the Jubilee line and Crossrail stations are built on the site of the other docks. And while you’re at it, keep going to serve the Rotherhithe peninsula and Canada Water to relieve the Jubilee line some more and link to the Overground for a really useful link.

Royal Docks and the Emirates Air Line

8 October 2011 at 12:50 | Posted in Docklands present | 2 Comments
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Being the furthest from central London, the Royal Docks were the last of London’s docks to be built, the last to be closed, and the last to be regenerated. There have been some new developments in the Royal Docks, but there remain large parts which are available and ripe for development if only there was some momentum and appetite to be bold.

Newham and the various London regeneration bodies have long felt that the area could form a major area for visitors. ExCeL brings in several million visitors a year, but almost all of these are associated with various trade shows and conferences, with heavy spikes for large shows and long periods without any large events, so these shows don’t bring many visitors to explore the docks.

Various schemes have been put forward to bring more year-round visitors and get the ball rolling, including advanced plans for a huge aquarium, which fell through, and bringing HMS Ark Royal to the Royal Docks. In 2010 Siemens announced plans for a visitor attraction at the western end of the Royal Victoria Dock (left), focussing on modern technologies, in association with office space. This is well under construction and is planned to bring 100,000 visitors to the area, in a more stable profile than the peaky-event traffic at ExCeL. This still leaves the non-event attractions in the docks looking pretty thin, and yet visible from here is the O2 across the river in Greenwich, a major attraction in its own right and recipient of 5 million visitors a year. This also suffers from peakiness though, being led by arena events despite the presence of a large cinema and lots of bars and restaurants.

In the case of both the O2 and ExCeL, moving event crowds is something of a challenge, which is generally well managed but desperately dependent on the Jubilee line and DLR (respectively) working perfectly, which didn’t happen often at weekends in the late 2000s while the Jubilee line was being painfully re-signalled.

In 2009 the Mayor – prompted by the late Sir Simon Milton – was determined to do something to put the Royals on the map, not least because through the LDA he had some very considerable landholdings in the area which were ripe for development, if only the private sector was interested.

With a large number of synergies between the Royal Docks and the Greenwich Peninsula, a direct link between them could make development in both areas more feasible; for example, the many hotels in the Royals which struggle for customers when there are no events on at ExCeL could better tap into events at the O2, while hotels on the Greenwich peninsula would benefit when the boat show’s on at ExCeL. If people could use the bars and restaurants on either side, they may arrive earlier to eat locally rather than depend on food at the venue. With a higher and more stable customer base the attractiveness of development on both sides would increase, and this would create employment.

So, how to link them? A railway line would take several years to build, and would be prohibitively expensive; with an alternative Jubilee/DLR route the cost could never be justified. A footbridge? Still very expensive, at over£100 million, comparing it with a similar proposal at Rotherhithe. And it would still only drop you at the river’s edge, with a 10-15 minute walk through grotty industrial estate to reach the docks, and with no revenue from users, it would be an expensive structure to maintain and keep secure. A tunnel would cost more, yet have the same downsides as a bridge.

A cable car was previously considered by green groups as an alternative to the  Thames Gateway Bridge, at the other end of the docks; doing the same at this end of the docks would be half the cost of a footbridge, and would oversail the industrial estate, getting over the problem of the walking distance from the Thames to the docks. It would provide a second link across the Thames from the Peninsula to help resilience, and link ExCeL to the O2. What’s more, it would be an attraction in its own right, attracting visitors to the area and supporting other local jobs.

With half an eye on the upcoming Olympics, when the scheme would link two venues, the Mayor didn’t hang about and took something of a gamble on being able to raise some private cash, giving the scheme the go-ahead in Spring 2011 with an ambitious one year programme, aiming to open in summer 2012. Will this be pre- or post-Olympics? Technically it doesn’t matter, the Olympic organisers are assuming it won’t be ready, and rightly so. But if it were open, I’m sure it would be hugely successful in those weeks.

Yesterday the Mayor – presumably with a huge sigh of relief – announced that Emirates would be sponsoring the newly christened Air Line. Out of a total build cost of £45M, they are paying £36M, leaving only £9M with TfL. And there’s a bid for European funding in too, so Boris may just pull the funding rabbit out of the hat. Even if TfL picked up the bill for the difference, that is small change; upgrading Victoria station will cost £700M, and that’s just to ease station crowding. (Not saying that’s a bad thing to do, but you’d lose the cost of the cable car in the budget for that scheme.) And who knows, it may even make a huge profit. If the London Eye pulls in 3.7M visitors each year at an eye-watering £13-31 a ride, who’s to say TfL won’t be pulling in profits to help other services?

If the experience is as good as the promoters hope, it should be pulling the visitors in, and money into the public coffers at the same time:

So, will it help with regeneration? It will undoubtedly add to the attractiveness of the O2 and ExCeL as venues, as there will now be more ways to get there (and away), more hotel beds within striking distance, and something else to do while you’re in the area. That means more jobs all round. It will surely massively increase visitors to ExCeL, and ties in beautifully with the new Skywalk which O2 are going to build next year as part of the strategy to get year-round visitors not coming to gigs.

And what about new developments? It can’t be a coincidence that the SS Robin will be mooring in the Royal Victoria Dock next to the new station. And there’s another application for a floating village to be built alongside (see left). This will comprise a swimming pool, restaurants, bars, cafés, and watersports, bringing new life to this dock, and a number of new jobs.

Are the Royal Docks on the verge of the tipping point, with a critical mass of complementary new developments making this a viable destination, and spurring new developments on the remaining brownfield sites? Some think so, and I certainly hope so too. Wary of the aquarium failure no-one should count their chickens, but for me the cable car, sorry Emirates Air Line, could just be the shrewdest thing the current Mayor’s done in his term in office.

Greenwich Peninsula, 1983

21 August 2011 at 21:28 | Posted in Docklands past | Leave a comment
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The Greenwich Peninsula wasn’t technically in Docklands according to the regeneration boundary of the 1980s, but it’s certainly relevant to the Docklands story. The outer edges of the peninsula were (and several still are) used as active wharves, although the main bulk of the land was part of a British Gas site. The picture below was taken in 1983:


The gasholders are still there, as is much of the wharfage in the foreground, although this won’t be the case for long if the plans for a new cruise terminal at Enderby’s Wharf go ahead, which could cater for ships up to 240 metres long.

Towards the top of the picture the Blackwall Tunnel vent shaft can be seen; this now protrudes through the roof of the O2 Arena, which occupies the northern tip of the peninsula today.

The view below shows a more recent view of the same area, from Google Earth.

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