A scene I never thought I'd see: one of the cable car stanchions high above the Thames and I was just inches awaycross-Thames cable car, making a one-way trip from North Greenwich Peninsular to the Royal Docks.
It's something that friends and I had hoped to do a few months ago, but thick fog put paid to that idea. Yesterday, however, visibility was good and it was a steady wind that I thought could scupper proceedings, though happily this was not to be.
We arrived at the North Greenwich terminus in style - by Thames Clipper, having undertaken a full journey from Embankment. It was here that we ran into a problem: how to get between the North Greenwich Pier and the North Greenwich Peninsular. The two look physically close, though after showing your tickets to the officious Thames Clipper landside staff member in order to be permitted access to dry land, you're immediately forced into choosing whether to carry straight on or turn left.
A Thames Clipper at the North Greenwich Pier terminus
We followed the crowd and headed left, hugging the line of the Thames where sure enough the high fencing did briefly part allowing access to the Air Line terminal at the North Greenwich Peninsular.
Staff there were on hand to both marshall the queue and to offer advice to the plethora of tourists wanting to make a trip across the Thames. We had One-Day Travelcards and were entitled to a discount on the standard turn-up-and-go single fare of £4.30 adult and £2.20 child. There is no discount given for a return/'360' round trip, which costs double the single fare for both classes. With a Travelcard (also included are Freedom Pass holders, TfL staff pass holders and Oyster card users) a discount single fare of £3.20 adult and £1.60 child is offered.
We were shown to a self-service ticket machine by a member of staff who set up our purchase after checking our Zone 1-2 Travelcards (we were in Zone 3) and left us to complete the purchase as I was paying by card.
We then climbed a level to the departure area where there are up to four pods under cover at any time and are travelling so slowly that people with mobility problems would be able to board them without an issue. Unlike the London Eye or more traditional cable cars at seaside resorts that travel at the same speed throughout, the Air Line's pods reduce speed to a crawl when they're at a terminal, ensuring the safe disembarkation and boarding of passengers. The doors also open and close automatically.
As we 'took off' I did wonder when the door would shut as I was sat right next to it, though reassuringly it closed the second we increased our speed. The view is excellent and the five-minute journey time felt longer. We shared our pod with a family of five from Poland who were busy taking photos and admiring the view. The nearest you'll get to the views on offer are aboard the London Eye and as of two days earlier, the 72nd floor of Europe's tallest building, The Shard, which charges almost £25 for the privilege.
We were thanked for using the Air Line some time prior to arriving at our Royal Docks terminal, which seemed somewhat sterile and then it was over. Again, there were plenty of staff to offer assistance to people with mobility problems. We headed down a level to ticket barriers where we inserted our boarding passes (as we did for the outward journey) and I was pleased to see the passes weren't retained, so a small souvenir can be kept.
Approaching the Royal Docks terminus
Many saw the Air Line as a vanity project by the London Mayor, with its planned opening by hook or crook for the 2012 London Olympic Games. I didn't follow the story of its inception to completion in enough detail to be able to comment, though the Air Line does seem under-used if yesterday's visit is anything to go by. Yes, it offers another cross-Thames option, but at a price. Even with Travelcards, you're looking at £3.20 one way and both terminals aren't exactly in the throbbing hearts of local communities.
When we arrived at the Royal Docks, we would have had to walk two blocks to reach the nearest DLR station, though in the event service was suspended between Canning Town and Beckton, so we had to catch a Rail Replacement Bus Service, which ironically, was located conveniently outside the Air Line terminal building. And it was in the form of an Ensignbus Volvo B9TL/Optare Olympus that was spotless inside, with the distinct smell of bleach adding to the cleanliness. The last time I've travelled on a bus this clean was in December 2011 when I used CT Plus's Service 701 Park & Ride.
To summarise, the Emirates Air Line is OK for a one-off on a tourist's bucket list, but nothing more. This could be its Achilles heel: once you've visited, you don't return. I honestly can't see it becoming a shining example of commercialism through regular commuters. Would I make use of it again? Possibly - if I was with friends who'd not used it before. It's not the easiest attraction to reach for tourists who are sunning themselves in Hyde Park and who spontaneously decide to have a cable car ride, and this is another of its problems.
One a positive note, my weekend in London, including travel to and from, was one of the best I can ever remember in terms of the efficiency of the transport. East Coast played a blinder heading south on Saturday - our train was punctual (literally!) and the service in First Class was attentive though not OTT. Travelling back was the usual fare evader's dream, with no barrier patrol at King's Cross and Peterborough and we didn't have our ticket checked on board, but we arrived in Peterborough in just 43 minutes. I was so unprepared it was quite a dash to leave the train.
We made numerous journeys using the Underground and I was pleased to see official references to the system's 150th anniversary displayed. I don't think we ever had to wait more than 2 minutes on any platform for a train. Everything just worked seamlessly and if I were a foreign tourist to the city, I would have left feeling very positive about London's transport network - even if they couldn't complete a Surrey Quays - Clapham Junction journey with LOROL thanks to 'planned' engineering work :-(