Engineers test 'Eye' capsules as foreign body is blamed for delay

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The Millennium Wheel underwent exhaustive tests yesterday to find out if its 32 passenger capsules meet safety standards.

The Millennium Wheel underwent exhaustive tests yesterday to find out if its 32 passenger capsules meet safety standards.

The inspection of the £35m wheel was made days after the inaugural ride on New Year's Eve was cancelled because one of the clutches, which keep the capsules stable, was found to be faulty. Just hours before the first passengers were due to take their places for a champagne-fuelled journey, British Airways, the wheel's sponsor, was forced to abandon the maiden ride.

When the faulty clutch was taken apart and examined, a small piece of metal was found inside, which prevented the mechanism functioning properly. Engineers have now begun testing the other 31 clutches and by yesterday afternoon they had not found any more problems. They are expecting to run full tests on the wheel early next week.

If there are no more problems it will open on 1 February, although a spokesman admitted yesterday that there was a chance the operators might be able to open earlier for passing trade. A spokesman for the London Eye said they hoped that the wheel would open as scheduled at the beginning of next month, but if there was any delay those who have already bought tickets would be informed.

"This type of clutch is used in rides and fairgrounds all over the world, so we know it is not a design fault," he said. "It was simply that this clutch was not functioning properly and it turned out that a foreign body had got inside. We are currently bringing down all the other capsules, taking up the floor and testing the other clutches, but we have not found any more problems at this stage.

"We are hoping to open as planned, and if we are able to open any earlier that would be a bonus. A decision about that will be made in the next 10 days, and if possible we will allow people on the preview rides as planned and see if we can accommodate a soft opening by allowing passers-by to have a ride."

So far 560,000 tickets have been sold for the half-hour ride, but organisers are expecting up to 70 per cent of custom from people who are walking by.

The wheel has suffered a series of setbacks over the past few months. In September the raising of the wheel from its horizontal position was delayed for several weeks when a cable broke and a new one had to be made in France. That put paid to a public opening on New Year's Eve, although the organisers promised that some guests would have their ride. After that was cancelled they have been fervently hoping that the current delay will not set them back even further.