Transport a delight

It must be tempting for the organisers of the London Olympics to do a Jim Callaghan: ‘Chaos, what chaos? ‘ After months of panic and speculation about transport gridlock, the streets and trains of London were functioning with only occasional normal hiccup on the first working day that coincided with the Games. Transport has quickly become the biggest non-story since Harold Camping’s warning that the world would end on May 21 2011. Indeed, from various reports many trains were emptier than usual and certainly traffic heading towards Stratford when I cycled there at lunchtime yesterday was more Sunday morning than wet Friday evening.

Over the past few months I have been beset with media enquiries from places as diverse as Russia and Germany on the chaos that would be London during the Olympics. It was almost as if they were willing it, wanting to show that London’s ‘creaking infrastructure’, as one presenter put it to me, could not cope with the Games.

I stood my ground, patriotic to the last, asserting it would be all right on the night, even if I did have the odd misgiving. I had been given the two hour briefing by Transport for London which was meticulous in detail, showing expected periods of crowding on both roads and public transport broken down into 30 minute periods. I had talked to the train operating companies who were running late trains and expanding existing services. I discussed with London Underground how they were keeping the system running later than normal.

Yet, the stories kept on coming. The British media got in on the act. Every broken down train was presented as imminent mayhem for the Games. The unions did not help with threats of strike from virtually every transport mode, even, for chrissake, the people operating the London bike hire scheme.

Then the focus shifted. First we had security panic and now ticketgate. The fact that there are rational explanations for the empty seats passes most of the media by. There has to be a scandal, but fortunately for the transport bosses, it’s not them in the frame.

The truth, too, is that London’s transport infrastructure is not ‘creaking’ . There has been copious amounts of investment and much more on the way. Yes, the Tube trains are small and travelling on them in them at 8 30 in the morning  is unlikely ever to be a pleasure. But ask most visitors, even those spending a long time in the capital, about their experience of travel in London and the answer is almost universally complimentary – ‘I wish we had we had your system back home’ is a not uncommon reaction.

Transport for London’s strategy relied on reducing journeys by regular travellers by 20 per cent. People were advised to alter their travel patterns to avoid hotspots, work at home or even take a holiday.  This was backed by using Boris Johnson’s voice to boom over the network’s PA systems every two minutes, a strategy that was bound to send regular travellers heading for the hills.

So far, It has all worked. Londoners have responded sensibly. Of course, even by the time you read this, there could be a giant omelette on my face. It only takes a couple of incidents, a broken down train here and a lorry jacknifing in the Blackwall tunnel there, for chaos to ensue.

But, folks, it will be only temporary and the lessons learnt from this experience on being flexible about the way we travel may turn to be one of the key Olympic legacies. If the capital can survive without people having access to a big chunk of its road network then Londoners can learn to reduce their dependence on the car and it can open the way for more cycle lanes and pedestrianisation schemes.



  • Well you nearly did speak too soon Central Line closed LST to East due to axle seizure and reported fire alert at Leyton, plus Cambridge-LST closed by fallen tree on OHL. 

    A bit worrying if Traction Motor issue on Central Line has decided to return.  Can see mass checking of trains today and possible speed restrictions on some above ground sections if it cannot be nailed. 

    What is clear is that the contingency switching for various routes is actually very flexible if you are prepared to walk a bit – eg Waterloo to Stratford by crossing river and directly using District Line to West Ham with less busy gate.

    Cycle use would be higher if we had not had the over reaction of Southern Southeastern and LOROL in side-stepping the option to give front line staff some official leeway and trusting passengers with cycles to regulate traffic through declaring total blanket ban. Pictures of deserted platforms and 3 of 4 seats empty on trains normally full and standing speak volumes.  4 French tourists with bikes refused from a near empty train at Rochester, when a cordon point regime like that developed with SWT in 2004 would have been the workable solution – ie no bikes to pass through LBG or other heavily trafficked stations, so alight outside city and ride. For Eton Dorney for example I’d advise getting off trains at Datchet or Slough and cycling rather than aiming for the termini in Windsor. One Transport writer has already fallen foul of this as the ability to reach pick-up and set down points for the European Bike Express in Kent has been practically neutralised for 1.5 months, and the late declaration of the restrictions has cost several cyclists their advance booked journeys across the UK through making it impossible to get in to London to catch their onward trains.

    Crossing London by Bike you are probably faster than queuing and using the trains anyway, my Euston-Brentford trips to Brompton Factory take 35-40 minutes by bike, and with getting to/from Camden Road or Waterloo and getting Gunnersbury/Kew Bridge train takes longer, unless I land very luck with the train times. Thus with a bike the Victoria Park-Greenway West route in to the Olympic Park is a low traffic option taking around 25-30 minutes of cycling from Central London.  A pity we are not getting more reports on availability of cycle parking spaces and riding times   

    Islington to Wimbledon is reported as around 1h 20m which compares very favourably with the time you might take by train, and the bike parking there is very close to the main gate – and hardly filled on the first day reported on.

  • Steve

    Well you nearly did speak too soon Central Line closed LST to East due to axle seizure and reported fire alert at Leyton, plus Cambridge-LST closed by fallen tree on OHL.”

    Not really – despite these disruptions passengers have been maintained without any major chaos. No one ever said there wouldn’t be breakdowns – it’s the ability to cope with them, and so far it’s all going well. 

  • Christian Wolmar

    That’s the point, isn’t it? The fact that so many lines go into Stratford means that there is enough resilience to cope. As I suggest in the article, it’s when two or more things go wrong that you can get real chaos. Of course there will be the odd extra delay and hiccup, but the main point is that we are not getting 17 days of gridlock or public transport chaos as many journalists had been suggesting – or even seeking.

  • RichardH

    Well, there seems to be lots of redundancy suddenly available everywhere. Like that Javelin train that was 5 minutes late due to a sick driver. Another driver was on hand. Is that really normal?
    My journey to Fenchurch St this morning was delayed by a passenger taken ill. OK, it happens. Luckily this was at the station before mine, which is a junction, and the following train could get past, albeit now also delayed. What was amazing was at Fen St there was a driver waiting at the country end to take the train straight back out at the normal time. This terminating train was literally in the station less than a minute. I left my brolly on board and I’d only walked down 3 carriages before realising and I still didn’t have time to retrieve it.
    Less admirable was the 8 armed police and dogs milling around the
    concourse and selecting for a sniff and pat down an elderly white man.
    Stereotypical terrorist then!

    My work colleagues tell me their journeys are also going like clockwork. One’s train in from Waterloo East to London Bridge today was on time for the first time in 4 months.
    The closure to entry of London Bridge for yesterday evening’s rush hour seems like overkill though.

  • Paul Holt

    CW needs to be careful not to make the mistake of declaring Olympic fortnight transportation “normal”, just as the media made the mistake of declaring the Beijing2008 gold medal haul “normal” and expecting more at London2012.

  • Farci_Glasgow

    “…But, folks, it will be only temporary and the lessons learnt from this
    experience on being flexible about the way we travel may turn to be one
    of the key Olympic legacies…”

    Wouldn’t it be great if this legacy endures? But is there political will sufficient to knock heads together to coordinate such an effort?

  • Keith

    Plenty of people from elsewhere in the UK say ‘I wish we had your system back home’!

  • Walter Coleshill

    What is it that is surprising about London being “empty” at this time of the year?  With the exception of the unusual event – the Olympics – which is clogging certain areas of East London – it is normal for the London area to be empty during much of July and August.  Schools are shut and parents and their children are on holiday.  Therefore there is an absence of inhabitants on London’s streets and transport. Walter. North Carolina.