Running on empty?

It may seem unbelievable to many commuters in the south east but it was transport that won the Olympics for London. The capital’s transport system may seem to be overcrowded and underfunded to regular users, but to the International Olympic Committee London edged it over Paris and the other competitors thanks to the extent of its transport system.

However, while the promise of efficient transport on the existing network plus several important additions to the East London infrastructure ensured victory for London over Paris for the 2012 games there are increasing doubts about whether the capital can deliver a smooth ride for all the Olympic spectators and, particularly the competitors, officials, media and assorted hangers-on who will receive priority treatment.

As with the Millennium Dome, it is public transport that is at the core of the system which, it is envisaged, will be used by nearly all spectators, since car-parking for spectators will not be provided at venues except for some facilities for people with disabilities It is only the elite – competitors and officials – who will be allowed to reach the venues by car and they will be given special priority on 240 km of the road network. One crucial and novel aspect of the games is that not only will people be provided with free public transport that will be included as a chip in as their ticket but they will also be given suggestions on how to reach the venue by public transport from their home or hotel.

Transport, indeed, will make or break the London Olympics. Past successes such as Sydney and, especially, failures such as Atlanta, always reckoned to be the worst games ever, have been judged on the ability of the hosts to get people to and from the venues efficiently. As the Commons Transport Committee put it succinctly when it first examined the issue last year, ‘the overall success of Olympics will be dependant on the quality of its transport systems’.

Although the Olympic Delivery Authority, the body charged with ensuring London is ready for the Games, is confident that transport will not be a problem, there are concerns about whether preparations are going fast enough and whether the planning is sufficiently detailed to cope with the huge influx of visitors, competitors and officials.

The task is, indeed daunting. The Olympic Games is the world’s largest sporting event with over 200 nations competing in 38 sports involving 16,000 athletes and officials spread over 16 days. There are 55,000 members of the so-called ‘Olympic Family’ – a term that reeks of smugness and elitism and which encompasses athletes, officials, media representatives, VIPs and sponsors – who all need special treatment as well as the estimated 9,700,000 spectators, a daily total of 500,000 to the various events. Moreover, the Olympics will be followed by the Paralympics which takes place a couple of weeks later and which is the world’s second largest sporting event requiring, of course, a whole different set of challenges given that much of London’s transport system remains disability unfriendly.

The venue for fourteen out of the 38 sports, including the main athletics stadium, will consist of a new 500-acre Olympic Park to be created between Hackney Marshes, Stratford and West Ham and within ten minutes walk from both Stratford Regional and Stratford International stations. The athletes will live there, too, in the Olympic Village which will ultimately form part of the Stratford City Development, a new mega urban development.

However, transport is a particularly complex and multi-faceted problem, not just a matter of getting people to the main venue, but to a variety of places around London and further afield. The venues for another 16 sports will be grouped into two other zones in east and central London: the River zone including ExCel, the exhibition centre in the Royal Docks, the Dome, the Greenwich Arena and Docklands; and the central London zone, which takes in Horse Guards Parade, Hyde Park, Lord’s Cricket Ground, and Regents Park. London also hosts tennis at Wimbledon and football at Wembley. There are also several venues outside the capital including sailing at Weymouth and Portland, cycling at the Weald Country Park, canoeing at Broxbourne and football at five football stadia.

The transport arrangements have been set out in a Transport Plan published last autumn for consultation by the Olympic Delivery Authority. It makes clear that the principal strategy is to make use of the existing transport infrastructure rather than building much extra. Moreover, any investment, it stresses, must focus on ‘new transport infrastructure only where it has a strong legacy benefit’.

That is why far transport has not figured at all as one of the causes of the budget for the Games soaring nearly fourfold, from £2.4bn at the time of the bid to £9.35bn now, with possibly more to come. Instead, it is security, higher land prices, more ‘legacy projects’ and the need for contingency funds that have been blamed while the amount earmarked for transport, at just under £700m, has remained unchanged. Moreover, of that half is for running costs or extra services, leaving only £350m for investment in infrastructure.

That does not buy a lot, but then several schemes which would have happened anyway will play an important role in carrying people to and from the main site, and again the Transport Plan focuses on bringing forward these planned improvements to ensure they are available for the Games. Work has already started on the upgrading and extension of the East London Line which will become part of the National rail network and will run between Highbury & Islington, West Croydon and Clapham Junction. Only the first phase, which will create a line from Dalston in Hackney to West Croydon will be completed by Transport for London in time for the Olympics at a cost of £900m. A number of extensions and improvements are being made to the Docklands Light Railway, crucially the construction of a 5km extension from the Royal Docks to Stratford International.

Even though most of these schemes would have happened anyway, they are already being claimed as an Olympic legacy without coming out of its budget because the government is desperate to tot up all the extra facilities to present the long term impact of the increasingly controversial Games in the most positive light. For example, the addition of the 7th car to Jubilee Line trains, a promise made in the PPP between Transport for London and the infrastructure companies signed in 2003 and completed in January 2006, was touted as a benefit arising from the Olympic bid when clearly it was nothing of the sort. Improved signalling on the Jubilee and Northern lines is also planned to be completed before 2012 under the PPP. Similarly, the East London line upgrade is presented in the same way when, in fact, it is a long running projects that was well underway anyway.

Stratford is already a transport hub with two Underground lines, the Docklands Light Railway and half a dozen local train services, and by 2012 it will be served by Stratford International rail station created for Eurostar. Indeed, the centrepiece of transport system will be a temporary rail service using the track of High Speed One, the new name for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link which opens in November this year. This is the Javelin train service which will use rolling stock for the Kent domestic trains that will start running on the High Speed line in 2009 but will be suspended for the duration of the Olympics so that the track between Stratford and King’s Cross can be used for a shuttle service.

However, there is controversy over the number of people which can be carried on this service. The Olympic Delivery Authority has said Javelin will be able to cater for 15,000 people per day but transport analysts are deeply sceptical of this. Reg Harman, a transport consultant who gave evidence to the Transport Select Committee, reckons that the limit is more like 8,500 people per hour, which would push many people into alternative ways of getting to the Olympics: ‘It’s quite simple, really. The 12 coach trains will have a capacity of around 720 each, not the 900 claimed by the ODA, and a headway of five minutes, and even that is optimistic given the difficulties of getting people, many of whom are unfamiliar with the station lay outs, on and off.’ He reckons standing passengers would increase the dwell times at the stations reducing the headway, but clearly the ODA estimates are predicated on nearly half the people standing even though the trains are designed to have most people sitting.

Even the Association of Train Operating Companies reckons the maximum capacity is 12,000 and so far this issue has not been satisfactorily resolved, suggesting there are still major gaps in the detailed planning.

On a wider point Harman is deeply sceptical about the transport plans because of the lack of detail: ‘It would not take much to do some calculations about the expected numbers arriving at each venue for every event and work out the demand. But nothing like kind of model has been produced, which is something you would have expected at this stage’. The second Commons Transport Committee report, published in February, echoed this sentiment. It concluded, ‘although work has been done in the interim period, we are concerned to see that the plans for delivery across most of the modes remain vague, and the ODA is not exhibiting any sense of urgency about producing more detailed plans.

The ODA refutes such criticism, saying that detailed plan will be produced ‘which will set out expected flows for every half hour’. However, production of the Transport Plan has already slipped as it is now not due out until September at the earliest, having previously been planned for this summer.

The Plan is based on key assumptions about both the spectators and the rest of Londoners during the Games. For spectators, the assumption is that a third of spectators will originate from Greater London, a third will the rest of the UK and the rest from abroad. Then, around 70 per cent of regional visitors are assumed to be day-trippers, with the remainder split evenly between staying with friends and family, and staying in hotels or other accommodation. For overseas visitors, around two thirds are expected to stay in paid accommodation, with around a third staying with friends and family. Mistakes in these assumptions could lead to the transport chaos and the plan admits that these estimates are preliminary and may need adjusting.

The assumption about Londoners’ behaviour is the most crucial one which has attracted most doubts about the plans. For the ‘Olympic Family’, an Olympic Road Network will be created covering some 240 kms, including links to Heathrow Airport and other key arrival points. Of this 100 kilometres will be dedicated Olympic lanes. This may well prove to be the most controversial of the transport arrangements as the public sitting in traffic jams may not take kindly to seeing priority given to streams of official cars from the ‘Olympic Family fleet’ , rather in the way that the Zils of the nomenklatura in Soviet Russia were given dedicated lanes. Londoners, suspicious of elitism may not take kindly to this loss of road space and it could turn out to be a PR disaster especially if it leads to massive traffic jams for the rest of the population.

The plans are based on the assumption that normal traffic will fall by 15 per cent as people flee London for their normal holidays or, especially, that those uninterested in sport leave the city to avoid the hassle. However, as the Commons Transport Committee warns, if this exodus, which is impossible to predict accurately, does not occur, then ‘Olympic athletes and others may be delayed’. In particular, it would not take delays to many of the officials and competitors to stimulate negative media coverage. The key corridor is the journey between Park Lane in central London, where the officials and some competitors will be staying in luxury hotels, to Stratford, a journey which, as one member of the select committee put it, ‘is not one I would like to make’ since East – West journeys in London are a trial at the best of times. Unless enough Londoners’ have gone off on their holidays, that ten mile route could be a solid jam.

Another possible spanner in the works is the fundamental tension between mobility and security. An over emphasis on security without proper planning can result in the sort of fiasco that delayed hundreds of VIPs on New Year’s Eve 1999 at the Millennium dome. Already a security panic nearly caused chaos to Britain’s rail freight industry. The Olympic bid team failed to consult with TRANSEC, the Department’s transport security body, over a proposal to prohibit freight trains from using the High Meads Curve on the Stratford site for two months over the Games period. The fear was that rail freight on this vital route would be a security threat to the Olympic Village, and the Village was to be built over this line. However, when the authorities were eventually consulted, they said there was no need for such a restriction.

While the Transport Plan has been portrayed by the ODA as environmentally sensitive, it is vague about people

Accessing the venues by cycling. Indeed, Sustrans, the cycling organisation, put forward a scheme to use the Games as a springboard to stimulate cycling in East London and leave a legacy of new routes with a target of 20 per cent of people cycling to the venues, but, according to John Grimshaw, the head of Sustrans, ‘the ODA has shown no interest in this proposal and, indeed, intends to ban bicycles from the Olympic Village out of security fears’. Initially, the ODA was not even going to provide cycle parking at the main Olympic Park, expecting people to take a bus from a cycle park, but this decision has now been reversed.

For the Olympics to benefit Britain, the transport pitfall must be avoided. The world’s media will be focussed on London in an unprecedented way. It will only take a couple of ‘transport chaos’ stories started off by the Evening Standard which specialises in such coverage and picked up in the wider media, for the long term benefit and legacy of the Games to be undermined. The Transport Plan will have to become a lot more robust with contingencies for all types of mishap, from a broken down train to a huge security alert, built in. Otherwise, however successful events are on the field, the lasting legacy of London 2012 will not be new sports facilities and transport infrastructure, but severe damage to London’s reputation as the premier business city of the world.

Christian Wolmar’s new book on the history of the railways, Fire and Steam, will be published by Atlantic Books in September.

Scroll to Top