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Get set for the gridlock games

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Get set for the gridlock games
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PostPosted: Sat Jun 30, 2012 6:48 pm Download PostRate Post

With stations overrun and roads closed, will London’s transport system cope with the Olympics, asks Andrew Gilligan.
Amid the concerts, fireworks, and general elation of last week’s Jubilee, one of the few minor diminuendos was sounded by the transport network. On the day of the river pageant, thousands of passengers from the Home Counties were unable even to reach London, left on the platform by trains too full to take a single extra body. “As dry runs for the Olympics go, it was not great for the railway,” admits the official watchdog, Passenger Focus.

And now, as London bus drivers vote to strike and a key Olympic Tube line is closed by the wrong sort of water (in this instance, a burst water main near Stratford station), the question is again being asked: when the world’s biggest sporting event gets under way late next month, will the transport system cope? Or could Britain’s time in the spotlight turn our wobbly infrastructure into a global laughing stock?

The torch relay, at least, will certainly reflect the reality of Games-time travel in our capital. The day before the opening ceremony, the eternal flame is set to take six and a half hours to get from Islington to Hammersmith. “During the Games, bad things will happen,” says one senior official. “There is going to be track circuit failure, there will be overhead line breakages, there will be cable theft. There are going to be disruptions.” Ominously, the name of this official is Sir David Higgins, former chief executive of London 2012 and current boss of Network Rail. Meanwhile, in a publication called “Operators’ Guide for the 2012 Games”, Transport for London has warned of fuel shortages, and advised businesses to “stockpile non-perishable goods”, including “ambient foodstuffs”.

It’s tempting to see this as a giant exercise in expectation management, exaggerating the potential chaos so that any problems that do occur look smaller by comparison. And certainly, there are good reasons to think the Olympics will cause less disruption than the worst doom-mongers claim.

August is London’s quietest month. In a normal year, traffic on the capital’s roads and railways is 5 to 10 per cent down. As many as 800,000 of the natives are away at any one time, with only about half replaced by tourists coming in. And far from producing a tourist bonanza, this Olympics, like most of its predecessors, will probably reduce the number of visitors. According to the Trivago price-comparison site, 850 London hotels still have rooms for the opening weekend – and in a further sign of low demand, the prices, though toppish, aren’t quite as rapacious as you’d expect. More locals, too, will go away – or at least not go to work (especially civil servants, some of whom can work from home for up to seven weeks).

Yet even if there are no non-Olympic tourists at all (unlikely), and even if double the usual number of natives stay away from the office (less unlikely), almost half a million people will still need to converge on a small area of east London, including 300,000 spectators, 120,000 staff and volunteers, and 70,000 members of the “Games family” (competitors, sponsors, officials and media).

At peak capacity, the seven railway lines serving Stratford can handle 240,000 passengers an hour. That would be fine if Games demand was spread evenly through the day, and nobody else in London needed to use those services. But the demands of broadcasters mean that events in the most popular disciplines, such as athletics and swimming, tend to be scheduled in two blocks, one from roughly 10am to 1pm and the other from about 7pm to 10pm. So there will be sharp spikes in demand – and most people going to or from the Olympic Park will have to make at least one of their journeys in rush hour, just as the rest of the city is travelling, too. This is probably the moment to mention that the Underground has only had three entirely problem-free weekdays in the last year.

Even if it all works perfectly, the busiest stations will be swamped. At London Bridge, charts on the Games website show that you will have to queue for more than 30 minutes to board a Tube train during the morning and evening peaks, and up to 15 minutes even at 10.30pm. On the worst day, August 9, there will be six hours in total of half-hour-plus delays.

And don’t even think about driving: according to the TfL website, a journey from, say, Hammersmith (west) to St Paul’s (east) will take an extra 57 minutes. Some of the busiest roads in central London will be totally closed to normal traffic, including Whitehall, Constitution Hill and Birdcage Walk. Westminster Bridge will be one-way. The Mall, incredibly, will be off limits to everyone – including pedestrians and cyclists – for almost four months, starting this month and not reopening until the last day of September. It seems a high price to pay for beach volleyball.

Then there are the famous “Zil lanes” – 30 miles of Tarmac for the “Olympic family”, halving the capacity of key routes such as the Victoria Embankment, Knightsbridge and the Cromwell Road, and cutting Park Lane, the Westway and Euston and Marylebone Roads by a third. The Blackwall Tunnel southern approach, one of the busiest roads in London, will be partly shut throughout the morning rush hour, even though the only Olympic users will be a few hundred shooters and riders travelling from Stratford to Woolwich and Greenwich – and even they will be going the other way at the time.

Disruption is also happening far away from the Olympic sites: Russell Square, for instance, is being taken over as the media transport hub. Wanstead Flats has been commandeered as a police camp. A huge area of south-western suburbia will be closed over three days for the cycling. Thirty per cent of London’s road network will be affected in some way, often with restrictions that will stop you parking outside your own home or your customers parking outside your shop. Some firms nearest the Olympic Park are so worried about the effects on their recession-shrunk balance sheets that they believe the Games will put them out of business.

In the end, how these transport problems and restrictions go down will probably depend on how we feel about the Games themselves. The travel difficulties during the Jubilee went almost ignored: people put up with them because they loved the event and they love the Queen. The Olympics, so far, have often presented a much less likeable face: it seems improbable that a million people will line the streets to cheer the chief executives of McDonald’s and Coca-Cola as they sweep past in their Zil lanes.

Olympic organisers protest that sponsors who support the Games must be cherished. But that doesn’t seem to apply to the biggest sponsors of all: the taxpayers of Britain. Even the transport system itself is feasting from the buffet at our expense. Those striking busmen, demanding £750 extra for the favour of turning up to work during the Games, are just the latest in a line of greedy Tube, rail and Docklands Light Railway staff collecting bribes simply for doing their jobs.

The usual history of the Olympics is that the worries beforehand die down as people get caught up in the excitement. If Britain is winning lots of golds, if the sun is shining and there are things to go to for those without tickets, Londoners probably will decide to roll with the punches and take extra holiday. So the real key figures in how the capital is seen to manage may not be the hapless, fluorescent-jacketed transport officials, but Rebecca Adlington, Chris Hoy and all Britain’s other medal hopes. No pressure then, guys.

Scuba Divers support the Games in 2012, do you? Anonymous
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