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01.09.12

Olympics proved London's transport is on the up

Source: Rail Technology Magazine Aug/Sept 2012

Andrew Foulkes, transportation communications manager at Lloyd’s Register, looks at London’s transport network’s performance during the Olympics.

Transport was always the worry during London’s initial bid to host the 2012 Olympics. Even after it had been chosen, one could sense a collective holding of breath whenever the IOC delegations were in town to check on progress.

As it transpired, of course, London’s road and rail networks performed remarkably well. Far from letting the side down, transport became one of London 2012’s success stories, with Games organisers, spectators and even the media pleasantly surprised by the smoothness of the operation and the amount of information made available to them.

In fact there were pictures of athletes themselves travelling by bus or on the Tube. Even the US basketball team eschewed the VIP coaches and opted to travel by train from their central London hotel.

Despite passenger numbers on the Tube shooting up by 30% during the course of the Games fortnight, there were no significant delays or news reports of queues snaking out onto the pavements. Even the Olympic Route Network – the stretches of reserved lanes and restricted main roads for athletes, officials and media – settled down fairly well. Despite months of promotion no-one in London had really taken any notice until, of course, they opened. Yet despite the predictable remonstrations on the local radio phone-ins it soon became a way of life and Londoners quickly realised the traffic hit normal levels once the peak of the rush hour had passed.

According to figures released subsequently by TfL, only about 30% of the ‘Games Lanes’ in London were needed each day of the Olympics, as a third of London drivers opted to stay away. All this was achieved despite London’s approach to Olympics transport being less about grand schemes and more of a subtle, sensible mix of strategic planning and general tweaks to that already in place. There was no ‘Olympic Line’ on the Underground map, no six-lane ‘Olympic Boulevard’ wrapping the stadium.

Actual Olympics oriented improvements generally focused around Stratford itself with new platforms, ticket halls and entrances to the existing stations, along with improved walkways and disabled access. A special ‘Javelin’ service that linked Stratford International and St Pancras for the duration of the Games themselves was capable of carrying around 25,000 people per hour.

The decision to include a free travelcard with every ticket helped keep ticket halls cleared of queues.

Compare this with Rio de Janiero, the host city for 2016, which is building a new Metro line and four dedicated bus lanes to reach the site of the proposed stadium.

And there’s no time for back-slapping just yet: the Paralympics that arrive at the end of the month will bring similar crowds to Stratford once again. This time London will not have the benefit of the August holiday season, which generally keeps numbers down. Nor will it be able to count on Londoners keeping away, as they had been encouraged to earlier in the summer. It will be another logistical test of London’s infrastructure but it has already proven its capability, and that has allowed its transport planners – to their credit – to continue to focus on their longer-term vision.

Long term

Although vast sums are being invested in London’s transport infrastructure, admirably little was actually spent specifically on the Games themselves while, correctly, more was earmarked for the city’s longer-term needs.

The Underground was already undergoing a 30-year programme of upgrades with the first fruits starting to show through. Anyone who used the Tube for the first time in the past five years or so will not have failed to notice the shiny new fleets and improved ambience on some previously notorious lines. That same visitor would also have been struck by the improvements in some of the capital’s main stations too. Since St Pancras’ neighbour King’s Cross took down the scaffolding earlier this year to reveal its stunning new concourse, London has been able to boast two grand, historic stations, the equal of any in the world. Add to that the suburban rail services that have been collated and rejuvenated under the ‘London Overground’ brand; the gradual opening up of the Thameslink Programme; its extensive 24-hour bus network; and its popular cycle hire scheme – it’s safe to say that the city’s transport renaissance puts it several leagues above where it was at the turn of the millennium.

This focus on the longer term is the result of placing responsibility for the capital’s transport, whether bus, rail or cycle, within a single organisation. With accountability for both planning and delivery, Transport for London is able to take a truly integrated approach to the City’s transport needs.

Most important for London’s transport metamorphosis is that it maintains momentum. With its population expected to rise by 1.2m over the next two decades the anticipated numbers during the Games period will soon be business as usual. That is why the building sites currently popping up across central London for Crossrail are so important. Talked about since the 1970s, the tunnel boring machines have finally begun their journey beneath the city.

“Too late for 2012, but a major sign of London’s long term thinking and vital for its future as a functioning global city.

Tell us what you think – have your say below, or email us directly at opinion@railtechnologymagazine.com

olympic park. c. EG Focus.

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