Running on empty? By Christian Wolmar

24 May 07
Half a million people will need to be transported each day to the 2012 Olympics in London. But so far only £350m is being invested in expanding the capital's transport infrastructure. Christian Wolmar asks how on earth we are all going to get there

25 May 2007

Half a million people will need to be transported each day to the 2012 Olympics in London. But so far only £350m is being invested in expanding the capital's transport infrastructure. Christian Wolmar asks how on earth we are all going to get there

It's hardly surprising that the Olympic Delivery Authority has just appointed a transport expert as its new chair. The toughest problem facing John Armitt, the soon-to-retire chief executive of Network Rail, will be to ensure that transport issues do not become the disaster that has bugged other games.

It might seem unbelievable to many commuters in the Southeast but London won the 2012 Olympics on the grounds of its transport system. To regular users, this might seem overcrowded and underfunded but to the International Olympic Committee it had the edge over those of Paris and the other competitors.

However, while the promise of efficient transport on the existing network, plus several important additions to the east London infrastructure, ensured victory for London, there are increasing doubts over whether the capital can deliver a smooth ride for all the spectators, competitors, officials, media and assorted hangers-on.

As with the Millennium Dome, public transport is at the core of the system. One crucial and novel aspect of the Games is that the transport will be free, thanks to a chip in the spectator tickets. No parking will be provided for spectators except for some facilities for people with disabilities. Only the elite – competitors and officials – will be allowed to reach the venues by car and they will be given special priority on 240 kilometres of the road network.

Transport will indeed make or break the London Olympics. Past successes such as Sydney – and 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 select committee put it when it first examined the issue last year: 'The overall success of the Olympics will be dependent on the quality of its transport systems.'

Although the ODA, 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 people.

The task is daunting. The Olympic Games is the world's largest sporting event, with more than 200 nations competing in 38 sports involving 16,000 athletes and officials and spread over 16 days. There are 55,000 members of the so-called 'Olympic Family' plus an estimated 9.7 million spectators – a daily total of 500,000.

Moreover, the Olympics will be followed by the Paralympics a couple of weeks later. The world's second largest sporting event requires, of course, a different set of challenges, given that much of London's transport system remains disability unfriendly.

The venue for 14 of the 38 sports, including the main athletics stadium, will be a 500-acre Olympic Park to be created between Hackney Marshes, Stratford and West Ham and within ten minutes' walk of both Stratford Regional and Stratford International stations. The athletes will also live there, 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 in two other zones: the river zone, including the ExCel 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 Regent's Park.

London will also host tennis at Wimbledon and football at Wembley. There are several venues outside the capital, including sailing at Weymouth and Portland, cycling at the Weald Country Park, canoeing at Broxbourne and football at five other stadiums.

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

This is why transport has not yet figured as one of the causes of the Games' budget soaring almost 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. The amount earmarked for transport, just under £700m, has remained unchanged. Of that, about half is for running costs or extra services, leaving only £350m for investment in infrastructure.

CBI president Martin Broughton, while hitting out at under-investment in transport networks earlier this month, criticised the government for spending £10bn on staging the Olympics but not finding the money to pay for a railway to get there. Indeed, the £350m left for transport does not buy a lot. But then several schemes that 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. But only the first phase, which will create a line from Dalston in northeast London to West Croydon in the southeast, 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 five-kilometre extension from the Royal Docks to Stratford International station.

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. This is 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 a seventh car to Jubilee Line trains, a promise made in the public-private partnership 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 Underground 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 was already well under way.

Stratford is an existing 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. The centrepiece of the transport system will be a temporary rail shuttle service between Stratford and Kings Cross, 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.

However, there is controversy over the number of people that can be carried on this service. The ODA has said that Javelin will be able to cater for 15,000 people an hour but transport analysts are deeply sceptical

about this.

Reg Harman, a transport consultant who gave evidence to the transport select committee, believes the limit is more like 8,500, which would push many people into alternative ways of getting to the Olympics.

'It's quite simple, really,' he says. '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 layouts, on and off.'

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 that kind of model has been produced, which is something you would have expected at this stage,' he says.

The second transport select 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 a detailed plan will be produced 'which will set out expected flows for every half hour'. However, production of the final 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 spectators and Londoners during the Games. For spectators, the assumption is that a third will originate from Greater London, a third will come from the rest of the UK and the remainder from abroad. Then, it is assumed that about 70% of regional visitors will be day-trippers, with the rest 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 transport chaos and the plan admits that these estimates are preliminary and might need adjusting.

The assumption about Londoners' behaviour is the one that has attracted most doubts about the plans. For the 'Olympic Family', an Olympic Road Network will be created covering some 240 kilometres, including links to Heathrow Airport and other key arrival points. Of this, 100 kilometres will be dedicated Olympic lanes. This might 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'. 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% as people leave London for their usual holidays or, especially, that those uninterested in sport will flee the city. However, as the select committee warns, if this exodus, which is impossible to predict accurately, does not occur, 'Olympic athletes and others may be delayed'. In particular, it would not take many delays to 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. This journey, one member of the select committee said 'is not one I would like to make' since east-west journeys in London are a trial at the best of times.

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.

A security panic has already almost caused chaos to Britain's rail freight industry. The Olympic bid team planned to prohibit freight trains from using the High Meads Curve on the Stratford site for two months over the Games period. It feared that freight on this vital route would be a security threat to the Olympic Village, which was to be built over the line. But the team failed to consult with Transec, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport's transport security body. 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% 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 focused on London in an unprecedented way. It will only take a couple of 'transport chaos' stories started off by the capital's Evening Standard newspaper, 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 is a transport commentatorr

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