Londoners fear transport chaos at games

October 22, 2011 - 11:24 PM
Britain London 2012 Olympic Transport

An operator works at the Surface Transport Traffic Control Center (STTOC), in London Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2011. The STTOC will be the Transport Coordination Center during Olympics Games. (AP Photo/Elizabeth Dalziel)

LONDON (AP) — Here's the scenario: Take a cramped, crowded, not-very-clean and none-too-modern subway system, add several hundred thousand tourists with the same destination in mind. Do what you can. Hope for the best.

Olympic planners are taking steps to keep London's creaking system from overloading during the 2012 Games. In some ways, this may prove harder than building the Olympic Park — with many who use the system daily expecting subterranean gridlock.

"It's hard enough today — and it's just a normal day," said Jenny Claydon, 67, from Essex, who paused last week at the cavernous Stratford station, the main transport link near the new park. "I think it's going to be terrible."

Less than 10 months to go before the Olympics, focus is shifting from building to delivering the games. With structures nearing completion, people are trying to see how they can eke out more capacity from the rails, roads and skies moving hundreds of thousands of spectators as well as athletes, officials and journalists.

The success or failure of the games will hang in part on whether the system can keep up with the increase in demand. If the plans fail, London will be remembered as the place where no one could get to the park, get to work or get home.

No one wants another Atlanta. The 1996 Games provided a cautionary tale of Olympic travel woes — with bus drivers getting lost, athletes arriving moments before their events and overloaded trains that couldn't get residents home. It prompted the International Olympic Committee to lay out demands to make sure it didn't happen again.

"Atlanta was an unmitigated transport disaster," rail expert Christian Wolmar said. "All the other Olympics — Beijing and Sydney — have learned their lessons."

London set its goals high, aiming to have 100 percent of the spectators arrive by public transport, foot or bike. Day passes for the subway are included in the package for ticket holders. A special train — the "Javelin" — will take spectators directly from central London's St. Pancras station to Stratford.

But there is the challenge of having so many tourists on the system, known here as the Tube, at the same time. The Tube can be confusing. Londoners accustomed to it learn the shortcuts — that hidden stairway that impossibly leads down a dark passage to a platform. But tourists can be utterly perplexed, and often stop in the middle of narrow platforms searching for a sign.

During normal times, London struggles with constraints on the Tube, which handles 12 million trips a day. The Olympics is estimated to add 3 million trips on the busiest days. And while the IOC officials have stressed that they are pleased with London's progress to accommodate the incoming masses, it is based on what critics see as overly optimistic goals — such as a drop in use of the Tube by ordinary commuters of about a third and a surge of people working from home.

London transport officials stress that they've been planning for this for years, that they often handle large events and that they are accomplished at managing London's daily traffic patterns.

Smoothly moving traffic was shown on computer screens everywhere during a tour this week of its hyper efficient control center in south London. Dozens of monitors and computers blipped and flashed — like something out of a movie showing the ops room at the Pentagon. A big board in the room's center shows a map of central London, together with traffic on surveillance cameras.

Peter Hendy, the Transport for London commissioner, is confident, almost cheerful. During an interview with The Associated Press, he suggested that even very small things will make a huge difference, such as asking some commuters to alter their habits to avoid the busiest times.

"Sometimes we'll ask people to go for a beer before you go home," Hendy said.

Transport for London has held seminars and tried to work with individual businesses in the city, whittling them down one company at a time, working with managers in hopes of changing work patterns. But not everyone can work from home. What about sales clerks, cooks or cops? Alicia Ng, 31, who lives in the London borough where the equestrian events will take place, is a health care worker at University College London. Staying at home from July 27 until Aug. 12 isn't an option.

"It's impossible," she said. "Especially for a month."

Worries about security could slow travel further. London was hit by transit attacks in 2005 that killed 52 commuters and four bombers — the day after London was awarded the games.

The city's powerful transportation unions argue the system is plagued by a long-standing failure to update and maintain infrastructure. They argue staff cutbacks have curtailed services, hurting disabled and blind commuters. Strikes are always feared.

Around 6.5 billion pounds ($10.2 billion) has been invested in upgrading and extending transport links. But that is money laid out on a transport system that creaks and groans with age. In the most glaring cases, passengers have been trapped in tunnels and forced to walk out by flashlight — not exactly a sparkling advertisement for London's image. Many here find irony in the fact it is necessary to point out with a public service announcement on any given day that "There is good service on all Underground lines!"

And though transport officials say they have great computer models, there is also no possibility to really test the plans — meaning it will be a massive and complex exercise where all the details aren't available.

"London is different to anywhere that the Olympics has taken place in modern times," said Tony Travers, a transportation expert at the London School for Economics.

Among the biggest problems are the streets themselves — laid out as they are in a pattern relatively unchanged since medieval times. That means only a handful of thoroughfares, and even those are nothing like the great boulevards that bisect cities like New York and Paris. Earmarking some lanes for Olympic traffic could cause disruption — because they are the main ones.

Mindful of Atlanta, transportation planners have identified lanes for use by Olympic VIPs, officials and athletes only. But such a system creates a built-in inequity, and London's famous black cab drivers are among those agitating for access to what is known as the Olympic Route Network. Wags have already given them the moniker Zil lanes, after the Soviet limousines that were granted exclusive use of the outside lanes of highways.

"Londoners won't take well to that," Wolmar said. "That's an issue that hasn't been properly thought out."

The skies will be busy, too. Heathrow, already Europe's busiest airport, is creating a special terminal for Olympic athletes, coaches and sponsor to fly out of Britain after the end of the games.

Airport officials say 10,000 athletes and support staff will go through the "Special Games Terminal" in the three days after the closing ceremony to process the exodus.

The day after the closing ceremony is set to be the airport's busiest ever.

Some Londoners are hopeful that chaos will be avoided. Clare Payn, 35, looked dubious at the notion that all would work smoothly, but tried to look at the bright side.

"When London gets it right, it does get it right," she said.