July 19, 2011 / 9:16 AM / in 6 years

Olympics: London commuters fear strain on the trains

LONDON (Reuters) - Faulty signals and crowded carriages are just part of the daily grind for London commuter Nick Maggs, even on a good day; this time next year, things could only get worse, he fears.

<p>Travellers try to find a space on a packed rush hour tube train in central London, November 29, 2010. REUTERS/Andrew Winning</p>

Maggs, who travels by train and underground services to his job in the City financial district, despairs for sports fans hoping to get to events at the 2012 Olympics on London’s busy transport network.

“The system is going to be overloaded,” he told Reuters. “To chuck that number of people on means it can only go wrong. On a normal day you have signalling failure and congestion.”

The capital’s transport system is already near capacity with 24 million journeys a day, and Maggs is not alone in wondering how it will cope with a possible extra three million journeys on peak days during the Games in July and August next year.

Transport has been a constant worry for the International Olympic Committee IOC.L and in April a London Assembly report said “getting transport arrangements right remains one of the biggest risks to the smooth running of the 2012 Games”.

Olympic organisers hope that Londoners taking summer holidays, working from home or changing their working hours, will combine with a drop in the number of regular tourists to produce a 30 percent fall in transport use during peak times, leaving room for Games traffic.

Some Londoners, questioned on the city’s streets by Reuters, were sceptical about such figures.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful (if there was a 30 percent reduction), but I can’t see it happening,” said James, a 41-year-old pub landlord who preferred not to give his surname.

“I can’t see how 30 percent of people will change their patterns of travel. I‘m not going to change mine.”

Chris Doulou, 38, a self-employed plumbing and heating engineer, said: “I will not be able to change my hours, I will have to struggle to get to work.”

MAJOR EVENTS

Others, though, are already thinking about ways to avoid the congestion.

“I will probably work from home, which is not a bad thing,” said a 39-year-old office worker who did not want to be named. “I think the transport will be okay.”

Vicki Plimmer, 30, a clerk, said: “I live in south-west London so I should be alright. I have got lots of ways to come in to work.”

London is experienced at staging major events, such as April’s royal wedding, but the Olympics stretch for more than two weeks and sports fans will be jostling for seats on trains and buses with art lovers attending the Cultural Olympiad, as well as business people and tourists.

Seb Coe, chairman of London’s Olympic organising committee (LOCOG), warned in December that failure to handle the extra load could result in London spending the next 50 years trying to live it down, being bracketed with the much-maligned Atlanta 1996 Games.

The London Assembly report said people could face delays of more than an hour if travel patterns remained unchanged on some key lines serving the Olympic Park in Stratford, east London.

Strikes on the London Underground in recent years have raised fears of another stoppage during the Games. The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers RMT.L told Reuters it did not plan any industrial action during the July 27-August 12 Games but talks over a pay deal are ongoing.

Billions of pounds have recently been invested in public transport, including upgrades to the Docklands Light Railway which serves the Olympic Park and a refit of Stratford station, boosting capacity and reliability and providing a rapid link to St Pancras International in central London.

“We’re very confident that the transport will be off the front pages of newspapers during the Games,” Mark Evers, director of Games transport for Transport for London (TfL), told Reuters.

“We have put in the plans and the infrastructure to make sure that we can make it work.”

Organisers are also pushing for spectators to travel by bicycle or foot and to take river boat services, to help fulfil their pledge of delivering a “public transport Games”.

However, only about five percent are expected to use pedal power or walk, while river boats are limited in number.

CONGESTED ROADS

“I think TfL and the Olympic committee are putting in efforts, I am just holding my breath and waiting to see whether it is enough effort and pinpointed in the right areas,” Karen Anderton of the University of Oxford’s transport studies unit said.

Games planners are also keen to get motorists off the road. About 11 million journeys a day are made in London, making the city’s streets the most congested in Europe.

Park-and-ride schemes will be put in place for spectators, encouraging them to leave their vehicles on the outskirts of London, and the Olympic park will have no public car parking. Businesses will be encouraged to change their delivery times to keep lorries off the streets by day.

More than 80,000 athletes, officials, dignitaries, sponsors and the media will be driven to venues along 90 kms of dedicated Games Lanes, and any motorist straying into them faces a fine of 200 pounds.

London has a tough act to follow - Beijing built multi-lane highways to get people to and from venues in 2008. The roads around London are narrow by comparison and prone to long delays if cars break down or accidents happen.

Authorities will be stress-testing the transport system this summer, something that was absent in Atlanta where travel to the venues became a major headache.

“You can’t guarantee everything is going to be perfect but there’s a danger of taking an unduly negative line as well,” Peter White, professor of public transport systems at the University of Westminster, said.

Police will be carrying out security exercises between now and the Games.

Since 52 people died when four young British Islamists carried out suicide bombings on tube trains and a bus in 2005, the threat of further attacks has been a major concern.

Olympics minister Hugh Robertson told reporters last month: “We’re absolutely aware of what the threat is and I am as confident as I possibly can be that we can meet that threat.”

Editing by Clare Fallon

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