Will London’s transport system cope during the Olympics?

Written by Laura Reynolds

When London won the bid for the Olympics all those years ago, I’m sure many people had the same thought.

When London won the bid for the Olympics all those years ago, I’m sure many people had the same thought. “Great, now they’ll have to sort out the transport system, lest we as a nation become the laughing stock of the world.” Well, get your thick skins on ladies and gents, as the chances of our archaic transport system pulling this off are looking slimmer by the day, as already demonstrated by the farcical introduction of the Olympic traffic lanes.

Recently returning to my daily commute across London after a year off, I was naively optimistic. The games (or “the big one” as Boris Johnson keeps referring to it as on station tanoy system, sparking images of a cheaply made commercial for a fast food chain) were weeks away, so surely the transport system would be ready, clean and sparkly, for The Games?

I wasn’t expecting miracles – the tube, for instance, is donkeys years old. I appreciate that there is little you can do with a series of underground caverns which are largely kept intact by spider webs, mouse droppings, and a nostalgic dose of love. However, save the neon pink signs towards Olympic venues that have appeared in every nook and cranny, little else seems to have been done to prepare. Many ticket barriers are still inexplicably out of use, even at peak times, and several of the new retail units at Waterloo still remain empty, suggesting that this city is not ready for the world.

Directing visitors to the events via the medium of pink is all well and good, but somehow they’ve got to find their way back again, which amounts to large number of lost tourists, many of whom will speak little English, trying to navigate our underground system, adding to the usual queues and congestion.

Wisely, TFL held a transport rehearsal day to ensure that stations would be able to cope. Rumour has it that many extra people were shipped into London that day as actors, to play the role of the tens of thousands of tourists expected to converge here. However, this rehearsal was held just two weeks before the games began, leaving little time to make any major changes that were deemed necessary. As this experiment showed, closing off certain stations will only push people along to other stations, causing overcrowding further down the line.  Sure, commuters have been warned to stay at home, but many people either cannot, or consider themselves too important to stay away from work, or are underestimating the impact that the Olympics will have, in a quintessentially British “Keep calm and carry on” fashion.

Overcrowded platforms are going to be one of the main issues. Stations on the Jubilee line, such as Westminster have glass walls between platforms and track (although a recent conversation with a friend led us to conclude that this may be due to a higher than average suicide rate amongst MPs). If London Bridge, Charing Cross and Kings Cross are expected to be the busiest stations during the Olympics, why have such measures, even temporary ones, not been installed here? The way things are, it’s more than likely that people will end up on the tracks due to overcrowding, an outcome that does not bear thinking about. When put in perspective, are TFL are risking lives for the sake of a couple of sporting events?

Heeding Bozza and co’s warnings, I tried a different route to work the other day, catching the Northern Line from Waterloo instead of London Bridge. Easy, you would think. Mais non. It took me three times of walking up and down the station concourse to actually find the route to the Northern Line, lacking any decent signage that could be seen through the swarms of people. I like to consider myself relatively well-versed at using London transport; I can avoid eye contact with the best of them and my elbows are a force to be reckoned with. So if someone like me struggles, I pity any visitors to London, particularly those who don’t speak English, who are attempting to make a similar journey.

A large proportion of the people using the transport network during the games will have little investment in it whatsoever, and will be merely attempting to go about their unavoidable daily business. It can be argued that Londoners will reap the economic and social benefits that the Olympics will bring, but if the minor improvements to the transport system are anything to go by, the result will not be worth the price paid.

And if a single tourist asks for directions to “Lie-ses-ter Square”, one will not be amused.