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Let the Games Begin

May 3, 2012

Most everyone in the civilized world today that lives outside a cave, reads a newspaper, watches television, listens to a radio or that occupies themselves with the internet and social media knows that there will be a 2012 Olympic Games held in London, starting on July 27th, and lasting a fortnight (two weeks for you non-Brits) through August 12.

And soon thereafter in the same East London venue, the Paralympics (Parallel, not Paraplegic) Games will run from  August 29  winding up on Sept. 9.

The Olympic Games will consist of 26 sports in 34 different venues over a period of 19 days (with football) while the Paralympic Games will feature 20 sports at 19 venues over 11 competition days. The main Olympic Park occupies 617 acres with nine major competition venues.

And if  you’re kind of familiar with London and know it pretty well – its parks, palaces, congestion, crowded and narrow streets, well-established neighborhoods and boroughs,  tube and train stations, you’re probably scratching your head trying to imagine where in the world London will put these massively attended Olympic Games.  You can’t put it all in Scotland, Wales, Hyde Park, Green Park or even Wembley Stadium.  You need lots and lots of land with the ability to sustain a mammoth stadium and other required sports structures plus established or readily buildable road access.

Well, that’s all said and done, and back before 2008, the Brits had it pretty-well figured out.   Over four years ago, when the City of London won the right to host the 2012 Summer Games, it already had its eye on a huge plot of land in East London – the suburb of Stratford (not Avon) –  where it would build all the required facilities – a stadium for track and field events, an aquatic center to host swimming and diving, an adjacent water polo arena, a velodrome, additional sites for basketball, handball and, of course, the opening and closing ceremonies (presumably in the Olympic stadium).

The proposed site was in an area of East London that most Londoners considered some horrible, foreign territory not safe for man or beast.  It used to be anything east of the Tower of London was pretty run down, ramshackle and you didn’t even want to walk your dog on any of the streets or sidewalks. It was one of the toughest, roughest, dirtiest and most destitute areas anyone could imagine.  It was a forgotten blight on the City of London, and had it not been for London Organizing Committee of the Olympic & Paralympic Games (LOCOG) so desperately wanting the 2012 summer games, the  area probably would have remained a blight for the next century.

This summer, if you do have the good fortune to attend this year’s summer games, you’ve got a whole new London experience ahead of you.  The East London Stratford area has been transformed over the past four years and is a modern miracle of design, engineering and farsightedness.  Not only will the area be ready for the summer games, but it is the intention of local and regional government in England, that this East London area will be home to thousands of new private residents and commercial property owners.  The Olympic spirit to revitalize the area is the real dream of the London and UK Governments.  But that story comes later.

The question for London is, “this summer, how on earth will London successfully host all the millions of people that will attend the two Olympic fortnights in July and August?”

First of all, many millions of pounds, dollars, yen or euros, whichever currency you like, have been invested for the construction of the Olympic facilities – buildings, roadways rehabilitation of tube and train stations, underground power and gas lines, redirecting water channels and canals, planting of tress and flowers – the list is endless.  But then you have to step back and ask, “Is all this really going to work in the July and August crunch time?”

Firstly many of the events will occur outside of the actual Olympic site in Stratford proper: tennis at Wimbledon, equestrian events at Greenwich Park; rowing at Eton Dorney, Dorney Lake Park, beach volleyball at Horse Guards Parade, volleyball at Earls’ Court, archery at Lord’s Cricket Ground, and football at selected stadiums around the country.  Boxing, fencing, table tennis, judo and wrestling will be staged at the ExCel Centre in the Royal Docks area; the list of venues goes on and on.

Well – the best laid plans for London have been in the works for many years, and on paper, it appears that the various Olympic organizations have thought of everything, every contingency, including messages to the Queen and the Archbishop of Canterbury for beautiful weather.  I’m sure God was copied as well.

Now I’m not going to tackle the ticket situation because that is still an evolving controversial story, but I will take a look into the important aspects of infrastructure – namely how will the airports handle the crowds and then what’s waiting for you in London during the run of the games.

Residents of the UK and especially those living in the southeast of England well know how to get in and out of London, whether it’s by train, motor car, plane or even boat.  Can you imagine a more romantic way to get to the Olympics than floating up or down the Thames in a fully decked-out pleasure boat?

For all us non-Brits getting to the UK, air transport will probably be the key provider with the majority of flights going into the larger London Heathrow Airport and a lesser amount bringing people to London Gatwick.  There’s also Stansted and Luton Airports, but they’re not worth more than a mention.

With most of the world’s major airlines operating into London Heathrow Airport, 17 miles west of the centre of London, as well as Heathrow being the home of British Airways,  Heathrow will take the brunt of the load, probably about 80 percent, whether they be Olympic observers, participants, officials, or just plain holiday makers and business travelers.

Looking after the operation and maintenance of Heathrow is the BAA – British Airports Authority – and it’s the BAA’s responsibility to provide adequate facilities to the passengers and the airlines.  That includes runway availability, ramp space, terminal facilities and gate space, car parking, clear roadways – the list is endless.

And already the BAA is projecting a significant spike in the numbers of passengers arriving and departing during the games, especially on Thursday, July 26th for arriving passengers and Monday, August 13 for departing passengers.

In actual fact, the inbound passenger upswing will commence in June as the annual British summertime outdoor activities ramp up – Royal Ascot, Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships, The Henley Royal Regatta, Glyndebourne Festival, and much more notwithstanding the summer games.

At the airports, the combination of regular summertime leisure travelers added on to all the athletes, officials, spectators and hangers-on hoi-palloi will translate into higher numbers of arriving and departing passengers plus greater volumes of baggage and freight.  And for the Paralympic Games, there will be increased numbers of restricted mobility passengers plus many more wheelchairs and related equipment.

All the brilliant planning estimates that travelers to London for the summer will arrive over a long (two month) period of time, right up to the start of the Olympic Games.  Facilities at the airport will be stretched but the five main passengers terminals are expected to adequately handle the inbound flow.

For example, on a normal July 26, approximately 95,000 people arrive at Heathrow.  This year, that number for July 26, is expected to rise to about 138,000 – a 45 percent rise.  Still it is expected that the inbound surge that day will be successfully accommodated by all carriers’ facilities and staff at Heathrow.

All arriving London Games passengers will presumably have their credentials with them, and on arrival at Heathrow, they can easily activate their credentials in a 90 second process in accreditation offices that will be set up at all the terminals.  Games passengers will be encouraged to complete the activation process once they have passed through the UK Immigration formalities. In fact, the UK Border Agency (fancy word for immigration) will have dedicated lanes for all incoming Olympic family members, athletes, coaches,officials, accredited media and other related Olympic travelers.

The more interesting and critical aspect of managing people and equipment will be thoroughly tested the Monday, Aug. 13, the day after the Olympic Games’ closing ceremonies.  It is on that Monday that most of the participants, one way or another, will want to “get out of town.”   Everyone will want to leave at the same time, and, of course, that will be pretty much impossible.  It’ll probably take several days for everyone to fly out of London, but how to accomplish this mass exodus without chaos.

The planning folks at Heathrow have come up with a pretty credible solution.  A  temporary  ‘Games Terminal,’ located on the south side of Heathrow Airport between Terminal 4 and the British Airways World Cargo building, is being constructed to accommodate the expected huge outflow of departing travelers.

And even better, the Games passengers, before they get to Heathrow for their departing flights, will have the ability to check-in themselves and their baggage at the Olympic Village in Stratford on the day prior to departure.  And both at the Olympic Village and at Heathrow, there will be a vast army of volunteers to assist and support the total exit operation.

Just the number of bags on the peak departure days is expected to increase by some 35 percent because everyone is expected to shop, buy souvenirs and the like.  Instead of a normal, daily 150,000 bags departing Heathrow, it is forecast that about 203,000 bags will be run through the departure system.

For arrivals (and departures), LOCOG has devised a system in the terminals for directing Olympic passengers to coaches, buses, taxis, private cars, the tube and the Heathrow Express.  Certainly for speed of access to central London,  the Heathrow Express to Paddington Station is the fastest and surest transport available.

Regular – or should I call them non-Olympic or Paralympic – leisure and business travelers moving in and out of the Heathrow terminals should not be deterred from using their favorite or most reliable methods of transportation.  The best advice for the peak days,  plan accordingly and leave plenty of time.

And now speaking of moving in and around London, Transport for London (formerly London Transport) has planned their  2012 summer games strategy to keep London up and running this summer; they claim it’s Britain’s largest peacetime logistical exercise.

Not only will Transport for London sort out getting everyone to and from the numerous Olympic venues, but on top of that mammoth task, they also will have to accommodate the normal, everyday amount of traffic – auto, truck, bus, boat (yes, along the Thames and connecting canals near the Olympic site) – that plies the transportation channels of London seven days a week.  It might be like cramming a month’s worth of traffic in two weeks.

Now as most regulars to London know, the underground system is very sophisticated and works pretty well.  Yes, there are stations that still look like they’re 100 years old – and they probably are – but that’s the charm of the underground system.  in actual fact, London’s public transport network is fairly well-suited to provide service to the game sites. There’s always the fear of strikes, but when it’s all said and done, there is no way the unions would pull that kind of ridiculous stunt.  They would be shooting themselves in the head, again, but that’s also another story.  And besides, the UK Government wouldn’t permit an industrial situation to last more than one millisecond, if that!  Not this summer!

The underground and the rail network that feeds into London have, over the years, has provided safe and reliable transportation to venues all over London for many well-publicized events over the years;  the Royal wedding, the annual London Marathon, new year’s eve events, Wimbledon tennis and huge football games.  And consider, last August during the civil unrest in London, the system still functioned despite the disturbances.  Every business day, the London underground system accommodates almost three million riders; the record is more than enviable to say the least.

Now then,  just prior to the Olympics, London will play host to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, scheduled for June 2-5.  That four-day extravaganza will celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s 60 years as reigning Monarch.  You could say that the Queen’s Jubilee will be kind of a test run for the Olympic transportation infrastructure as there is liable to be millions of people turning out for one spectacular ceremony or another.

In terms of overground and underground trains, including the Docklands Light Railway,  servicing the Olympic Park area, Transport for London already has planned for the lines to run one hour later than usual with the last trains departing the key sports venues or central London around 1:30 a.m.  In addition, there will be extra trains in the late evening to help with exiting crowds.  There also will be approximately 200 extra buses in London to accommodate the increased numbers requiring bus transport, usually headed for destinations, sometimes not served by the underground or light railway lines.

And along the Thames, there even will be extra boat services at certain times and places, presumably to coincide with dedicated events at close-by venues.  There also will be a high-speed ‘Javelin shuttle’ service running between the Olympic Park Stratford Station and Kings Cross St. Pancras station.

Bottom line, about 65 percent of London’s tube stations will be unaffected, but those in the know will realize that certain stations and subway lines will be busier than normal.  Again, common sense should prevail, and when traveling by rail and tube, extra time should be allocated for the journey.

London’s 9,200 miles of road network is, of course,  old in some places, new in other places, very narrow in too many places, and totally mind-boggling if you’re doing it for the first time and don’t quite know where you’re going.  If you’ve ever driven in the UK, the first thing you have to manage is driving on the left side of the road.  Once the brain and nervous system have overcome that particular challenge, then you’re halfway there.  You need to know the one-way streets, and that you can start moving forward when the traffic lights start to change from red to yellow, and then to green.  Just be careful and look both ways so as not to be broadsided.  You have to master the roundabouts, junctions, right turns, underpasses, tunnels and flyovers.

If you’re a visitor and do elect to drive in London, my strong recommendation is to buy or rent a GPS.  That will save you hours of frustration and probably a loss of mind.   Once you’ve overcome the initial gasp of fear, extra heart-beats and loss of breath, it’s actually great fun and one certainly has a terrific feeling of accomplishment.  Almost like climbing Mt. Everest.

With that in mind, know that only about 30 percent of London’s roads will be affected during the games, and Transport for London will manage London’s road network as best as possible using a continuously managed street control system maintaining optimum signal timings during the games plus state-of-the-art signal control technology at 350 extra street junctions during the games – there will be 2,350 ‘smart’ junctions throughout London, especially at the vital points leading to and from sports venues.

Transport for London, in consultation with the Mayor, various local city and borough offices, the UK Government, the Highway agency, traffic commissioners, transport operators and numerous others, have designated an ORN, or ‘Olympic Route Network’ in London during the games.  In fact, all host cities have done much the same since the 2000 Sydney Games.  The ORN will ensure reliable driving times for athletes, officials, media and all who work at the games.  Most users of the ORN will be buses and coaches, but also for cars carrying officials traveling to and from the Olympic sites. The ORN will consist of only 109 miles, out of a total of 9,200 miles of roads, or 678 miles of main roads.  The ORN will come into operation a few days before the start of the games and will cease as soon as they are deemed to be no longer a necessity.

There are will be about 30 miles of designated Games Lanes for the sole use of the Games Family (athletes, officials, etc.) and emergency vehicles – and used only when and where absolutely required.  The Games Lanes will be comprised of only one third of the ORN, or about 0.3 per cent of London’s road network; if not required, the Games Lanes will be re-opened to general traffic.

Remember, if and when you’re driving in London during the games, plan the route and timing accordingly just as you would when driving at home to a popular sports or entertainment event.  Avoid the morning and evening rush hours and leave plenty of time for driving in unfamiliar areas or finding the car parks near your specified event.

Throughout the games, local print and electronic media, plus the internet and social media channels will be full of up-dated driving, mass transport (rail, tube and bus) and traffic advisories.

Prior to the start of the Games, and, of course, during the Games, one of the best sources of up-to-date information regarding transportation will be www.tfl.gov.uk/2012.  Etch that one in your pc, or and mobile phone.  Two other useful sites for those driving to venues are www.london2012.com/access and parking (parking at sites) and www.tfl.gov.uk/roadusers/congestioncharging/default.aspx, regarding central London’s congestion charges.

The best web site for further information on the Olympic and Paralympic games is the  website, www.london2012.com And the best and most thorough site for information about traveling and touring through Great Britain is from Visit Britain, the country’s renown tourist organization; click to www.visitbritain.com.

In this column I have purposely avoided the issue of obtaining tickets as there has been much controversy over this issue.  My suggestion would  be to refer to the official web site as well as reputable UK or US ticket agents or brokers who specialize in major sports events.

And at last report, there seems to be an abundance of hotel room nights available before, during and after the games. I will not venture to guarantee that prices will be somewhat reduced during this time, although during this time, the amount of significant business travel is normally down in London which should open up availability.  It will be the old supply and demand proposition governing the location and type of property that will afford the best price for comfort and location.

THE ORBIT – A SPIRALING ERECTOR SET IN OLYMPIC PARK
The ArcelorMittal Orbit, a  377 foot high observation that looks like an old-fashion erector set with curves and located in the middle of the park, is the UK’s largest piece of public art.  The tower will permit visitors to view the entire park area from two observation platforms.  And it will long serve as a remembrance and legacy as well as assist in the revitalization of the East London Stratford area long after the Summer Games have ended.

GETTING TO LONDON FROM THE USA
All the major North American air carriers have daily flights to London from their respective hub airports and a host of other USA and Canadian cities.  On the other hand, British Airways, operating to London’s Heathrow Airport from 20 USA airports and four Canadian gateways, offers the most daily flights of any airline across the Atlantic between North America and the UK.  And at Heathrow, the British Airways flights operate through the most up-to-date terminal facility in Europe, Terminal 5.

If you want to fly into the UK and arrive really close to the Olympic Park venue, then select one of two daily British Airways’ flights between JFK Airport and London City Airport,  located in the Docklands area of East London.  London City Airport is just a stone’s throw from the main summer games venue at Stratford.  The London City flights boast an all business class seating arrangement of only 32 flat-bed seats in an exclusive A318 aircraft.  See www.ba.com for availability and prices for all flights. 

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8 Comments
  1. Sandy Gardiner permalink

    John: Good job on the Olympics piece. Cheers,Sandy

  2. Wow! Superbly researched and organized article on everything you want to know about the 2012 Olympics in London – and a lot of things you didn’t even know that you should know. Well done Mr. Lample! PB

  3. Alan Bowen permalink

    I wish I had your confidence that things will work the way you suggest. Having the misfortune of living in London I suspect they won’t. In the last three weeks government cutbacks in Border Control have lead to delays of up to three hours for arriving passengers at Heathrow and this is before the crowds arrive. We are told to expect a million more passengers a day on the Tube, it cannot cope as it is and the main route to Stratford is on the Jubilee Line, on which millions have been lavished and which, as a result, breaks down on a daily basis. Those of us who can, are leaving town, my nearest station, Bond Street, directly opposite Selfridges store, is warning of one hour delays just to enter the station at peak periods, the best advice I have is to stay at home and watch it on TV!

    • Alan – I wrote you a lengthy reply agreeing with alot of what you say, but it bounced back. What is your correct e-mail? Many thanks, John

  4. Thanks so much for this thorough overview on getting around in London this summer! Cordially, Patrice

  5. Paul Gauger permalink

    Thanks John. Great read. The countdown is on. See you soon!

  6. Barbara Todres permalink

    How fortunate London is to have the Olympics and appears that they will surely benefit economically and in every other aspect! Best wishes to ALL who are involved with the beautiful and exciting Summer Olympics. Yes, let the Games begin! This article is fascinating and informative, John Lampl. Toi Toi to all and Bravo to you John for such a well constructed and interesting document.

    My very best,
    Barbara Todres/NYC

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