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All the right moves

Atkins | 10 Jul 2009 | Comments

London’s transport network is undergoing a significant upgrade in time for the London 2012 Olympic Games and Paralympic Games. Careful planning is needed to make sure demand is met on time, without saddling the city with unnecessary infrastructure and expense.

London 2012 is set to be the biggest sporting and cultural event the UK has ever seen. The modern Olympic Games have changed beyond recognition since the last time London played host. In 1948, just over 4,000 competitors arrived to challenge for medals in 136 events. In 2012, 14,700 athletes will arrive, along with 55,000 members of the Olympic family of judges, technical officials and sponsors, and 20,000 accredited members of the media.

While the focus will be on the track, pool and velodrome, somehow all of those people will need to be able to move from one location to another with relative ease. And while all that’s happening, the world’s greatest city needs to carry on working and celebrating.

Simple, surely?

Hugh Sumner is the man charged with co-ordinating transport for the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA): “Basically, we do all the transport upgrades directly and indirectly required for London 2012,” he says. “We will be responsible for timetables as well as organising the buses, roads, river, cycle, mainline rail, light rail – everything – for about 20 million people.”

The ODA, in collaboration with the existing transport authorities, has taken a three-pronged approach to this seemingly insurmountable problem.

“First, we will need to get the best we can out of the existing system,” says Sumner. “Second, where extra capacity is needed and there is a legacy case, then we will co-fund or build it. Third, where there isn’t a legacy case for those ‘peak of the peak’ times, we will put in a temporary solution rather than wasting resources, time and energy putting in something that won’t have future use.”

Of course, the perennial complaint about the amount spent on any Games is the question of legacy. However, Mark Cowlard, rail solutions director for Atkins’ southern region, disagrees: “This work is all about enhancing capacity for the long term: getting more people from one place to another as quickly as possible. There is no question that the network needs those enhancements, London 2012 notwithstanding.”

Atkins’ main involvement with delivering transport projects for the Games is largely centred on rail.

“In London, we’re looking at an 80 per cent mode share by rail, roughly, with 20 per cent pedestrian, cycling and road (park-and-ride and coach),” says Sumner.

Specific projects include the management of improvement works in Stratford, right at the heart of the Olympic Park. For the purposes of the improvements, Atkins is acting on behalf of Network Rail to ensure that any engineering work does not affect the operational running of the railway.

“We receive requests from contractors and stakeholders in the area and manage the delivery of the work,” says Cowlard. “They might want to put a bridge over the railway for pedestrians, for example. We’ll work with them and Network Rail to understand the requirements and then give approval for those things to be done in a safe and efficient way.”

Away from Stratford, the North London Line improvement is currently the biggest project. With ODA funding, Atkins has been working on improving track, signalling and platforms across a network that crucially links east and west, one of the few routes in the transport network not based on the centre-out radial system.

The North London line also links into the Docklands Light Railway, London’s youngest rail system. The DLR forms an important link into the Olympic Park from the City and the south east. As such, it requires significantly increased capacity and scope. The core extension will run from Stratford International to Canning Town and be connected to the Beckton and Woolwich Arsenal Docklands Light Railway routes.

As well as this, Atkins is also managing the DLR’s “three-car capacity upgrade” programme, which is delivering the infrastructure enhancements required to move from two- to three-car operation.

Avoiding a world-class headache

Of course, London’s status as a leading world city is both a blessing and a curse. The transport infrastructure is there, for better or worse. Engineers already have a big train set to play with in order to meet demand. To put the transport demands of the Games in context, planners had to understand the interaction between managing a major event and what happens on a typical working day in London. There are 12 million public transport trips a day and London 2012 will have over nine million tickets available for events. On its busiest day, there are 800,000 tickets available.

But those numbers will be made up of visitors who don’t know their way around, congregating in certain concentrated areas and not dispersed across the network.

“The big challenge for us is overlaying the actual demand on those networks because the patterns of time and volume will differ during London 2012,” says Sumner. “For example, on an ordinary day, you wouldn’t expect the thick end of 400,000 people to descend upon Stratford. Even on a good day, it might be busy, but not that busy. Luckily, London has resilience in comparison with places such as Athens and Sydney, where you had a huge increase in demand compared with what was normal. We are fortunate in that respect.”

Despite the strength of the existing network, the inevitable strain highlights the need for planners and engineers to squeeze every last bit of capacity out of the network as well as coming up with innovative temporary solutions for the duration of the Games, swiftly followed by the Paralympic Games.

After all, even for the Games, no-one has carte blanche to bring London’s rail network to a halt while enhancing the infrastructure to prepare for them. It’s an issue that keeps the best minds awake at night.

“That is the biggest consideration really,” admits Cowlard. It is also the factor that generates one of the greatest costs. Fortunately, Atkins is able to bring its experience of managing major infrastructure projects to bear on what could turn into a logistical nightmare.

“Because of the way the rail industry has to work, the key is balancing efficiency with the need to avoid disruption to the public,” says Cowlard. “It is essential to try to maintain a positive customer experience at all times and that does come back to planning. It is inevitable that the public will experience a degree of disruption due to the works. The key thing is to make sure they know it’s coming and to put in place proper plans to mitigate it.”

According to Cowlard, the fact that east London already has a well-developed transport network allows for alternative routes to take up the slack.

“You’ve got lots of different options both radically and concentrically. By making sure that whoever owns those elements isn’t doing maintenance or enhancements at the same time, it is possible to ensure that customers will have different alternatives to get to work.”

An issue often ignored when projects such as this are discussed is the human angle. Infrastructure and rolling stock make up crucial elements of the plan for London 2012, but anticipating and understanding human behaviour is just as important. Andy Southern, managing director of transport planning and management for Atkins, stresses the importance of focusing on the customer experience.

“There’s a view that some residents will vacate the city during London 2012 and that will help reduce some of the transport demands,” he says. “Of course, assumptions need to be made when planning the route network and there are lessons to be learned from past Games, but you need to make sure those lessons are transferable. For example, will the collective London psyche and reaction be the same as that in Sydney? Will they want to be around London to participate in what will be a great occasion?

“The authorities have to take this uncertainty into account when making decisions about things such as capacity levels, where the pinch points in the network will be and how to manage demand.”

Southern cites the mayor of London’s ongoing commitment to doing more for pedestrians and cyclists in London as a welcome move, especially with the Olympic and Paralympic Games on the horizon: “This alleviates overcrowding but also makes London more accessible and more easily understood. These are key requirements for London 2012 and they are expected of any world-class city. London 2012 should also be the most carbon-efficient from a transport point of view – again, a key requirement for London’s future.

“The Olympic and Paralympic Games help to speed up the resolve and delivery times on these issues, with pedestrian and public transport access being the way forward, not only for central London but inner areas too,” he says.

In addition to the need to move people around the various venues concentrated in the East End of London, there is the issue of the city’s wider cultural life. The bid for the Games was won in part thanks to London’s cultural heritage. Transport planners, therefore, cannot simply look at developing and upgrading routes to the stadia. They must design and upgrade systems to allow as many visitors – and athletes and officials – to experience the city as a whole. After all, what’s the point of awarding the Games to a city of theatre, royalty, music and art if your guests can’t access any of it?

“We’re very clear that we don’t want this to be a sterile experience for the athletes and visitors. We want it to be a cultural and sporting celebration,” adds the ODA’s Sumner. That means the cultural events in the summer of 2012 will be very much larger than those in Beijing because the two cities’ plans were different.

“Understanding those differences and planning the deployment of resources to achieve those different outcomes are key to the success of the transportation plans for the Games,” says Sumner. “We spent time in Beijing to find out what happened both before and during the Olympic and Paralympic Games, and we learned from that.”

Southern notes that “just as important as providing new transport infrastructure is how we accommodate the needs of all those involved in the Games. For example, we need to ensure that journey times are reliable across a dedicated network for the London 2012 family while keeping London moving. This should feel like a festival in London rather than just a sporting event.”

Making sure the public of London, the UK and beyond are all accommodated into a festival of sport will be worthy of gold.

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