As an avid sports fan and self-confessed Olympics addict, I have eagerly anticipated the world's greatest spectacle visiting Britain ever since the games were secured in 2005. For some my application for 40 different sessions appeared to be an irresponsible thing to do. But such was the appetite for the games amongst the British public, I landed only two tickets in the initial ballot.
This was more than most, I admit, but I was nevertheless disappointed. However, I was determined not to let this opportunity pass me by. And thankfully it did not. After scrapping for extra tickets on the much maligned online ticketing service, and probably doing serious long-term damage to my computer's refresh key, I managed to secure passage to six events at various London venues. Britain was ready and so was I.
Staging what is in effect 26 different world sporting championships in one city in 16 days inevitably poses substantial logistical challenges. Horror stories of waiting for an over hour to get on a tube train were commonplace in the run up to the games, even from official sources. Transport for London (TfL) published a list of projected waiting times at stations at certain times of the day which was sorry reading for everyday Londoners hoping to use the Underground to get home. Even the mayor Mr Boris Johnson was involved. Personal announcements at every station warned travellers that the network would be extremely busy during the Games and encouraged commuters to allow extra time for their journey, seek alternative means of transport, or not to travel at all.
So while I was of course excited to visit the Olympic venues and take in the action, I was also eager to see how London's public transport infrastructure held up to this challenge. And I am pleased to report, just like Team GB, the level of service exceeded expectations.
In total London Underground (LU) transported over 60 million passengers during the Olympics, including more than 4.5 million on August 7 alone, a 27% increase on the weekday average for the network, and the most in its 149-year history. It was the fourth time that week that the ridership record had been broken. Records also fell on Docklands Light Railway, which serves venues in East London including the Olympic Park, the Royal Artillery Barracks, Greenwich Park and Excel centre, and carried 7.2 million passengers during the Games, a 100% increase on normal levels. London Overground also had a record ridership of more than 6 million while Southeastern reported that 7.7 million passengers used its services during the Olympics, a 20% increase on the same time the previous year. Approximately 1.4 million of these journeys were made on its Javelin high-speed service, which offered a journey time of eight minutes from London St Pancras station to the Olympic Park.
So just how did the network manage to cope with such a huge increase? LU admitted that it would have been unable to handle this number of passenger if normal peak travel patterns were followed. The key was spreading out travel patterns across the course of the day, meaning that services were consistently busy, but did not experience the level of use and delays between 07.30 - 09.30, and 16.00 - 19.00 that many had feared. The "Get ahead of the games" message clearly worked, as Johnson pointed out.
"One of the things that made the Olympic Games such a great success was the way Londoners changed the way they usually travel, arriving at work a little earlier or later to avoid the busiest times," he said.
This was certainly my experience. I purposely set out extra early during my first visit to the Olympic Park expecting the Southeastern services and DLR that I had to take to be particularly busy. They were not, and I even managed to get a seat on the DLR. The same afternoon I left the park to go an event at the Excel. A signalling failure had stranded the DLR service that I initially boarded, but passengers were free to board a neighbouring Jubilee Line LU train, which intersected with the operating DLR further along the network. My journey to Paddington station after my event at around 17.00 was also no different from a normal peak time journey in London. Clearly having a variety of travel options available, and communicating regularly with passengers about how best to travel through the public address system and the army of volunteers, minimised delays and retained a steady flow of passengers through stations.
Inevitably traffic increased substantially to the Olympic Park during the second week when the Olympic stadium opened. I visited on "Super Saturday," as it became affectionately known, enjoying a complimentary ice cream while taking the Javelin service from St Pancras which was very quiet. After my event passengers were advised, as they were at every possible opportunity on board trains, on signs throughout the Olympic Park and public address systems, to take the Jubilee Line from West Ham rather than Stratford. Choosing to avoid the 20 minute walk I chanced it at Stratford. And while the queues for the Javelin were substantial I walked straight onto a Jubilee Line train finding an empty seat.
Of course my experiences are just a snapshot, there were delays during the course of the event, the Central Line in particular did suffer problems. But the general consensus was that TfL's "Get ahead of the games" message was a success. So much so that announcements were changed during the week to encourage Olympic visitors to head to central London. The area was described by disappointed business owner as a ghost town during the course of the games with some of the blame placed on the success of encouraging non-Olympic visitors not to travel.
Whether the Paralympics runs as smoothly is yet to be seen. 2.4 million tickets have been sold, and with Premiership football, and various festivals taking place across London this weekend, and children returning to school next week, the network will be busy once again. There will also be the unique challenges of catering for an increased proportion of disabled passengers. However, it appears the same level of preparation has gone into warning Londoners about altering their travel plans, and I am quietly confident that my trip to see Athletics at the Olympic Park this weekend will go without a hitch.