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Will the Olympics be derailed by public transport?

As the clock in Trafalgar Square ticks down, so the fearful anticipation of the impact 250,000 extra people will have on London’s already struggling transport network has risen to a level not seen since the prophecies of doom surrounding the Millennium Bug.

Thirteen years ago we were warned that planes would drop out of the sky and nuclear power plants would meltdown due to antiquated software, written when the memory used up by a couple of digits was a precious resource, being unable to cope with the new millennium. As it turns out, it was either a real false alarm or people got their houses in order well in advance.

This time we might not be so lucky. How can a service for who a perfect day is an annual event be expected to cope with so many additional passengers, many of whom will be using it for the first time?

In preparation, over the last couple of weeks, commuters have had messages announcing delays punctuated by a recording of Mayor of London Boris Johnson asking us to make alternative travel arrangements and to get ready for The Big One.

So, while transport workers will get bonuses to help them cope with the stress of having to do their jobs over the Olympics, ordinary commuters many of whom have paid thousands for annual travelcards in advance will get no compensation – maybe it’s time for a Passengers Union – for not being able to get to their workplace.

A conspiracy theorist might conclude that all the warnings and scaremongering are an attempt to create a sort of tipping point for working from home whereby employers and employees who are able to use this option do so, realise how convenient it is and begin to do so more often, thus reducing the strain on the network in the long run.

When ‘on-time’ is ‘late’ and ‘good’ is ‘not good’

The recent revelation that fewer than 70% of UK trains run on time will not have surprised many who travel by rail despite train companies usually reporting much higher punctuality rates (they give themselves a larger margin of ‘lateness’).

Such fanciful redefinitions of what is ‘on-time’ do little to win the trust of travellers who must feel persecuted that when so few trains are officially late, why is it always theirs that is?

While we are setting expectations, perhaps it is also time to redefine what is meant by a ‘good service’ on the Underground.

At the moment it is exclusively based on time and staff have discretion as to when to declare delays. For example, this article from the BBC highlights that a nine minute delay could still be deemed a good service.

But ask people to describe their journeys underground and as well as tardiness, they will complain about overheated and overcrowded trains.

Given the choice between getting somewhere ten minutes later in relative comfort or arriving earlier but having nearly melted on the way, many commuters would choose the former. Maybe we could be informed that ‘The Bakerloo line is running with a good but severely overcrowded service’ to help us pick how we want to get from A to B and to reduce the burden on overcrowded lines.

For all the fretting, there is little that can be done at this stage. We can only hope the ‘Big One’ is such an enjoyable experience that the abiding memory of the London Olympics is of athletes reaping the rewards of years of effort and not visitors suffering the consequences of years of underinvestment.

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