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Olympics transport: how did Sydney handle it?

The London Olympics seems paralysed with problems. The latest is protests from taxi drivers - who say they need access to special “Olympics lanes” - which have brought traffic to a halt. Is London going…

Sydney’s Olympics transport couldn’t have been smoother; London’s has already ground to a halt. Andy Rain/EPA

The London Olympics seems paralysed with problems. The latest is protests from taxi drivers - who say they need access to special “Olympics lanes” - which have brought traffic to a halt. Is London going to cope with the millions of people about to hit its streets?

It is now 12 years since the proclaimed “best” Olympics to date. One of the success stories of Sydney is the way in which public transport contributed to a smooth Olympics. How did it work at Sydney, and can London follow suit?

Get on the bus (and the train)

As my bus cruised into the city this week in record time, I found myself wishing the Olympics would go on forever. Commuting has never been so pleasant: nor the city so delightful a destination, full of people, but mercifully emptied of cars - Adele Horin, SMH, September 23 2000.

On the day of the Opening Ceremony, trains carried over 55,000 spectators up to 4pm (with the ceremony starting at 7pm). Buses carried 15,000. At the conclusion of the evening, over 90,000 spectators left Olympic Park by train; 24,500 left by bus.

On the first full day of the Games, over 900 train services passed through Olympic Park station delivering 75,423 spectators by mid-afternoon, with 23,602 by bus. Friday 22 September was the busiest day. By 5pm, 307,139 people had been transported to the stadium - 217,953 by train and 89,186 by bus. Around 6pm, queues for trains from Central station in the city to Olympic Park were up to 800 metres long, with passengers waiting as long as 45 minutes.

All quiet now: Sydney’s once-frenetic Olympic Park railway station. Tim Keegan

The good news is that Sydney coped very well. There were, however, some notable shortages of passengers. A two-hourly coach services took athletes on a 90km return journey from the Olympic village to one of the specially provided training venues on the southern outskirts of Sydney. One driver had been on the route since day one, and never had a passenger. Shuttle buses catering solely for IOC delegates were not well utilised at all. Games officials are much more accustomed to chauffeur-driven VIP cars.

Train patronage was well below forecasts. Volunteers on stations provided a level of customer service never before available. It improved the through flow of passengers substantially. Normal rail services were largely unaffected.

Taxis, cars and getting a park

Taxis - especially at the airport - were expected to be a major problem. Not only did the taxis handle the demand very well, they found a distinct lack of passengers away from the airport. It was one of the quietest times ever for taxis, thanks to the bus and train system meeting traveller demand. The 10% surcharge on taxi trips also helped, and the free bus and train travel for events ticket-holders.

Travel times have never been as good as those experienced during the Sydney Games. Typically any trip time in the peak was halved: 60 minutes became 30, 10 became 5.

The National Roads and Motorists Association (NRMA) monitored a number of key arterials and tollroads - M4/Parramatta Road, Victoria Road and Cumberland Highway - on five days in September. The travel time survey was terminated well before the planned date, because the NRMA found that, without exception, travel times improved substantially.

During the Olympics, Sydney’s Parramatta Road was a pleasure to drive on (not like today). Tony Rodd

There was a large drop in off-street parking off-street in the central business district (CBD) over the Games period. Four years of encouraging people not to drive in the city has hurt the parking business. Parking station owners said the combination of free public transport to Olympics events, as well as a widespread public perception that it is illegal to drive anywhere in the city, caused their downturn in business. But parking at the periphery (say, at Darling Harbour) was plentiful and expensive. The usual $8 per weekend-day flat fee was bumped up to $16.50.

Lessons for London - get cars off the roads

The miraculous turnaround of transport services is one of the great successes of the Olympics. Trains falling off tracks, station skipping, general delays and the disappearance of an entire bus fleet exposed transport as the weak link in the Olympic build-up. But instead of derailing the Games, the system performed better with a million extra people riding on its back.

A low placing was the forecast. A gold medal was the outcome. Sydney Games gave both the spectator and the commuter an augmented service, beyond their expectations; it was a great Olympic experience.

However, the reality of two weeks of commuting bliss is now but a dream. But for the NSW Government and Sydney City Council, there are simply not enough incentives to apply the experience beyond the Sydney Games.

The experience in Sydney is likely to be repeated in London but we will not know for a few weeks. London and Sydney have a lot in common, so unless there is a major security scare the London Games should be as successful as Sydney. My only reservation about London’s success, is that it will depend on getting a large amount of car traffic off the roads. This was a strong measure of Sydney’s successful transport Olympics.