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Thursday, June 20, 2024

London Rail’s Olympic legacy: Howard Smith Q&A

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London’s rail network experienced record passenger levels this summer, as the city took on the colossal task of hosting both the Olympic and Paralympic Games on top of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations.

Howard Smith, chief operating officer for London Rail at Transport for London (TfL), spoke to Rail.co about how he kept the trains running and what the Olympic’s legacy means for rail in the capital.

Q. How did the Olympics change your day-to-day responsibilities?

“It changed very dramatically, but it wasn’t quite switch on the Olympics day one.

“In the period leading up to the Games we did a whole series of exercises and trials and things. The Games itself was absolutely world on its head if you like. We really were in a world of almost 24/7 working. We’re used to seven-days-a-week railways but not the intensity of activity carried out where some of your busiest days were Saturdays and Sundays for instance.

“It was a very full-on experience. Ultimately, I think almost everybody involved in it would say it was enormously pleasurable. Just to have that ingenuity of activity and be successful. There was a common aim in a way that you rarely get and practically you won’t sustain in business as usual.

“In a way there was a very, very clear common goal where absolutely everything was focussed on that and enough, by whatever means was sufficient, resources to do the job. The Olympics was sort of playing with all the toys at once.

“The other bit that made it a wonderful experience was that it went very, very well through what we like to think was a small bit of luck and a hell of a lot of planning and judgement.”

Q. There was a lot of cynicism leading up to the Games, scrutinising the cost and doubting London’s ability to cope with such a big event. But after a few days that seemed to disappear and everyone was caught up in the positivity of the Games. Is that something you felt?

“Completely. Britain has a great capacity for realism bordering on cynicism and the British press are up there with the best of them. We knew we were going to be scrutinised very, very carefully and in the days leading up to the Games that almost collective nervousness came across even more strongly.

“But once the Games got underway there was this sense of focusing on something extraordinarily positive.

“Precisely four years ago, a few of us went out to learn from Beijing. The one moment that was etched on my brain and heart for the intervening four years was the moment when everybody went into the Bird’s Nest in Beijing opening ceremony because blow the opening ceremony and your reputation sort of goes from there, get that bit right, get the next day right, and the day after that right and people think blimey that wasn’t too bad at all.”

Q. How much did London learn from how previous Olympic cities have handled transport? How much could you actually take away from Beijing?

“The first thing to say is the strategic plan was done outside my direct organisation in places like the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) in putting the Games together in the first place and some of the work at LOCOG and the TfL family.

“In terms of the point of was Beijing a good comparison, no it wasn’t. Beijing for instance, a short period before the Games, they decided they were going to put everybody entering a Tube station through a scanner. Now who knows where they spirited the scanners up from but they just pulled up goodness knows how many of the People’s Liberation Army and put them on the station and everyone queued up and fed their stuff through. Try doing that in London at 10-days notice and you’d have chaos, so no that wasn’t a good comparison in many ways.

“We actually had over last year some people from Sydney and if you look back through Beijing, to Athens, to Sydney you might say Sydney was actually the last Anglo Saxon Games. It was also one that had a UK-style transport environment and it was also one, incidentally, where if you do go back through the records you’ll see it was almost exactly the same ‘transport is going to let us down, transport is going to let us down, oh transport didn’t let us down. It’s wonderful’.

“So from them we got some real insights in both the mentality of the Games and exactly the operational planning and how you cope with not only large numbers but large numbers who are unfamiliar with where they’re going.

“With regards to the wider planning that was one of the successes of the Games. Some of the key building blocks of the Games came from all the forecasting and planning that went in literally years ago. I think we’ll be looking back and saying this was probably the best forecast Games ever in terms of knowing what we could expect numbers wise and that allowed us to do the crucial step of building the infrastructure and matching the trains to the passenger flows and that’s the base step in getting the job right.

“Upgrading the North London Line Underground, building Stratford International, expanding the DLR to three-car all of those were done for the Games. That has to be done years ahead then you move into the tactical planning i.e. what’s your train plan going to be, how late are you going to run, how many peaks a day, test that, which we did on the DLR for instance. Literally for weeks we ran the Olympic service. Even though we could model it, even though we could say this is how the timetable’s going to work, we said no we want to touch it, feel it.

“If you’ve done those then you go into the Games with a decent chance of succeeding. And that’s where the dedication of staff applied to a decent plan can achieve wonders.”

Q. Will London be advising Rio about how to run successful rail network during the Games?

“I believe so. I’m waiting for my ticket.

“There is, at various levels, generally a handover of knowledge and expertise because it’s something that almost by definition you only do once – at least in a working lifetime. So yes cities have to pass something on to others, so I look forward to that.”

Q. We know the entire Olympic Park will be transformed into a community space with new homes and businesses, but has the same philosophy about legacy been considered with the investment in London’s rail network?

“It’s an incredibly strong story. Virtually everything that we have built or bought for the Games across DLR, across the Overground has got 100 per cent legacy, it really has.

“London Railways invested about £3 billion between 2005 and 2011. That’s gone into the East London Line, North London Line upgrade, new trains, the creation of the Overground, all the investment in stations that went into the Overground, creating what from the December 9 when East London Line Phase 2 opens will be the Orbital Network. On DLR it’s been about finishing off the Woolwich – Arsenal extension, building up to Stratford International, going back and constructing a three-car 87-metre long DLR network where it started at a single car 25 years ago this year, new control centre, and finally the Emirates Airline.

“Every single one of those things will be in almost as significant use this week, next week, the week after, the year after, as it was for the Games. It’s left an absolutely stunning legacy.

“The small part of the spend that doesn’t have a direct infrastructure legacy is the additional staffing and the additional hours that went into actually operating, that said even the skills and training carries a legacy.

“Legacy’s an overused word but it does carry a benefits for the future as well.

“Actually having staff going through refresher training, going through further learning preparing for a greater range of circumstances. You should never say nothing will surprise us because things will always happen but people are prepared, better trained, more on their toes, more understanding, more knowledgeable of their environment. We’re looking at what circumstances we might use that mechanism in the future you think of the likes of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and big national events like that. We’d probably not quite go to full Olympic status, but we’ve got a set of plans that we could taylor to fit that.

“And relationships. The other bit that came out of it, which I think we’ll find as one of the major lessons is things like the transport coordination centre where all of the operators got together not for command and control activity but to share information, share plans, largely set up in case of serious, serious disruption the scenarios we went through in training were all about multiple incidents all over London and re-routing people. Fortunately we didn’t get that but the level of communication and coordination of information that that provided was useful and we’re looking at how that could be brought to bear in the future.

“The other bit, which is intangible but absolutely critical – and everybody’s saying that to one another – is the relationships and the personal understanding that has built up along the common goal.”

Q. Not many people get to say they’ve managed a rail network serving an Olympic Games. Will you look back at it as a special part of your career?

“Absolutely, I said to my teams that I hope you consider like I do that it’s been a privilege to both live and work in London at what has been an almost unique time.

“There was a buzz not only about the people at work but also a buzz around people attending the Games and the public that was the other thing that we’ll all look back on with nostalgia. People set off each day with a great sense of optimism and great sense of joy.”

Q. The Olympics also got people talking on London’s trains. Did you see that coming?

“I mean that’s the sort of relaxation and holiday atmosphere and the common purpose isn’t it. Everybody had that buzz to them.

“We had these amazing experiences, I mean on the DLR we had when Sebastian Coe and Jacques Rogge took the DLR from ExCeL to Bank.

“Personally the most amazing to watch was on the closing day was when the mayor and Arnold Schwarzenegger travelled on the Emirates Airline from North Greenwich. To watch the faces on the crowds of people going the other way at the point when the mayor and Arnold Schwarzenegger just stepped off and looked for their cars was amazing, and that sort of thing you don’t see in business as usual.”

Q. How does everyone feel now it’s all over? Day-to-day operations must seem really easy now?

“I think it’s too early.

“The short answer is, I and a few others have been discussing notes this week, I think we had an enormous come down on Tuesday because we all thought we were carrying on until Sunday then we all sort of carried on to Sunday night for the closing ceremony then you realise no the parade is on Monday.

“The good news is the railways have continued to run at the incredibly high level that we maintained through the Games and that’s the trick going forward.”

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