The TfL Olympic Legacy: Measuring the Unmeasurable


It has probably not escaped your notice that around a year ago a big sporting event was staged and was largely based in London. In the build-up and follow-on one of the words most associated with this event was ‘legacy’.

With so much of the government’s justification for the Olympic Games based on the legacy it would produce, it is hardly surprising that a report has been produced emphasising the benefits which have been calculated as around £9.9bn. On a somewhat smaller scale TfL too have produced a report entitled The Transport Legacy – one year on. The TfL report attempts to eulogise the benefits of the games that have been created in the area of transport, but mercifully it does not attempt the impossible and largely meaningless task of putting a financial value on it.

This article looks into the report and questions whether this report is just a load of “hype” and to what extent this report has summarised the true benefits. We also look at a lot of the benefits not mentioned which we would argue are actually much greater, yet probably weren’t mentioned because they sound almost trite.

The need for Scepticism

There are, of course, many who would wish that the UK government’s report was taken at face value with what could be argued is a comforting illusion and cosy half-truth. Some people feel reassured by such beliefs. Indeed the humourist and lyricist Michael Flanders when commenting on satire once said “The purpose … it has been rightly said, is to strip off the veneer of comforting illusion and cosy half-truth – and our job, as I see it, is to put it back again.” Clearly his daughter didn’t follow her father’s thinking because in a recent BBC article the economist Stephanie Flanders casts great doubt over the government report. Her main argument is that to get the true financial figure of the Olympic Legacy you have to exclude things that would have happened anyway. She argues that what would have happened anyway is not easy to determine and it seems that no great effort was made to try to do so. Instead everything that could conceivably be considered a positive Olympic Legacy is included.

The TfL Legacy Report – Inspired by 2012

The government report does its best not to identify what really was and wasn’t an Olympic legacy. TfL adopts a different tack. It decides to mix the two together and if you read the report very carefully one can see that they do not actually claim that a lot of improvements referred to were actually as a result of the Olympics. At the same time it is easy to be misled into thinking that a lot of things mentioned somehow only happened, or will happen, as a result of the Olympics. The front cover of the report has a little logo which reads “inspired by 2012”. It is of course extremely difficult to argue that the benefits listed were not mostly, in some small way at least, “inspired by 2012” even if the reality is that in many cases they probably would have happened anyway.

“Inspired by 2012” has a pleasant ring to it, but it is a sound-bite, and one that is not strictly applicable to everything featured therein. As an example, the report cites the advantage obtained by having the Underground’s Emergency Response Vehicle able to respond under “blue light conditions” to certain incidents. Quite how this has anything to do with the Olympics is difficult to see, but at the same time the phrase “inspired by the London 7/7 bombings in 2005” does not quite have the same appealing message even if it is in fact much closer to the truth.

Breaking it all down

The report helpfully categorises the legacy into four main areas: physical legacy, behavioural legacy, opportunities and “supporting convergence”. For convenience we will also use those categories and for the most part we stick to the same categorisation. We will go into these in some detail and, where necessary, describe what is meant by the title.

The physical Legacy

Possibly the most overstated and least important legacy of the games is the physical legacy. Figure 1 of the report with breathtaking chutzpah seems to strongly imply that various projects are part of the Olympic Legacy. The projects displayed in an image (sadly copyrighted) are:

  • London Overground
  • Stratford International and HS1 to Kent
  • Stratford Major Station Ugrade
  • Increased Capacity on the DLR
  • DLR transport improvements to the Lower Lea Valley
  • Jubilee Line Capacity Increase
  • The Cable Car (although not referred to in that way)
  • DLR connections to the Royal Docks and Woolwich Arsenal

Of the projects mentioned only the controversial cable car could really be argued to have only happened as a result of the Olympics and that is open to dispute as the mayor continues to insist that it is providing a contribution to London’s day-to-day transport needs. It is certainly true that DLR capacity increase was bought forward as a result of the Olympics (and largely paid for by the Olympic Delivery Authority), and to a lesser extent one could argue a case for London Overground. But, applying the Stephanie Flanders’ test, most of these things would have undoubtedly happened sooner or later anyway and, at most, what the Olympics did was brought forward the implementation of these schemes.

Another alleged Olympic legacy benefit is 30 trains-per-hour (tph) on the Jubilee Line. Again it is inconceivable that, after going through the anguish of the upgrade to make this possible, this would not have happened anyway.

A Selective Report

Choosing the increase in frequency on the Jubilee Line as part of the benefits of the legacy is also a case of being very selective. The Victoria Line could in theory have run 33tph before the Olympics because the work to make this possible was finished shortly before the games took place. Very wisely the decision was made not to introduce such a risky change shortly before the Olympics were due to start. In fact the upgrade to 33tph on the Victoria Line did not take place until January 2013. The explanation given for the delay was that all the timetable and roster producers were busy right up to the Olympics with preparations for the many timetables involved for the games – especially the multitude of them necessary for the Central Line. Needless to say there is no mention of delaying 33tph on the Victoria Line as one of the negative legacy effects of the games.

Interlopers on the list

It is also very curious that the DLR extension to Woolwich Arsenal gets a mention. This was planned way in advance of any bid for the Olympics, let alone actually winning the right to host it. Of course it turned out to be an extremely useful link but, again, the choice of Woolwich was probably partly inspired by the fact that the DLR link was there and not vice versa.

The DLR extension from Stratford International to Canning Town was actually opened very late, so late in fact that the Olympics were practically upon us. This extension of the DLR, which until then had never been related to the games, was proudly announced in August 2012 as being open well in advance of the games. Here, even the BBC’s normally reliable Tom Edwards unfortunately falls victim to the hype in an otherwise excellent article on the legacy. In Tom’s article which is well worth a read he states:

But in real terms £228m was invested in new Olympic infrastructure like the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) to Stratford and the new DLR stations like Stratford High Street

Sorry, Tom – you are wrong.

The crown for audacity, however, must surely go to the suggestion in figure 1 that “High Speed 1 promotes direct links to Kent” is somehow something to do with the Olympic legacy. The person suggesting this has clearly muddled, or chosen to muddle, cause and effect. Here in LR Towers, memories run quite long, and we remember – as part of the Olympic bid – that much was made of the ability to get from St Pancras to Stratford International in seven minutes by train. And, to counter the French claim that the infrastructure didn’t exist, Sebastion Coe, in an brilliant piece of showmanship, arranged for the International Olympic Committee to be driven down the newly built tunnels in Range Rovers to prove otherwise. So in this particular case the transport system’s legacy was to strengthen the bid for the Olympics and make available an existing infrastructure for  the benefit of the games and absolutely not a case of the Olympics providing a structure that was a legacy of  the games.

And what was the real Physical Legacy?

What is so disappointing about the report is not just that it claims a physical legacy that is at best dubious and at worst simply not true but that it then totally fails to mention the true physical legacy. This is probably because it doesn’t sound nearly so impressive.

For transport we actually have a different way of looking at what the physical legacy was. The basic rule at the time was that if something was necessary for the games, but was not going to otherwise happen by 2012, then it came out of Olympic funding and could truly be considered a legacy.

A large part of the Olympic transport expenditure was on extra DLR trains. But, as previously mentioned, these would have been eventually purchased anyway and probably not long after 2012. So the difficulty that we have is that the real legacy is all the post 2012 projects that would have otherwise have been cut because the money would not have been available, were it not for the Olympic Delivery Authority paying for the DLR trains. A valuable legacy for London, certainly, but one that is almost impossible to itemise.

A lot of the rest of the money allocated for the games and spent on transport infrastructure went on relatively minor schemes where items had to be upgraded, replaced or “ruggedised” in time for the games. The problem is that, for the most part, these items do not sound very exciting. Prior to the games taking place the DLR had issued a far more honest and factual report identifying many of the small but important and significant enhancements that genuinely were carried out specifically for the games.

It is rather curious that the TfL report does not mention one fairly indisputable legacy of the games which was the additional platform for the westbound Central Line at Stratford. This was only built because modelling showed that without it the Central Line would not be able to run the necessary 30tph through Stratford and deliver the crowds to and from London. If the Olympics had not happened, there is no way that westbound trains would have platforms on both sides of the track.

Finally on the subject of infrastructure, it is generally agreed that without the Olympics we would not have the improved step-free Green Park station with its direct entrance to the park. This was planned as part of a scheme to improve step-free access at quite a few locations. Due to the financial climate a number of these projects were cancelled even though in many cases work had already started. The only reason Green Park survived was that it was too important for the Olympics (and of course the Paralympics) with its critical location on the Jubilee Line. It was intended to make Baker Street station step-free before the Olympics but that did get cut and post-Olympics there is no sign of the project being revived.

Behavioural Legacy

Arguably one of the truly great successes of the Olympics was the fact that the transport system worked. To many people what made its success so amazing is that the plan relied on persuading a fair size portion of the travelling public to change their travel habits for the duration of the games. Warning of impending doom if they did not do so appeared to serve only to convince a large portion of the public the whole event would be a disaster.

When the predicted disaster didn’t happen it seemed as if the population in unison adopted the persona of Pte Frazier in Dad’s Army, and never doubted for a second that whole thing would work brilliantly. Within the transport industry there were no doubt those who genuinely never doubted for a second that it would work brilliantly. There were also those who were quite stunned that such an approach was possible and would work if done properly. Their look of disbelief was accompanied by the words to the effect that they were doing things they did not realise they could do.

It’s not just the Olympics

An obvious reaction to the success in what is now called “Travel Demand Management” is “so what?”. After all the Olympics have come and gone and they won’t be back next year. The hope and belief, however, is that it can be applied not just to the Olympics but to other situations where there is no hope of being able to accommodate all the people who, if not persuaded otherwise, will swamp the transport system by using it a the same time. There is one very big situation where that is going to arise in the near future and that is in the rebuilding of London Bridge.

The London Bridge Rebuild Problem

One message we have tried to get across time and time again is the level of chaos that will be present when London Bridge station gets rebuilt. It is a massive job. Disruption is inevitable and it is recognised that all the conventional mitigation processes are really not going to be adequate.

Anyone who thinks that the pain is not too bad at London Bridge should be aware that the pain has hardly begun. Currently there are six terminating platforms all heavily used. There will be times during reconstruction when that is expected to go down to five. As the rebuild progresses the current overbridge providing access to the current platforms 1-6 from the terminating platforms will be reduced in length forcing more and more people to take the long route via the buffer stops. After that there will be trains not-stopping at London Bridge which will make the situation worse still. On top of that there are some blockades for days at a time when none of the terminating platforms will be available.

In order to provide the best possible alternatives, a lot of Olympic-style modelling is going on breaking down the the expected station usage of London Bridge and other affected stations depending on the time of day. It is expected there will be a lot of feedback to customers to emphasise which times of day will be absolutely critical and best avoided if at all possible. Other times may see pedestrian routes substantially altered and of course, if appropriate, we may see Olympic-style temporary footbridges (not necessarily at London Bridge). It is also presumed a lot of effort will going into signage and while we can’t expect volunteers, we can expect specifically allocated staff, clearly identifiable, being available to help, cajole, coax and guide passengers as well as a highly interactive website in the style of the now-defunct

The big unknown is whether what will work for two weeks will work for many months, as different passengers get affected by different phases of the scheme.

Night Freight Deliveries

In the long gone days of the GLC when lorries were much noisier, a lot of restrictions were imposed on the use of lorries at night for delivery. Early on in the planning process for transport during the games it was recognised that one of the really important things to do was to get the freight sector on side. This brought a couple of really useful benefits. One was that the sacred cow of out-of-hours deliveries was finally challenged. All sides could see that delivering freight at night had potential advantages all round. With the “can do” or at least “must do” attitude that prevailed, experiments and test runs were carried out. The noise created by the engine of a modern lorry was not a problem, but in many cases the noise the deliverymen made loading and unloading was.

The classic case that was mentioned was deliveries to a pub. This was normally a very loud procedure as metal casks are dropped and rolled, but the simple solution of a mat to dampen the sound of the drop, the use of porter’s trolley with pneumatic tyres and the right training meant that this could all be overcome. It is hardly surprising that even at the time people were asking why this couldn’t continue after the Olympics and indeed the freight sector is now putting the case for this to happen.

On a related subject it is certainly true that strong relationships were forged between the freight industry and TfL during the pre-Olympic period. One can look at the TfL website and believe that at the top level TfL has little to do with freight, but this is not the case – it is simply an area it doesn’t particularly publicise. It was probably always true that TfL recognised the importance of freight but if the fundamental ethos of TfL is “keep London moving” then it could be said that in a post-Olympics world deliveries are now regarded as an integral part of that from the outset and not an afterthought.

There is more to the behavioural change than just Travel Demand Management (TDM) and out-of-hours freight delivery, but TDM and freight delivery are two of the big unexpected Olympic legacies. The changed attitude to disability and the promotion of “Active Travel” (cycling and walking) were to be expected and again would have probably happened to some extent regardless of the Olympics – although they would have lacked the proof of potential success that the Olympics arguably provided.

Building on Opportunities

The report highlights some of the opportunities that have become possible as a result of the Olympics. One of the great successes was the use of volunteers and this is something that will be promoted in the future for appropriate events. Other successes, however, are more “behind the scenes”.

Those inside the industry highlight the far better communication between different organisations that has arisen as a result of the Olympics. The Olympics undoubtedly helped advance TfL’s plans for more integrated control centres. It should be emphasised that this is not just between the transport industry and other agencies (e.g. police) but also within the transport industry itself, and even extended to co-operation between rival TOCs to give the best service to the public. It probably came as a surprise to many when watching “Route Masters” just how controlled London’s Buses and London’s roads are. Again, an example of something that would probably have happened anyway over time but was undoubtedly spurred on by the Olympics. When viewing the “Route Masters” coverage of the Vauxhall helicopter crash one wonders whether that incident would have been handled as well by all concerned (not just transport) if it had happened prior to the Olympics.

Not glamorous but also important is the ability to react to infrastructure failures and other traffic-stopping events. The blue light capability of the Emergency Response Vehicle was mentioned earlier. Whilst the level of support provided during the Olympics would be completely unsustainable in normal day-to-day circumstances it is nevertheless recognised that more can be done to reduce delays. Indeed the intention now is to reduce delays by 30% on tube. This is not just some arbitrary target set by the mayor, but a plan being implemented by allocating money to specific tasks which are known to have a measurable beneficial effect at reducing delays. As the tube becomes busier it becomes easier to justify such measures as the impact in both customer time and lost revenue becomes higher the busier the Underground becomes. It is probably the Olympic Games which helped people focus on this area and realise that, although it might be expensive, by correctly targeting your spending and your maintenance regimes, you can reach a much higher level of reliability.

More identifiable and recognisable were the signs that were put up for the Olympics. Some of the more generally useful ones were identified and deliberately not removed after the games. This unfortunately gave the impression of a failure to remove the signs after the event and these signs will eventually be replaced by something permanent, but in blue not magenta. Signage has always been recognised as important but possibly the need for quality temporary signage was not really appreciated. Unfortunately it probably still isn’t for Rail Replacement Bus Services and seems to be a case of a lesson only partially learnt from the Olympics.

Possibly one of the most minor sounding benefits of the games, and yet one that was probably the most cost effective, was an enormous programme that took place beforehand just to make sure that people actually met face-to-face with anyone that they would have to liaise with and had all the necessary telephone numbers to hand. This may sound trivial but can make a lot of difference in both getting in contact with the person that you need to, and getting their understanding and co-operation. One only has to read various rail accident reports to realise that at critical moments vital people sometimes do not have the necessary phone number to hand in order to carry out an essential task.

Supporting Convergence

Much has been made of the Olympic Legacy to the Stratford area with the new Queen Elizabeth Park and new housing. What TfL argue in their report is that in such situations institutions must work together for the best outcome and that transport is in a strong position to aid this regeneration.

More cynically one can argue that choosing “supporting convergence” as a theme of the Olympic transport legacy, one can somehow give the impression that other schemes that are actually nothing to do with the Olympics are somehow related. In this category we have Crossrail, Gospel Oak – Barking electrification, double-tracking the DLR between Bow Church and Stratford, devolution of Anglia rail services to TfL, Thames crossings, cycle schemes and a whole host of decidedly non-Olympic related schemes.

The intangible true legacy

This article has done its best to try and kill the idea that, as far as transport infrastructure is concerned, the Olympics left a great physical legacy. Instead, the Olympics brought a number of schemes forward and had a number of less-physical effects. The problem for proponents suggesting that there has been a valuable Olympic legacy is thus that they have very little that they can show to back up their case that stands up to scrutiny.

From the outside it can only be a matter of opinion, but the impression gained is that in TfL we have an organisation that is much more confident of itself. It can argue its case better with the government, knowing that it has a very good track record. What is more it now seems to be an organisation that can handle one-off events well – be that supporting the Olympics or running a steam train on the Underground.

In the public transport sector in London there also now seems to be much more co-operation in general. Within TfL in particular there seems to be a “can do” attitude within an organisation that can now more comfortably adapt to circumstances. If you critically read the report by TfL on the Olympic legacy you will probably be disappointed, but if you could hear the many anecdotes heard when listening to the industry people who were there, or the unrelated transport-based talks where the speaker says in passing “that was a trick we picked up from the Olympics” or “we did that for the Olympics” or similar, then how much genuine good the Olympics did to London’s transport system would be clearer.

We live in a society that seem to be obsessed with measuring everything. We must remember that just because a benefit can be measured, it doesn’t automatically make it worthwhile. Conversely, if something can’t be measured it doesn’t mean it doesn’t make a positive contribution. One can rubbish the government report but it appears that it counts for little anyway and the majority of people in the UK think that the games were worth the money.

In keeping with the views of the public, we are thus going to dismiss the TfL report as irrelevant but also declare that the games made a positive contribution to London’s transport legacy – just in ways that, no doubt to TfL’s frustration, are almost all unmeasurable.

Written by Pedantic of Purley