More than 30 miles of London’s highways became no-go zones for the public today when they were reclassified as “Games Lanes” for the Olympics, while a planned strike by airport immigration staff was called off.
The road restrictions came into effect at 6 a.m. and will apply through midnight daily until after the closing ceremony on Aug. 12, Transport for London said. Lanes may be opened up to the public should demand from the so-called Olympic family be low, with drivers informed using a network of 150 digital signs.
Introduction of the dedicated roads, dubbed Zil lanes after Soviet routes limited to Communist Party officials, has raised concerns that London’s streets will become jammed throughout the games. Testing of the lanes, part of the 109-mile Olympic Route Network on which junctions have been closed and turns banned to speed journeys, led to snarl-ups on highways earlier this week.
“It’s so confusing,” said Abdul Malik, a driver at London-based chauffeuring company Brunel Carriage Plc, who was heading through the city just after 6 a.m. this morning. “There are so many restrictions, it’s hard to know where to go.”
The threat of disruption at London’s Heathrow airport tomorrow, expected to be busiest day for travel to the Olympics, was lifted after a union representing immigration staff agreed to talks with the government over pay, pensions and jobs.
“Real progress has been made,” Public and Commercial Services Union General Secretary Mark Serwotka told reporters.
Britain’s drivers face a 130-pound ($201) fine for entering Games Lanes or stopping in restricted areas, plus a 200-pound release fee should their vehicle be impounded, according to TfL. Even so, unaccredited cars crossed Westminster Bridge, reserved for games traffic all day, soon after the restriction came into effect before swerving around barriers to join the main highway.
On London’s Embankment, a major route alongside the River Thames, traffic made steady progress in the one available carriageway. In the five minutes after 9:05 a.m., just 13 motorized vehicles were observed in the neighboring Games Lane, six of them cars with official stickers, plus three motorcycles, two buses and two trucks lacking visible accreditation.
A black-cab driver shouted that the restrictions were “a nightmare,” while cyclist Tom Powell, 35, a researcher at the House of Commons, stopped to say that there were few problems, adding: “We can put up with this for two weeks.”
Routes including the A40, A12 and A13, one of those that suffered rush-hour jams earlier this week, are especially busy, and people should avoid driving in central London, on the ORN or near games venues, according to TfL. Still, there are “no reports of major issues today,” spokeswoman Vicky Morley said.
“The ORN is a requirement of all host cities, ensuring athletes and officials get to their events on time,” London Mayor Boris Johnson said in TfL’s statement. “We’ve already slashed its length by one-third compared to what was originally planned, and we’re introducing these changes to the road network as late as possible to minimize the impact on Londoners.”
Cab drivers who have staged a series of protests after being banned from using Games Lanes scrapped a demonstration planned for today to avoid accentuating disruption during the system’s first day of operation, spokesman Dave Davies said in an e-mail. It’s not clear whether an action planned for July 27, the day of the opening ceremony, will still take place.
The planned immigration strike was called off after the Home Office agreed to provide a total of 800 more jobs at London’s Heathrow, Gatwick and Luton airports, plus a further 300 Passport Office positions, PCS leader Serwotka said.
“We believe that significant progress means there is now no case for the union to proceed with industrial action tomorrow,” he said. The PCS abandoned the strike just hours before a court was due to hear an injunction application aimed at blocking it.
Home Secretary Theresa May had described the timing of the strike as “shameful,” and Colin Matthews, chief executive officer of Heathrow owner BAA Ltd., said in an interview this morning that he couldn’t guarantee smooth operations tomorrow.
Still, Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who is coordinating the Olympics, said before the strike was called off that enough immigration officials could be deployed to prevent disruption.
Other unions are still seeking to squeeze Prime Minister David Cameron’s coalition government in the run-up to the games as they seek to stymie public-sector cost cuts being implemented as part of a 155 billion-pound austerity drive.
Lost Property, Cleaners
The Aslef union says drivers at Stagecoach Group Plc’s East Midlands Trains, which connects London with destinations including Loughborough, site of the main camp for U.K. athletes, will walk out in a dispute over pensions on Aug. 6, when the men’s 400 meters final will be held, and the following two days.
Staff at TfL’s advice booths, lost-property office and at the London Transport Museum will strike for 24 hours from 7 a.m. on July 27, with staff at bus and train call centers staging intermittent protests as the RMT union seeks Olympic bonuses.
Serco Group Plc’s “Boris Bike” cycle-borrowing service, named after the mayor, will also be targeted by strikes and RMT members will refuse overtime at Stagecoach’s Southwest Trains unit, Britain’s busiest commuter franchise. Cleaners on the subway and Docklands Light Railway will also strike and all subway workers will work to rule, the union says.
London’s public transport infrastructure, which will carry an extra 855,000 people a day during the Olympics, according to TfL, has also suffered disruption from breakdowns, with four lines on the subway or Tube closed today as a result of signal failures and a power outage, the RMT said.
The malfunctions resulted from spending cuts that make the mayor’s Olympic transport plan “no more than a wing and a prayer,” RMT General Secretary Bob Crow said in the release, adding that London’s reputation “will take a battering.”
Rail links to Stratford, where the main stadium is located, were affected yesterday as rising temperatures caused rails to expand, prompting Network Rail Ltd. to impose speed limits. Abellio Transport Holding BV’s Greater Anglia franchise, which cut seven services yesterday and scrapped stops on others, suffered no impact today, spokeswoman Ellen Rossiter said.
People should check the Get Ahead of the Games website to avoid disruption during the Olympics, according to TfL.