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Heathrow Airport, the facility many had feared was London 2012’s weakest link, proved its mettle on Monday as it delivered hundreds of Olympians from gate to ground transport with speed and efficiency.
But some athletes’ luck changed once they hit the road. A coach carrying Australian sailors from the airport to the Olympic village as it opened for competitors took two hours to turn up and another two hours to arrive, and one with Americans on board needed more than four hours to wend its way to Stratford.
“We went to places we weren’t supposed to go,” Damian Kelly, an Australian team official, told the FT, while Kerron Clement, a Trinidadian-born, Texas-raised hurdler, aired his experience on Twitter. “Um, so we’ve been lost on the road for 4hrs,” he wrote. “Not a good first impression of London.”
A coach driver with Arriva – one of the companies hired by Locog, the games organisers, to operate half-hourly rides from the airport to the Olympic park and other training venues – said the journey should take between 30 minutes and an hour, depending on traffic.
While rumours swirled of 30-mile jams on the M4, which re-opened on Friday after urgent repairs to a flyover, the Highways Agency called them “nonsense” and said games lanes reserved for Olympic vehicles had had “no discernible impact on [ordinary] traffic flows”. Black-cab drivers learnt on Sunday that they would be allowed to use some of the special lanes but many remain anxious about the impact on congestion throughout the city.
Still, the smooth operation at Heathrow on its busiest day in history came as a relief to many. The UK’s biggest airport and the official “gateway to the games” has been at the centre of ongoing controversy over immigration queues. Cuts to Border Force staffing last year have undermined the agency’s ability to consistently meet 45-minute maximum wait-time targets, with some queues taking twice that to clear as recently as last month.
But a commitment to man all immigration gates from this Sunday meant easy passage for most travellers on Monday, when Heathrow played host to about 330 athletes and another 700 or so sports coaches, support staff and sponsors.
Danish footballers, Dutch beach-volleyballers and Russian sailors all said they had passed through immigration in less than half an hour – an experience shared by non-Olympians, too. “It was very fast, no problems at all,” said an American musician on his way from Houston to Greece.
Sergey Kuzovov, Russia’s sailing coach, told reporters in Terminal 4 that he did not anticipate travel woes ahead since the team would be avoiding central London. Asked whether he liked the city, Mr Kuzovov equivocated: “I like Portland,” he said, referring to his sport’s Olympic venue near Weymouth.
BAA, Heathrow’s operator, said airlines suggested that next Tuesday would be the busiest day for incoming Olympic traffic. More than 1,200 athletes alone are expected.
Eurostar said its first group of Olympic athletes, the Belgian swimming team, had arrived with no delays. But some inbound travellers reported being held on trains at St Pancras for 45 minutes on Sunday night as immigration queues were cleared. A spokeswoman for Eurostar said she was not aware of any significant delays.
Mr Clement at least seemed in a more generous mood later in the day. Just after 4pm, he was back on Twitter: “Eating at the Olympic Village. Love the variety of food choices, African, Caribbean, Halal cuisine, India and Asian and of course McDonalds.”