The first dedicated Olympic lane on the main route from Heathrow airport into London was due to open yesterday morning amid growing anxiety about the airport’s ability to cope with the influx of visitors over the next month.
About 40,000 extra passengers, including athletes, officials and fans, were also due to touch down in Britain yesterday in what officials said marked the start of the Olympic rush.
There had been fears that work on a flyover near junction two of the M4 motorway in west London would not be completed in time, but the road was reopened three days ago.
The Games lane will operate for 5.5km between junctions three and two on the London-bound carriageway, between 5am and 10pm, from yesterday.
It is the first big test of London’s Olympic infrastructure. The M4 lane is part of a wider Olympic route network (ORN) providing exclusive access for members of the “Games family” — including athletes, their officials and equipment — between Heathrow, central London, and the Olympic village in Stratford, east London.
Officials say they expect about 80 percent of athletes and officials to use these lanes, which have been criticized by campaigners, who say they are elitist and will stop ordinary Londoners moving freely around the city.
The ORN network will be fully operational by July 25, two days before the Olympic opening ceremony.
Officials say routes will be clearly marked and will operate alongside existing traffic. They warned that unaccredited drivers who stray into the lanes face a penalty charge of ￡130 (US$202).
An extra 500 border control staff have been drafted in to help ease congestion in immigration halls at Heathrow from this weekend. However, last week, John Vine, the chief inspector of borders and immigration, said that some of the temporary staff were processing passengers more slowly while asking fewer questions.
Fears that new staff were not up to the job were exacerbated by reports that terror suspects are entering Britain before the Games because inexperienced staff are failing to carry out the proper security checks. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a UK Border Agency official told the Observer that three terror suspects had been waved through by staff on his shifts since the start of this month.
On Sunday, a Border Force spokesman said all staff were “fully aware of the checks they needed to conduct” and that “all checks were being completed.”
“All contingency staff deployed to the border are fully trained and supported by experienced Border Force officers at all times. Border Force has already delivered real improvements at Heathrow and is transforming the way it works to deliver improved waiting times and a secure border,” the spokesman said.
British Culture Minister Jeremy Hunt told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “Over the next few weeks, we’re going to have the busiest period in Heathrow’s history, and the tube and the buses will also be busy, and I don’t think we want to pretend that it’s not going to take a bit longer to get around the center of London when we host the biggest sporting event on the planet. But we want people to come to London ... it’ll take a bit longer, but it’s going to be worth it.”