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Getting over the Epsom downer

Over 100,000 people will crowd onto Epsom racecourse on Saturday for 'Britain's biggest day out' at the Vodafone Derby. How will they do it without being stuck in an almighty traffic jam? Jackie Whitelaw reports.

Derby Day. Open top buses, men and women dressed as if for a wedding, others picnicking in shorts and trainers, children and horses. Nijinsky, Shergar and last year Sinndar have all won the main race at an event which has been celebrating the start of summer for the last 222 years.

Over 100,000 people will flock to Epsom on Saturday for a big national party full of noise, colour, a fun fair and for 2001, Atomic Kitten, Emma Bunton and Steps at the Heart FM preracing pop concert.

The man charged with making sure that everyone enjoys themselves on 9 June is the general manager of Epsom Downs racecourse, Stephen Wallis. And he knows exactly what has to be spot on.

'Get the loos and the traffic right and everyone is happy. Get one or other of those wrong and you have a problem, ' he says.

The loos are pretty much sorted, even down to the array of mobile toilets that are parked on the hill for the non-paying public (the Derby is free if you walk onto the course). 'But they eat a lot of ice cream up there so I get some money back that way, ' Wallis consoles himself.

Traffic, however, is a constant issue. Around 8,500 cars and 700 coaches have to be filtered into the parking areas on race days along with all the buses ferrying 20,000 people up to the Downs from the local railway stations.

And that is without the horses and their boxes.

Fortunately, this is not the issue it could be. The trainers make sure the horses arrive a day early on the whole, particularly since 1998 when the Derby favourite had a nightmare journey from Ireland and looked like nearly missing the race.

'The plane bringing the horse over broke down so they had to use a different plane which was incompatible with the offloading gear at Southampton airport.

The flight was diverted to Gatwick and the box was then held up in traffic, ' says Wallis.

'The police - who manage the traffic on Derby Day - came and asked me if I wanted to delay the race, ' Wallis remembers, his face showing the same astonished expression he no doubt wore back then. 'I said: 'Please could they give the horse an escort, ' and they said: 'Oh all right then'.'

The box hared around the M25 in a blue flashing light convoy and the race got off on time. But the favourite did not win.

Altogether, 1998 was a difficult traffic year all round. Wallis had taken over as course general manager the year before and was on a push to return the Derby to the big national celebration it had been for centuries. The event had been in decline in the early 1990s and in 1995 had switched from taking place on a Wednesday to Saturday, to encourage more people to come.

The racecourse team has revived the Derby as a family day out and innovations like the pop concert have helped lower the average age of those attending by 20 years.

But their success in 1998 played havoc with the traffic management plan, drawn up with WSP Development and its associate director Jeremy Penfold. This was because twice as many vehicles turned up as had been the norm in previous years.

Epsom is a relatively difficult place to get to, especially if there are a lot of people in cars. It may be close to the M25 but it is not that close, and the nearest dual carriageway to the area is 2.5km away on the A217, Penfold explains. Otherwise drivers come to the Downs on single carriageway that means negotiating traffic lights, built up areas, one way systems and, in the case of the A243, getting tangled up in traffic queuing back to Malden Rushett to get into another family attraction at Chessington.

The problems there were graphically illustrated when Wallis had a call on his mobile phone from a very, very senior member of the racing fraternity.

Wallis puts on the appropriate accent and repeats what this gentleman said to him: 'I am stuck. In traffic. At the Chessington World of Adventures. Please tell your bosses I will be late for their lunch because of your traffic planning.' It didn't help his day.

An hour or two later and Penfold had his own problems. He was stuck in traffic himself.

'We'd decided to maximise the use of the A217 because it was the better road, ' Penfold says. The AA signs were designed to encourage people to come off the M25 at junction 8 rather than anywhere else. 'We were victims of our own success.

Twice the numbers came up the road and the traffic jammed.'

Penfold himself was hemmed in listening to news of how the police were getting the favourite to the race in fact. '1998 was a start, ' he says. Things could only get better.

'The next year we changed the AA signing on the M25 to give people a choice of route - up the A243, A24, A217 but with a preferred option of the 217. We also introduced through signing from the A3 out of London taking people down from the Ewell bypass and to the Downs that way.'

For 2000 the system was refined even more. 'We talked to Chessington and they agreed to open their relief car parks on Derby Day to get their traffic off the road, ' Wallis says. 'And Surrey Police got control of the variable message signing on the M25 from the Highways Agency for the day. They sent up a helicopter, which allowed them to see where the traffic was building up and divert people to use one of the other routes.

'That single thing meant we were much more flexible.'

Signing to the racecourse along all the routes and through the town centre was made larger and clearer. And at the course itself people were directed to the colour coded car parks that matched their tickets by simple coloured squares on the road signs. Drivers found them easier to understand and avoided dithering at roundabouts and delaying traffic even further.

Derby Day 2000 was something of a triumph from a traffic point of view. 'I don't believe any major event won't have traffic problems, ' Wallis says. 'But you have to be seen to be trying.

'Three years ago I received over 100 letters of complaint.

Last year there were five.' For 2001 the whole team is putting the same strategy in place and Wallis will be happy with another five letters from unhappy punters on his desk next week, but no more.

'The biggest compliment I was paid after last year's Derby was when Ascot asked me if I could sort out its traffic problems, ' he says. Wallis is not, but WSP is.

www. epsomderby. co. uk

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