Rail Strife Shadows Plans for Record British Open Crowd

EDINBURGH — For the 150th iteration of the British Open, organizers are expecting the thickest galleries in the competition’s history, with some 290,000 fans traipsing around to gawk at the Old Course at St. Andrews over the event.

But there is no guarantee all of them will reach Scotland’s eastern edge: For this Open, labor strife has already taken more of a star turn than many of the golfers will have before the tournament’s end on Sunday.

“We may not be able to get you to the course,” Phil Campbell, the head of customer operations for ScotRail, the publicly owned train service, warned would-be spectators.

“There is a risk that fans who travel by train may find there are no services to get them home,” the R&A, the Open’s organizer, said.

Discord and uncertainty around rail service have been staples of Scottish life since May, when a dispute over pay led many of ScotRail’s unionized drivers to decline the overtime and rest-day assignments that train operators in Britain have routinely used to fill out their schedules. The result has been a severely curtailed timetable that has fueled transit troubles across Scotland since the spring. ScotRail and its drivers struck a deal on Monday after a union vote, but that turmoil had already spread into Open week, an important period for Britain’s tourism economy.

Making matters worse, of course, is that this year, of all years, is the one expected to draw the mightiest crowd in Open history.

The R&A, which has pegged the previous attendance record at 239,000 in 2000, when Tiger Woods won by eight strokes at St. Andrews, said it received more than 1.3 million requests for tickets for the 2022 Open. It’s a reflection of the tournament’s milestone anniversary, the return to the old course and the seize-the-day sensibilities that have recently swept much of Western Europe.

The specter of 290,000 fans seemed ambitious enough back in April, when the R&A made the announcement of the onslaught coming to a seaside town of about 20,000. Now, it just seems like a nightmare.

The discontent around train service in the United Kingdom has not been limited to ScotRail. On Monday, fan-stocked trains traveling from London to Edinburgh faced hours of delays in the north of England because of an electrical failure. Last month, Britain faced its largest railway strike in three decades, and Britons are bracing for a summer of labor turmoil across several sectors.

The union that represents ScotRail drivers said Monday that its members had voted to accept a new deal, but the rail service has said that it will take time, perhaps more than a week, to resume its normal operations. It told golf fans to be prepared for difficulties throughout the Open and went as far as issuing what it termed a “travel warning.”

So, perhaps improbably, the camping and glamping options around St. Andrews, or maybe even Gary Player’s 1955 strategy of sleeping on a sand dune, seems more appealing. But most everyone seems to agree — and in the era of LIV Golf, big hitters and the feud between Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau, agreement is in short supply around courses these days — that Leuchars, the train station closest to St. Andrews, will be a mess, and so will the roads funneling spectators in and out of St. Andrews.

A ScotRail spokesperson said the operator expected to run 25 percent of the trains it had planned for the Open, suggesting that many thousands of fans will fill the roadways from places such as Dundee and Edinburgh. The R&A, which is not offering refunds for open tickets because of travel problems, has been scrambling to add parking areas.

There is also an official helicopter landing site.

What is all but certain, though, is that, transit chaos or not, the Open will have far more spectators this year than last. In 2021, when Britain was still wrapped up in public health protocols, just 152,330 fans were in attendance at Royal St. George’s in England, the lowest tally since 2013.

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