Meet the Manchester Met university lecturer who planned the Queue for the Queen

Crowd science lecturer Marcel Altenburg has worked on festivals, marathons and cup finals, but nothing compares to the magnitude of Operation Unicorn.

Thousands of people across the country came to pay their respects to Queen Elizabeth II over the last couple of weeks as she lay in waiting, firstly at St. Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh and then at Westminster Hall in London.

The organisation of both these events and the queues to see the Queen required years of detailed and coordinated planning by an extensive team of officials and experts.

One of those experts tasked with Operation Unicorn, the plan if the Queen died in Scotland, was Marcel Altenburg, a senior lecturer in crowd science at Manchester Metropolitan University.

He has been involved in the planning of huge international events such as the FA Cup Final in Germany, the New York marathon and other large festivals, but says that Operation Unicorn was much different.

A piper forms part of the Queen's coffin procession out of the St Giles' Cathedral on Tuesday, September 13, 2022 ahead of its journey to Edinburgh Airport and then Buckingham Palace. Photo by Kai Pfaffenbach - WPA Pool/Getty Images.

He said: “I’m a British and German passport holder, but I felt that the weight, literally, of the country lies on our shoulders.

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“We are well equipped to advise on a project of this magnitude, but at the same time, once you’re in it and you know what you’re doing here, it comes with a different weight, mood.

“As a professional, you can’t be distracted by that, but it was impossible not to notice that.”

His job was to help ensure the safety of the people attending the vigil and smooth running of the queue.

He was brought into Operation Unicorn earlier this year, but he says that planning for this event began decades ago and was constantly under review.

Marcel said that hundreds of pages of planning had to be executed within 72 hours.

Tens of thousands of people have filed past to pay their respects to the late monarch (Getty Images)

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Every eventuality had to be considered. For example, Marcel says that the protocol had to factor in what to do if the Queen died during the winter, meaning people would be queuing in the cold, or if it happened during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in the summer, when the city was heaving with tourists.

Even with the rigorous planning, Marcel said the success of the event all hinges on “the mood of the nation.”

“The pick up of going to the vigil, how people respond, how many people want to come, how  it is communicated, how will the public react –  it could all make that much of a difference,” he said.

Despite the uncertainty, Marcel says his predictions were 99% accurate.

He said: “In my own head I saw the whole thing in front of me before it happened. And that is then exactly what happened.”

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The predictions his team made included the length of the queue, the space needed for the queue and the waiting times.

He even says that, hours ahead of the queue closing, his team had to predict who in the queue would be the last one to be let in. That person made it in with seconds to spare, he said.

“That’s why we were hired. That’s why I was up there,” he said.

Members of the public continue to queue to pay their respects as Queen Elizabeth II lies in state in St Giles' Cathedral

Marcel said it felt good to see his team’s work in action, especially working on the ground, speaking to the people joining the queue at the start, where he was stationed.

An estimated 26,000 people joined the queue to see the Queen at St. Giles’ Cathedral, and further 250,000 in London.

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He said: “It feels good to be able to give them what they deserve and what they need at this very hard time, talking to them. It felt very good.”