LONDON, U.K. Commuters in London battled through morning rush hour chaos on Wednesday and Thursday as a strike by tube workers meant that only around a third of trains were in service and as many stations were closed off.
Highly congested buses and overground rail services took the strain with no underground trains running until after 7am on Wednesday and Thursday, although managers, non-union staff, and volunteers ran a limited service on sections of eight of the 11 tube lines.
London Underground ran some services until 11 p.m. on Wednesday and Thursday, with Transport for London (TfL) “ambassadors” deployed at each station, closed or not, to advise commuters on how to get tot their destinations.
Tube workers plan to strike next Wednesday and Thursday as well. The exact start time and the exact services that will be limited have not been determined as of yet.
“Because of the tube strike, I had to take a bus to get to some place where what would normally be a 15-minute trip on the tube actually took about an hour-and-a-half,” Anthony Bowman, a junior at Imperial College, said. “There were more cars in the street which means that traffic was far worse, and it was a big pain. I think the strike is working because people are frustrated and traffic is awful. It’s not a good situation at all.”
The strike, which began at 9 p.m. on Tuesday, has been called over TfL’s plans to ”modernize” the underground, including the loss of 950 jobs and the closure of all ticket offices, which unions say has safety implications for passengers and staff. Talks between TfL and the unions at the conciliation service Acas broke down on Monday afternoon.
The industrial action came as the government said it was considering plans to declare London Underground an essential service in order to curb the threat of future strikes.
Were it to happen, London Underground would be subject to a ”minimum service agreement” under which staff would be required to keep a core level of trains going regardless of any industrial action.
The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who made an election pledge in 2008 to keep the ticket offices open, defended his change of policy on Tuesday in a radio phone-in exchange with Bob Crow, the General Secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), by pointing to changing technology that has taken away the usefulness of ticket offices.
“This is an extremely unfortunate situation,” said Michael Attridge, who has worked at the ticket office at the South Kensington tube station since 2005. “I understand why people could be upset by this. Their ability to travel has been made harder. However, I am fighting for my job, and I am very upset that Johnson has gone back on his promise to keep me employed. I really hope a fair agreement can be reached.”
The true economic impact of the strike has been hard to calculate, but that has not stopped lobby groups from throwing big numbers around. The London Chamber of Commerce and Industry estimated the action would cost the city’s economy 50 million pounds per day.
The strike drew criticism from both ends of the British political spectrum. Prime Minister David Cameron took to Twitter to say that, “Bob Crow’s Tube strike is shameful, bringing misery to millions of Londoners. [Labour Party Leader] Ed Miliband should condemn it now: no ’ifs’ and no ’buts’.”Miliband also released a statement critical of the tube strike, saying it was “deeply regrettable that there doesn’t seem to have been any negotiations or any meetings with the mayor of London and Transport for London about these issues.”
Tube strikes are nothing new in London. This is the third one in the last five years. In 2009, tube workers went on strike for 48 hours over issues of pay and potential job losses because of “duplication” created by the collapse of Metronet, an infrastructure company that was in a public-private relationship with London Underground. The tube strike of 2011 presented different circumstances, as 1,500 tube drivers walked over the unjust firing of two drivers. The strike came to a halt five days later after LU reinstated one of the drivers, who won a tribunal over unfair dismissal.
Alexander MacLeod, a Boston University professor who frequently rides the tube to work, said that he has grown accustomed to dealing with transportation strikes, despite how unpleasant it can get.
“I’m used to this sort of thing,” MacLeod said. “Therefore you factor into your equation that day that it’s going to be disruptive, it’s going to be a nuisance, you’re going to be breathing other people’s arm pits, and that’s just London. It was actually unpleasant at one point to get on the tube because of the huge crowds, but there’s nothing you can do. You just live with it.”
Talks between TfL, the RMT and the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA) union resumed on Friday in a bid to avert the second 48-hour walkout planned for next week. There has been no word on the progress of those talks. Yet letting time pass, and forcing people to “live with the situation,” is not a viable solution.
— Ethan Leavitt