London Faces Commuter Chaos on Two-Day Underground Strike

Londoners who struggled into work this morning at the start of a 48-hour subway strike face a longer journey home as the walkout pushes people to compete for bus seats and rental bicycles.

The action by the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers union members over job cuts and ticket-office closures began at 9 p.m. yesterday and will continue through tomorrow evening, with a further 72-hour walkout planned next week.

London Underground, which runs the Tube, as the network is known, kept most lines running with a reduced service, and many stations flagged as likely to close were open for travel. Almost 90 percent of regular travel card users journeyed on the network today, Transport for London said. At the same time roads were snarled with traffic and pavements were more crowded as some regular subway travelers made alternative plans.

“The action has gone ahead and is solidly supported,” Mick Cash, the RMT’s acting general secretary, said in a statement, adding that the strike would have been suspended had London Underground “responded positively to our proposal to halt the ticket office closures and job cuts.”

The Tube handles more than 3 million journeys a day, with 57,000 people using Waterloo station alone in the three-hour morning peak, according to TfL. Today’s strike comes after the RMT halted the second of two February walkouts following an offer of talks that failed to produce an agreement.

Extra Buses

The Circle line began operating limited services half-way through the day, ensuring that trains ran on 10 of 11 Tube routes. The Waterloo & City line was suspended all day. Crowds were thickest at pinch points such as Earls Court, west London.

Commuters avoiding the subway squashed onto surface trains, which ran as normal, while a record 7,961 buses were operating, 266 more than usual, including 40 of the traditional London Routemasters previously taken out of service, according to TfL.

Many passengers at London’s Heathrow airport, the busiest in Europe, avoided the Tube by traveling by black cab, while private taxi operator Addison Lee reported surging demand. The jump in road traffic led to snarl-ups including a three-mile tailback from the Rotherhithe Tunnel under the Thames.

Demand for the 10,000 cycles available for hire across the capital jumped over 70 percent this morning and some users struggled to find open docking stations today.


“That’s the huge problem,” said Thomas Zhu, a consultant at Ernst & Young LLP who had switched to pedal power from his usual commute on the Tube’s Northern Line.

While Zhu said he’s sympathetic toward striking workers seeking to save employment, London Mayor Boris Johnson called the walkout “pointless” and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron said the level of disruption was “unacceptable.”

No job cuts will be compulsory and wages won’t be reduced, according to Mike Brown, managing director of London Underground, which reckons staffing challenges are necessary to modernize the world’s oldest subway, dating from 1863.

The strike aims to stop “savage, cash-led attacks on jobs, services and safety,” the RMT said. The union’s veteran leader Bob Crow, a self-styled “communist/socialist” who won pay raises even as the government implemented austerity measures, died aged 52 last month, with a new secretary general to be chosen in September, according to spokesman Geoff Martin.

Open Stations

The Northern Line, the Tube’s busiest, had a “good service” today, TfL said on its website. Of 16 stations south of Moorgate in the City financial district only three were closed, rather than seven as suggested before the strike.

The Central Line was running at its western and eastern ends but not through the center of the city, while the Jubilee, Metropolitan, Victoria, District, Hammersmith & City and Piccadilly lines provided limited services.

Other services such as the Docklands Light Railway, London Overground, trams and rail services were operating. Service on the Heathrow Express route to Paddington station will be disrupted until May 1 after the RMT called a separate strike over a pay, with two trains each hour instead of four.

The Tube operated more than one-third of services on Feb. 6, the second day of the last strike, linking 75 percent of stations. The two days of disruption cost small businesses about 600 million pounds ($1 billion), the Federation of Small Businesses said in a statement today.

“Our members, and especially those where staff and customers rely on the Tube, will be hit hard,” FSB National Chairman John Allan said of the latest action.

The impact on the broader U.K. economy is likely to be limited, according to the Confederation of British Industry. Next week’s walkout is slated to start on May 5.

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