London subway strike causes commuter chaos

Image: Commuters queue for buses in Shepherds Bush in west London
Commuters wait for buses in Shepherds Bush, west London, as a strike shuts down the capital's underground rail network, on Tuesday evening, in a dispute over pay and jobs. Stephen Hird / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

Londoners squeezed onto overcrowded buses, boarded river boats, pedaled bikes or walked in the rain Wednesday — as thousands of subway workers went on strike and drove the capital to transportation chaos.

Tempers frayed as buses struggled through heavier-than-normal rush-hour traffic.

Cyclists swerved between cars, and commuters like Steven McCartney studied bus maps as they tried to plot a way to work.

"I don't really know where I am, where I'm going or how I am going to get back," the 38-year-old management consultant said.

"Service shouldn't ever be stopped by a strike like this," he said. "Do they not see the harm and the pain that it's causing this city today?"

Millions through the 'Tube'
Each day about 3.5 million people use London's 249-mile-long Underground network, commonly known as the Tube.

Members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union — which represents 10,000 drivers, station staff and maintenance workers — walked off their jobs late Tuesday after last-minute talks with Underground management broke down.

The strike is due to last through Thursday, with full service resuming Friday morning.

The planned 48-hour walkout has so far been London's most disruptive transit strike since September 2007.

On Wednesday, nine of London's 11 subway lines were fully or partly closed, prompting many commuters to cram into buses or seek boat passage along the River Thames.

The walkout was also likely to frustrate thousands traveling Wednesday to north London's Wembley Stadium for England's World Cup qualifying soccer match against Andorra.

Mayor Boris Johnson urged union leaders to return to talks aimed at resolving disputes over pay, disciplinary issues and job losses.

He praised commuters, saying "I congratulate everyone who has got to work. I think they are heroic to be struggling through this."

'This is a nightmare'
But for many, patience was wearing thin.

"This is a nightmare," said Hillary Birch, a 54-year-old financial manager, while watching a seventh red bus sail by without stopping because it was too full. "I had to stay downtown overnight to get to work. My work said that if we don't come in we have to take leave, and I don't want to do that."

The London Chamber of Commerce estimated the strike could cost as much $164 million in lost productivity.

The city has been hit by several transit strikes in recent years as unions and management conflicted over the privatization of subway maintenance and the subsequent collapse of the Metronet maintenance consortium.

The union accused Underground management of scuppering a last-minute deal to avert the strike, and said it would be willing to return to negotiations. But no new talks had been scheduled as of Wednesday afternoon.

Johnson said the walkout was "unnecessary and misery-making," and that "the two sides are extremely close" to reaching a deal.

"It is essential that people of goodwill get around the negotiating table," he said.

Many Londoners had little sympathy for the union, which is seeking a 5 percent pay increase over several years.

"It does come across as a bit greedy at the moment to ask for a pay rise when everybody else is taking pay freezes," said banker Adam Tibbalds, 38.

Others said they saw both sides of the argument.

"I think the unions are asking for too much, and the Tube company is giving too little," said retiree Roger Denenberg, 61, waiting in west London for a bus to take him to Piccadilly Circus.

"I wish they could have worked it out without striking," he said. "This will be all over the news in the world and make London look really bad."