One-day subway strike makes a mess of London travel

Thursday, July 18, 2002

Associated Press Writer

LONDON (AP) -- Commuters elbowed their way onto overcrowded buses, wove through traffic on bicycles or simply walked to work Thursday as a 24-hour subway strike turned London into a transportation mess.

Thousands of residents woke early to endure drawn-out trips across the capital, and many arrived at work late anyway. Some businesses posted signs saying they were closing early because of the walkout.

"Normally at this time I'm home," complained catering assistant Nadine MacDonald, leaning against a bus shelter in central London late in the afternoon.

MacDonald said her morning commute, normally a half hour on the Underground, took two hours by bus Thursday. And she had no idea how long it would take to get home.

"With the rate of this traffic, maybe three or four (hours), who can tell," she sighed, waving a hand toward the bumper-to-bumper line of cars and buses. "We can't survive in London without the Tube."

Members of the Rail Maritime and Transport union walked off the job at 8 p.m. Wednesday and planned to return to work at the same time Thursday, but Underground officials said service would not return to normal until Friday morning.

The union says London Underground management has failed to arrange full consultation with union safety representatives over Prime Minister Tony Blair's plans to partially privatize the subway system, known as the Tube.

London Mayor Ken Livingstone, who opposes the partial privatization, expressed support for the strikers, saying the plan was "against the wishes of the great majority of Londoners."

"Its malign consequences are worsening all fields of the transport system in London, including leading to the industrial action," he said.

Commuters were less certain where to place the blame.

"I'm just frustrated overall, I don't know who to be angry at," MacDonald said.

Through the morning and evening rush hours, Londoners crammed onto red double-decker buses, or waited in growing lines at bus stops and taxi stands. Some unlucky commuters who tried to board already packed buses were held back by harassed-looking conductors.

"We had to miss about four or five buses just to get on one because they were so overcrowded," said Jeff Horner, 23, of Jackson, Miss., who is studying in London.

His usual 15-to-20-minute trip to class took an hour and a half.

For much of the day, sidewalks were crowded with people walking to work, and far more bikers than normal braved the crowded streets.

Traffic was even more snarled than usual, reaching a standstill on many major arteries during the morning and evening rush hours.

Most subway lines were closed, but extremely limited service was running on the Jubilee, Metropolitan, Victoria, Northern and East London lines. The Underground normally carries 3 million passengers a day.

"Our strike has been absolutely solid," said RMT leader Bob Crow. "We have also had tremendous support from the public and the majority of them understand that our action is about the future safety of the Tube system."

Melissa Bannister of Parkersburg, W.Va., and Sally Ebeling of Boston, were surprised to learn about the strike when they arrived at Heathrow airport from Washington early Thursday.

Their bus ride into London took two hours in heavy traffic, and they canceled plans to go to the Wallace Collection art gallery in the West End in favor of the easier-to-reach British Museum.

"We had lots of time at Dulles airport (outside Washington) to plan, and we kind of had things set up, but the best laid plans ..." Bannister said, trailing off.

Australian Sharon Dawson gave up on a shopping trip to Harrod's after a hour-long bus ride got her only halfway there. "I plan to just spend most of the day sitting in a park," she said.

Britain was also recovering from a one-day strike Wednesday by 750,000 municipal employees, which closed some schools, libraries and recreation centers in the workers' first national walkout in more than two decades.

Blair's official spokesman played down job actions, saying the number of work hours lost to strikes had declined over the past several years.

"We value the contribution that public service workers are making ... and the prime minister is on record as saying many, many times that we cannot achieve all we want to achieve without them," the spokesman said on condition of anonymity.

"Yes, there was industrial action yesterday and yes, there is industrial action in terms of the RMT today, and we condemn that," he added.

London commuters have been here before.

Underground workers brought the Tube to a halt with two daylong strikes last year, and several other planned walkouts have been canceled at the last minute.

"I got up an hour early to get into work before rush hour starts, and it is already pandemonium," said Mark Thompson, 32, on a bus from north London to King's Cross station. "It is going to be a very long day."

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