London braces for chaos as subway workers plan to strike


London’s 3.5 million Tube travelers face turmoil this week with as many as 10,000 of the subway’s train drivers, station staff and engineers staging the first of a series of 24-hour strikes over job cuts.

London Mayor Boris Johnson has drafted in 100 extra buses and a 500-berth boat that will carry 10,000 people a day down the River Thames to help commuters get to work.

“The action is on and our members are finalizing plans for picket lines across the network,” RMT General Secretary Bob Crow said in a statement yesterday, adding that the union is open to talks but “will not negotiate with a gun at our heads.”

The walkout over 800 jobs and restricted hours for ticket offices will start on Sept. 6 after talks broke down this week. It’s likely to cost the economy 48 million pounds ($74 million), the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry said.

The strike will be the fourth to shut down the London Underground since 2002. Picket lines will be manned across all main stations and depots and the action will cause “wholesale disruption to services across the entire Tube network,” RMT spokesman Geoff Martin said in an e-mailed answer to questions.

Maintenance and engineering workers will walk out from 5 p.m., followed four hours later by drivers, signalers and station workers. More stoppages are scheduled for the same times on Oct. 3 and on Nov. 2 and Nov. 28.

In a separate dispute over pay and conditions, almost 200 RMT rail workers at Jubilee and Northern line depots will stop work for 24 hours from 7 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 5, the union said. Further action is slated for Oct. 2 and Nov. 1 and 27.

Huge Disruption

“London can ill afford disruption to its transport network at the best of times, but with economic conditions as tough as they are, this will put further strain on businesses when they need it least,” Helen Hill, director of policy at the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said in an e-mailed statement. There will still be “huge disruption on the day” even with Transport for London’s plans for extra services, she said.

Only one in every 20 Tube journeys now involves a visit to a ticket office after booth sales fell 28 percent over the past four years, according to London Underground. The decline has been spurred by the introduction of Oyster travel cards, which open gates automatically after being charged with credit.

‘Trying to Modernize’

“It’s difficult not to be sympathetic with Transport for London, which is trying to modernize the way the Underground is operating,” Christian Wolmar, author of books including “Subterranean Railway” about the Tube, said in a phone interview yesterday. “Ticket sales are going down and clearly the whole trend is away from selling tickets for individual journeys. I don’t think the union case is a very strong one.”

Some locations across the city will have organized cycle escorts, and volunteers will be positioned at subway, bus and rail stations to help Londoners with their journeys. Marshals will also be stationed at taxi stands, said TFL, which oversees the capital’s transport network.

“Where possible, we will keep stations open and will run as many trains as we safely can,” said London Underground Managing Director Mike Brown, in an e-mailed statement to Oyster Card travel card users yesterday.