Travel chaos hits London as rail workers go on strike for 48 hours

48-hour work stoppage forces thousands to walk or ride bicycle to work

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 February, 2014, 10:34pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 February, 2014, 5:23pm

Millions of Londoners were hit by travel chaos yesterday as underground rail workers began the first of a series of strikes that have been branded "shameful" by Prime Minister David Cameron.

As tempers frayed on packed buses and commuters walked, ran and cycled to work through gale-force winds, Mayor Boris Johnson and union leader Bob Crow traded recriminations over the latest walkout.

London's underground rail drivers, who have a history of going on strike, plan not to work for two days this week and another two days next week in a dispute over job cuts.

Some three million people use the underground "tube" system every day and only the lucky were able to cram themselves on to the few trains that were running.

Cameron said on his official Twitter feed that the strike was "shameful, bringing misery to millions of Londoners".

Police were out in force at major rail stations like Waterloo to keep order in the long lines that built up at bus stops from shortly after dawn. Even so, there were reports of jostling as tempers frayed.

Thousands of workers took to the roads on bikes, while boat services along the River Thames ran extra services and the more athletic used the strike as an excuse for exercise and ran to work.

Lauren Sweeney, an office worker, said it would take an extra 30 minutes on top of her usual one-hour journey to get from her home in Hornchurch in east London to her office near Liverpool Street in the City of London.

"It's a hassle. Everyone has been talking about how they are going to get into work for days," Sweeney, 26, said.

"It is a pain but on this one I can understand why they are striking," she added.

The Waterloo & City Line, which carries commuters from Britain's busiest railway station to the heart of the financial district, is closed for the duration of the strike, together with the Circle Line that rings the centre of London.

The union representing rail, maritime and transport workers, RMT, and the Transport Salaried Staffs' Association called the strike to protest against plans to close manned ticket offices as part of a scheme to modernise the rail network.

A second 48-hour strike is planned for next week. It is scheduled to start on February 11.

Johnson, who has accused the unions of "holding a gun to the heads of Londoners", said he respected the rights of the trade unions to represent their workers but that the modernisation plans had to go ahead.

The London Chamber of Commerce said repeated strike action could dent London's image as a modern, efficient city and affect long-term investment prospects.

Based on figures from previous strikes in 2010, the business group said the two 48-hour strikes could cost the financial capital more than £200 million (HK$2.5 billion).