LONDON // Three million Londoners took to boats, bicycles and their feet yesterday as a strike by underground train drivers crippled the capital. Although some drivers on the Tube system that criss-crosses the city defied the union strike call, there were no services or only very limited ones on six of the eight lines, leaving the rail service in chaos and commuters stranded.
Other workers simply gave up and took the day off as business leaders estimated that the two-day strike, scheduled to last until seven o'clock UK time this evening, will cost the economy £100 million (Dh599.4m) Many roads in London became gridlocked as commuters took to cars, despite having to pay the congestion charge levied on virtually all vehicles entering inner London, while hundreds of others queued for buses that ran late because of heavy congestion on the roads.
Free riverboat services were run along the Thames but even here, lengthy queues built up. "It's murder," commented one woman who had been queuing on the riverbank at Westminster for an hour. "You can't get on the buses and you can't get on the boats. I'm going to take Thursday off, even though it means I won't get paid." Just to make things even more miserable for the travelling (or non-travelling) public was the fact that many were caught in heavy showers as they waited for buses, boats and taxis during the morning rush hour.
Things were expected to get even worse for 70,000 people who had bought tickets for England's World Cup football qualifier against Andorra at Wembley Stadium last night. With no underground trains running and with overland trains cancelling services for safety reasons, supporters had no option but to head for Wembley by car - an area where parking is severely limited in a bid to get people to travel by public transport.
There had been calls for the game to be postponed but the Football Association refused and, instead, offered refunds to fans unable to attend because of the strike. Meanwhile, officials from Transport for London attempted to organise a taxi-sharing scheme at all of the capital's railway terminals while, on the roads, bike-riding escorts were on hand to guide cyclists around the city streets. Inevitably, the underground trains that were running were terribly overcrowded with conditions becoming so bad at stations such as Clapham Junction that hundreds of people were left queuing in the streets outside.
The strike, which is over pay and the terms of threatened redundancies, went ahead after 10 hours of negotiations on Tuesday failed to produce a deal between the RMT, the rail union, and Transport for London. Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, who had described the strike as "ludicrous and unnecessary", joined commuters on a river ferry at Westminster. He told the BBC that Bob Crow, the leader of the RMT, had walked away from an excellent deal reached in Tuesday's talks.
"Given that Londoners are enduring a partial, very, very irritating, unnecessary and misery-making Tube strike, I think he should send his negotiators back to the table where he will find a very good deal," he said. "Some services are, in fact, running this morning, which I think underlines the fragility of the strike." However, Mr Crow, who joined a picket line outside a Tube station in north London, claimed that a deal had been scuppered by management.
"Acas officials went off to get the document typed up and, by the time they came back, the underground management had reneged on it," he said. "The whole thing stinks of last-minute sabotage and the RMT believes that must have come from the very top. The finger is pointing at Boris Johnson and transport commissioner Peter Hendy. "Johnson needs to stop the political grandstanding and meet RMT to settle the pay, jobs and bullying issues at the heart of this strike."
Mr Hendy, however, described Mr Crow's claims as "utter nonsense", adding: "We called on the RMT leadership to attend Acas (Britain's arbitration service) yesterday, but, despite us making progress on all issues, they decided to strike, rather than continue to talk beyond their own, self-imposed deadline. "The RMT leadership says we were close to a deal. If that is the case, then they should call off the strike, return to talks and resolve this issue without any more disruption to Londoners.
"We remain ready for talks at any time and anywhere." email@example.com