Workers Strike in a London Underground Already Battered by the Pandemic

One of the world’s busiest subway systems came to a near standstill on Tuesday, as the first of two 24-hour strikes planned for this week shut down the London Underground.

Millions of commuters were encouraged to work remotely because of expected “severe disruptions” to service on the system, commonly called the Tube, on Tuesday and Thursday. Limited service on some of the system’s 11 lines had resumed by Tuesday afternoon.

About 10,000 London Underground workers represented by the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers walked out on Tuesday and are expected to do so again on Thursday, over concerns about job reductions and pensions.

The London Underground, like many public transportation systems around the world, has seen steep declines in ridership and revenues during the coronavirus pandemic. Tuesday’s strike came on the same day as an increase in rail fares in England and Wales.

“These are the very same transport staff praised as heroes for carrying London through Covid for nearly two years, often at serious personal risk, who now have no option but to strike to defend their livelihoods,” the union said in a statement last week.

Transport for London, the agency that operates the Underground, said in a statement that it had not proposed any changes to pensions and that cost-saving efforts would not cause job losses.

The strike did not affect London’s trams, the suburban rail network or the national rail system, but Transport for London warned that they would be busier than normal and that service would also be disrupted on Wednesday.

The strike and fare increases are taking place in London amid concerns about funding for the transportation system as it has struggled to recover from the pandemic.

Passengers in many cities and countries have returned to public transportation at an uneven rate after waves of coronavirus variants kept many commuters at home and sickened transit workers.

In New York City, subway ridership at the start of this year fell to about 40 percent of prepandemic levels as Omicron cases surged.

Across Britain, public transit passenger levels have recovered at slower rates than in other parts of Europe. In August, ridership was 29 percent lower in Britain than it had been before the pandemic, while it was just 10 percent lower in Germany, France and Switzerland, according to an analysis by economists at ING, the Dutch bank.

Before the strikes in London, the city’s transport agency said in a statement that Tube and bus ridership increased in late January after work-from-home restrictions were lifted. Tube ridership on weekdays in that period was “regularly around” 60 percent of what it was before the pandemic, the agency said.

On Friday, Britain’s Department for Transport announced that it had agreed to 200 million pounds, or about $268 million, in funding for London’s transit agency through June 24. It said the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, would be expected to come up with a plan for cost savings and for moving the transport workers’ pension fund “into a financially sustainable position.”

The mayor, who last month provided details about the 4.8 percent fare increase in London, said in a statement last week that the short-term funding by the central government would allow services to keep running only “for a few more months.” He said longer-term funding was needed to avoid “significant and damaging cuts to Tube and bus services.”

“The pandemic is the only reason TfL is facing a financial crisis,” Mr. Khan said, referring to the transit agency. “TfL has a critical role to play in driving the recovery and it supports tens of thousands of jobs across the U.K., but the government’s short-term deals are trapping TfL on life support and putting economic growth and jobs at risk.”

The fare increase comes amid fears in Britain that escalating utility bills and food prices could push millions into poverty. Many Britons have been forced to cut expenses as prices have risen at their fastest pace in three decades.

Manuel Cortes, the general secretary of the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association, the union for the transport and travel trade industries, slammed the government on Monday over the decision to raise fares, saying it was “staggeringly stupid” to do so as the country was struggling to emerge from the pandemic.

“Rail could and should be central to our economic recovery from Covid, but instead, pushing up fares will price many people off the network, with domestic budgets stretched in this ongoing cost-of-living crisis,” he said.


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