Monday, 3 February 2014

Striking A Balance ?

I'm a Londoner which means I use the Tube. Indeed, I use it most days to go to work but basically to get around as it's a good alternative to the car.

As with most other transport systems, it's good when it works and it's hugely popular as a way of moving millions of people around London on a daily basis. Even at 7am it's hard to get a seat on a District Line going into London and on the way home it can be a long stand as well.

As of 9pm tomorrow and for 48 hours, most of London will have to cope without the Tube or at least the greater part of it as Bob Crow's RMT, along with the TSSA, stage a 48-hour stage. London Underground, who may yet hope that the strike will be much less solid than the RMT expect, are making a brave front of putting on some kind of service but the reality for most Londoners is that the Tube will shut down for 48 hours.

Indeed, I was left wondering how many people, whose command of English is far from strong, will turn up at the Station (which will be closed) on Wednesday morning oblivious as to what is going on and above all why.

London's Underground system is a fantastic example of Victorian engineering and that's the problem. Unlike other cities who have been able to develop using state-of-the-art technology, London has had to try and renew its system (often on a shoestring) and while keeping the show on the road. The future, as envisaged by London Underground and by London mayor Boris Johnson is a crisp, clean, wholly automated system where driverless trains rule and where stations are banks of machines for managing Oyster cards leaving the main tourist stations to be staffed by friendly knowledgeable ambassadors who will point the tourists in the right direction.

The ticket offices at stations will become retail outlets creating more income for the system at stations in use twenty-four hours a day.

It's a fine vision and it might work in Hong Kong or Singapore but London is very different.

As Mrs Stodge has reminded me, the ticket office isn't just a place to buy and sell tickets - it's a place of refuge and sanctuary for those needing or wanting help. The unreliable machines will always need human backups and while those arguing for the Boris future claim crime is reduced with staff out of ticket offices, it isn't just about petty crime. It's about helping the sick or the injured.

Late at night, some Tube stations can be intimidating places. Fare evasion, often by young men of all races, colours and creeds, is endemic and it can be unnerving, especially for women, having to use these stations. The staff in the ticket office, the final refuge, the place of sanctuary, are the line of defence.

Bob Crow plays the pantomime villain well and the vilification has already started. He is an unreconstructed Socialist which is fair enough but that is meat and drink to the pro-Boris pro-Conservative London press such as the Evening Standard. Needless to say, the vilification is the proverbial water off the metaphorical duck's back to Crow but this strike is not without risk for him.

IF the strike is solid, it will be a victory for Crow but past experience tells us solidarity within the RMT isn't all it could be and by keeping the strikes to 48 hours, Crow is probably reasoning that his members will hold the line for a short strike. I still think there will be slippage and London Underground will doubtless use their propaganda and media friends to play up any improvement on the meagre service being offered as an achievement.

Yet the core debate about the future of the Underground remains unresolved - as a passenger, I want more than a glossy fa├žade and Hong Kong-like efficiency. The big issue going forward is capacity - with London already over 8 million and growing at a million per decade, chronic overcrowding is looming as lines simply cannot cope with the demand and are hamstrung by obsolete signalling.

Plans to run a 24-hour a day service are all well and good but for all the possibilities of flexible working, most people still work traditional hours and the need for the service to cope with these peaks of demand is clear.

It wouldn't be the biggest surprise if the strike was cancelled tomorrow afternoon or evening - both Crow and Johnson are past masters of brinkmanship - but if it goes ahead, the vitriol and recrimination will be flowing even if the trains won't.

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