As UK plc begins to count the economic impact of today’s tube strike, questions of how we got to a place where stations are being evacuated and queues snake round some of Europe’s largest stations and when – not if – this will happen again, must be asked.
The capital relies on the tube – there is no alternative mode of transport equipped to absorb anywhere near its capacity. Last year, a staggering 1.34bn journeys were made on the tube and this is increasing as London grows. New records were set on a number of Fridays in December 2016 for the most journeys in one day on the network.
No other mode of transport in the capital has the capacity to absorb even a modest proportion of this demand on a strike day – it is this lack of capacity that is responsible for the closure of Clapham Junction this morning, where a significant number of commuters may have headed to the London Overground platforms, seeking alternative routes to work. Numerous other stations, particularly the likes of Waterloo will be vulnerable to overcrowding this evening.
The timing of the strike announcement also compounded its impact. Many left work on Friday uncertain as to whether last ditch talks with the unions, held over the weekend, would lead to the strike being called off. With no such luck, many may have been left without the necessary technology and planning time to properly work from home today – as is being encouraged.
With the threat of more tube strikes, and further interruption to Southern Rail services scheduled for later this week, thoughts must turn to reducing future disruption.
In the short term, there is no silver bullet – but a combination of changing work patterns and more communication of disruption could help.
Social media has been flooded today with images and films of chaotic travel scenes. It does however, play an increasing, crucial and persuasive role in communicating potential disruption, particularly when photos or videos are shared by commuters. Earlier warnings, live updates and alternative directions from TfL are vital to help millions navigate their journeys where the country’s primary transport operator is out of service.
Looking to the long term, it’s essential that the UK – and TfL in particular – tackles the driverless train issue, which will be difficult in light of the discussions between management and the unions in recent months and years, which include the issue of safety. Driverless trains are used successfully in dozens of cities across the world and London is lagging behind.
Increasing automation in this way will not only increase the capacity of the network in the peak hour, but also reduce the impact of employee strikes. However, the timeline of introducing this will run into the decades – hardly comfort to those planning their return journey this evening.