Notes from daily life in London:  the commute

There was a sharp scream… we all stopped surging forward for a moment… as we cleared a gap  we saw a woman had fallen down the gap onto the track………. After the shock a couple of people tried to pull her up while someone frantically asked the driver not to move yet. Then a couple of staff sprung into action and with one extra tug she was swung up like a doll! She looked terrified but thankfully no serious injuries … a bump and scrape or two but OK.  As the train drove off, bursting to the brim, we saw one pink shoe of hers was left on the track – unretrievable as it had been well and truly ground in by the train… but it could have been so much worse of course.

A few minutes later a  friend from work found me in the crowd and suggested we force our way somehow onto the next train – I tried but felt too nervous after what had just happened –  the last I saw of my friend she was clinging on by her fingernails trying to get Inside – sounds funny but its actually hair raising! She told me she assumed I had got on too and was calling out to me on the train much to the bemusement of the other passengers but I remained steadfastly on the platform. We were all a bit more careful after that incident, but I eventually got onto another train. Even at the other end I then could not get on a bus – they just sped on by at top speed like stuffed-full cattle trucks in a rush to deliver their stock to the conveyor belt … so the rest of the journey was on foot.

Were we in some sort of war zone? Not quite but nearly – it was the latest in a long line of tube strikes and the usual scrum to board any overground trains or buses to get to work. Years ago bosses didn’t care about the hell to get in to work. If you were late you were late, and the only ones that made it on time were those doing car sharing. But these days at least allowance is made for the extra time it takes, although that doesn’t change the sheer hard work, sweat and pain in the neck it takes. I hate those words: tube strike. Tthey fill me with dread! I have been through so many, having travelled into central London for work since my teens. Of course there are even more people in London now, the tube system is even more worn out, (like us) and the privilege of using the transport system is ever more expensive. In fact, during the last mass tube strike it took me so long to get to work that London Transport charged me extra on my Oyster card as it was automatically assumed that I had done more journeys than were showing! I was too tired to care.

Looking behind you on the stairs or the platform can be truly frightening to anyone but an experienced Londoner – I have  often thought that if anything happened – a bomb, a fire, anything, there would be no escape whatsoever. 

The latest tube strikes are minimal – but over the years some have brought London to a standstill – colleagues  spending all morning waiting for a bus at Kings Cross then going home, people stuck on trains for hours, unable to get home… the joy of an ‘all out’ tube strike! It doesn’t just affect the workers, it affects business too. People won’t advertise during a tube strike, they reason that no one will be out. Shops, cafes, pubs, theatres, are empty and business suffers.      

The stoicism of Londoners shines through, most getting to work .We put up with the most embarrassing scenarios – heads stuck in armpits, standing cheek to cheek, backside to backside, breathing on each other, or  the worst – looking each other in the eye (tube etiquette: never make eye contact!). A tube strike is the only time I see Londoners losing it – some idiot will complain about being squashed or their toe being stubbed – come on! – that’s not the spirit – that’s part of it – my leg has been numb for  20 minutes! And you must travel light – or you’ll soon want to throw the lot away! We do laugh too – is there any room? No! 

The last few strikes have got me down.  I’ve done it too often through rain, snow, cold, sweltering heat,  Im beginning to wonder what on earth can be so bad about being a tube worker….?

I support the right to strike and withhold labour if mistreated. I take my hat off to tube drivers – it’s a dangerous job with terrorism and the regular violence. After the tube bombings they were very brave and were back working straight away keeping London going – amazing! They endure a lot – suicides under trains for example: who could get over that? But they also earn very good wages. I asked a tube driver why they keep striking and he said – look if you would all get a good union you could strike and get better wages too – you just have to make it happen! Who could argue? But when London relies on you to keep it moving is it reasonable to strike so often?? You’re just  making fellow working Londoners suffer…. the ‘big bosses’ just drive in!

We have spent many a day flicking onto TFL’s website to see whether a strike is on or off…  the mood of the whole office often hinges on it.

What’s the answer? I don’t know. At every strike there is talk of banning them on public transport but it never happens.   

As I always say, I still love London, its my City, but it doesn’t half push me to the limit sometimes!

[Photos courtesy of Janice North]

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