Beyond the pandemic: London's Tube battles to stay on track
March 24, 2021 GMT

If London is a body, the Underground is its circulatory system. In a city where almost half of households don’t own a car, public transit keeps economic and social life moving. Before the pandemic, 5 million journeys a day were taken on the subway, which opened its first line in 1863. The iconic Tube map, reminiscent of a multicolored circuit board, is both an emblem of the city and an essential tool for residents and visitors alike.

When London came to a stop as a nationwide lockdown was imposed on March 23, 2020, the Tube kept running. Throughout the months of official “stay at home” orders, 10 of the network’s 11 lines kept running. It was both an essential service, ensuring medics and other key staff could get to and from work, and a sign that even in a pandemic, the city’s heartbeat continued.

But for Underground staff, it was a strange and unnerving experience.

Joseph Cocks, a driver on the Underground’s the Circle Line, which loops around the city center like a belt, said that on his route he could “count the number of people who got on the train on one hand.”

“To see it on a Monday morning peak, to see hardly anyone about, was shocking and surprising,” he said.

In the early weeks, when fear and rumor outpaced facts about the coronavirus, drivers also feared for their own safety.

“We didn’t know exactly how bad it was,” Cocks said. “There was worries about how dangerous this job was, and you’d hear stories of people on the Underground catching coronavirus. So we didn’t know how fast it spread and how safe we were.”

COVID-19 has taken a heavy toll on Transport for London, which runs the city’s transit network. At least 89 TFL staff have died with the coronavirus, the majority of them bus drivers, whose death rate has been three times the national average. Many are thought to have contracted the disease before lockdown, when services were still crowded and before safety measures such as sealed-off cabs for bus drivers were introduced.

The virus has hit people in public-facing jobs hardest, and the death toll has been higher among ethnic-minority Britons than their white compatriots. The reasons are still being investigated, but are thought to include jobs, underlying health conditions and economic inequality.

About a third of the TFL workforce belongs to an ethnic minority. There has been a strong BAME presence in public transport ever since thousands of people from Britain’s former colonies in the Caribbean came to the U.K. after World War II to bolster a depleted workforce.

Brian Woodhead, the Underground’s director of customer services, says the network acted quickly to protect staff and passengers. Masks are mandatory, hand sanitizer is plentiful, escalator handrails are blasted with virus-killing ultraviolet light and one-way systems reduce logjams in station corridors.

“As much as anyone can in the circumstances that we now find ourselves in, I think that the Tube is a safe environment,” Woodhead said.

He cites a recent study by researchers from Imperial College London, who tested for the virus on surfaces and in the air on the Underground. They found none.

That is duel in part to people like Ivelina Dimitrova, who supervises a team of 20 cleaners at stations including the busy King’s Cross, agrees. She and her crew -- most of them immigrants from Eastern Europe, Africa and south Asia -- regularly spray any surfaces that passengers touch with hospital-grade disinfectant.

At first, she said, the cleaners were apprehensive.

“We had to change our work routine and everything, and (had) to do it fast,” she said. “And the stress that we could get it” was unnerving.

Now, she said, “we have strong morale, because we feel that we have to do what we can do just to keep ourselves safe, our families safe, other people around us safe.”

It’s uncertain what the future will hold.

The U.K. is vaccinating its population fast, but watching nervously as coronavirus case numbers rise across much of Europe. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has set the country on a slow path out of lockdown. Hairdressers and non-essential shops are scheduled to reopen April 12. But people are still advised to work from home if they can and to take the Tube only if it’s essential.

The transit system, which relies heavily on ticket revenues, is facing a cash crisis. Tube ridership plunged to 4% of its pre-pandemic level at the first peak of the outbreak in April. It is now about 25% of pre-pandemic levels.

One recent weekday rush hour, a trickle rather than a flood walked through the ticket gates at Victoria and King’s Cross, usually teeming interchanges served by multiple lines as well as overground trains to and from the suburbs.

Over the past year Johnson’s government has given TFL more than 3.5 billion pounds in grants and loans to keep the system running. The emergency funding is due to expire at the end of March, though talks are continuing about an extension. The picture is complicated by the Conservative government’s animosity to London’s Labour Party Mayor, Sadiq Khan, who defeated Johnson in a mayoral election in 2016.

Woodhead expects ridership to recover, though “whether that’s 18 months or whether it’s 36 months” is hard to predict. And the pandemic may have changed the city’s travel patterns for good, with more walking, more cycling, more working from home and less rush-hour commuting.

“People won’t, I doubt very much, commute five days a week,” Woodhead said. “Some people will. But there’ll be a lot of people now that do it do it in a hybrid way. That’s surely going to happen, which on one side will help from a congestion point of view, but the other side won’t help from a revenue point of view.”

Still, Woodhead is confident the Tube will be a key part of London’s recovery. He says the subway is the “heartbeat” of the city.

“It’s just interwoven into the whole infrastructure and the way in which London works,” he said.

For now, drivers like Joseph Cocks will keep going xxx

“It’s a lonely job as it is,” he said. “Now it’s just a bit more secluded, a bit more isolated. … There’s a lot of time sitting hours on end by yourself.”

“It’s nice to know that you’re keeping London moving. You’re doing your bit to keep everything going from A to B.”