Saturday October 16th, 2021 4:05AM

Beyond the pandemic: London's Tube battles to stay on track

By The Associated Press
Related Articles
  Contact Editor

LONDON (AP) — When London came to a stop as a nationwide coronavirus lockdown was imposed a year ago, the Underground kept running as an essential service. But it was a strange and unnerving experience for its workers.

Joseph Cocks, a driver on the subway’s Circle Line that loops around the city center, said 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 of the system that opened in 1863 and is known colloquially as the Tube.

Its continued operation was a sign that even in a pandemic, London's heart was still beating.


Plagues, fires, war — London has survived them all. But it has never had a year like this. The coronavirus has killed more than 15,000 Londoners and shaken the foundations of one of the world’s great cities. As a fast-moving mass vaccination campaign holds the promise of reopening, The Associated Press looks at the pandemic’s impact on London’s people and institutions and asks what the future might hold.


In a city where almost half of households don’t own a car, public transit keeps economic and social life moving. Before the nationwide lockdown on March 23, 2020, about 5 million journeys a day were taken on the Tube. Its iconic map, reminiscent of a multicolored circuit board, is both an emblem of the city and an essential tool for residents and visitors alike.

In the early weeks, when most Britons were told to stay at home and fear outpaced facts about the virus, Underground employees kept going to work, but worried about getting sick.

“We didn’t know exactly how bad it was,” Cocks said. “There were 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 subway, suburban rail and bus network. At least 89 TFL staff have died from the coronavirus, most of them bus drivers, whose death rate has been three times the national average, according to a study by University College London.

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

About a third of the TFL workforce belongs to an ethnic minority, in part a legacy of the thousands of people from Britain’s former colonies who 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. On buses, drivers sit in sealed-off cabs.

“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 Imperial College London, which tested for the virus on surfaces and in the air on the Underground and found none. That is due in part to people like Ivelina Dimitrova, who supervises 20 cleaners at stations including the busy King’s Cross. She and her crew — mostly immigrants from Eastern Europe, Africa and south Asia — regularly spray surfaces with hospital-grade disinfectant.

“We had to change our work routine and everything, and (had) to do it fast” when the virus arrived, she said, adding that they felt constant stress about getting infected.

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.”

Passengers who previously took little notice of the cleaning staff now sometimes stop to thank them, she said.

The pandemic has left the world’s oldest subway system facing an uncertain future. The Tube, which relies heavily on ticket revenues, faces a cash crisis. Ridership plunged to just 4% of pre-pandemic numbers early in the outbreak and now carries about a fourth of the passengers it did before the outbreak.

During one recent rush hour, a trickle of passengers hustled through the ticket gates at the usually teeming Victoria and King’s Cross stations, past posters reminding travelers to wear face coverings and “Be Kind” to one another.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has set the country on a slow path out of lockdown, with hairdressers and shops scheduled to reopen April 12. But people are still advised to work from home if they can and to take the Tube only if needed.

His government has given Transport for London about 4 billion pounds ($5.6 billion) in grants and loans to keep it running, although the money is due to run out on May 18. Talks on funding have been clouded by acrimony between Johnson’s Conservative government and London Mayor Sadiq Khan, a member of the Labour Party.

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

In December, an independent report commissioned by TFL and the mayor said a “credible” forecast was that there would be a 20% reduction in demand for public transit due to “travel changes and economic weakness” after the pandemic.

“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 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.

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

Meanwhile, drivers like Cocks will keep doing a job that has become “a bit more secluded, a bit more isolated.”

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


Follow AP’s pandemic coverage at:

  • Associated Categories: Associated Press (AP), AP National News, AP Online National News, Top General short headlines, AP Health, AP World News, AP Business, AP Business - Economy
© Copyright 2021
All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission.
Beyond the pandemic: London's Tube battles to stay on track
Even as many of its famous institutions closed during the coronavirus pandemic for most of the past 12 months, London's Underground kept running through three successive lockdowns
3:20AM ( 11 minutes ago )
Asia stocks follow Wall Street down on renewed virus worries
Asian stock markets have followed Wall Street lower after European governments extended anti-coronavirus lockdowns, clouding the outlook for economic recovery
2:55AM ( 36 minutes ago )
Myanmar junta frees hundreds held for anti-coup protests
Myanmar’s state TV says 628 people imprisoned for protesting last month’s coup have been released
2:34AM ( 58 minutes ago )
Associated Press (AP)
No clear winner in Israeli election, signaling more deadlock
Exit polls indicate there is no clear winner in Tuesday’s Israeli election, leaving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fate uncertain and signaling continued political deadlock
1:09AM ( 2 hours ago )
California groups track face masks, gloves bound for ocean
Disposable masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment have safeguarded untold lives during the pandemic
1:09AM ( 2 hours ago )
Spa killings prompt new proposals from Georgia Democrats
Democratic lawmakers in Georgia have introduced a slate of legislation in response to the recent shootings at massage businesses in metro Atlanta that left eight people dead
1:06AM ( 2 hours ago )
AP National News
Hong Kong halts use of Pfizer vaccine, cites defective lids
Hong Kong suspended vaccinations using Pfizer shots after the Chinese distributor informed the city that one batch had defective bottle lids
11:50PM ( 3 hours ago )
Asian Americans seek greater political power after shootings
Asian Americans are pushing anew for greater political influence in the U.S. in the wake of last week's shootings in the Atlanta area
11:37PM ( 3 hours ago )
White House: North Korea conducted short-range missile test
The White House says North Korea fired short-range missiles this past weekend, just days after the sister of Kim Jong Un threatened the United States and South Korea for holding joint military exercises
11:33PM ( 3 hours ago )
AP Online National News
The Latest: California prisons to resume in-person visits
California state prisons will soon resume limited in-person visits with inmates more than a year after they were halted because of the coronavirus pandemic
9:29PM ( 6 hours ago )
The Latest: Indiana plans to lift mask mandate in 2 weeks
Indiana’s governor plans to lift the statewide mask mandate and remaining COVID-19 business restrictions in two weeks
8:39PM ( 6 hours ago )
NTSB calls for more safety oversight of air tour operators
Federal safety officials say tougher regulations are needed for air tour operators and hot-air balloon rides
8:29PM ( 7 hours ago )
AP Business
GameStop lost $215 million in fiscal year; online sales gain
GameStop, the video game retailer at the center of a social-media driven investment frenzy, says it lost $215 million in the 12 months ended Jan. 30 as it dealt with pandemic-related shutdowns and moved to transform itself into a more online-focused company
6:41PM ( 8 hours ago )
Stocks close broadly lower on Wall Street as banks stumble
Stocks closed broadly lower on Tuesday and gave back nearly all of their gains from a day earlier as technology, industrial and bank stocks fell
5:17PM ( 10 hours ago )
Stocks head broadly lower on Wall Street as banks stumble
Major indexes moved lower in afternoon trading as a drop in bond yields pushed down banks and industrial companies
3:51PM ( 11 hours ago )
AP Business - Economy
Myanmar junta frees hundreds held for anti-coup protests
Myanmar’s state TV says 628 people imprisoned for protesting last month’s coup have been released
2:34AM ( 58 minutes ago )
Official: Colorado shooting suspect prone to rage, delusions
Police and former associates of the man accused of opening fire at a Colorado supermarket describe the suspect as sometimes prone to rage or delusions
2:17AM ( 1 hour ago )
Trapped Sydney driver becomes first flood disaster fatality
A motorist trapped in a car in Sydney has became the first casualty of the Australian east coast floods
2:08AM ( 1 hour ago )
Many lives were changed by India's lockdown a year ago
One year after India went into a coronavirus lockdown, the ripples it created remain prevalent in society
1:59AM ( 1 hour ago )
Born in war, Bangladesh marks 50 years of independence
On the eve of marking 50 years of independence this month, Bangladesh has been hailed as a success story for a young nation born out of strife and turbulence
1:18AM ( 2 hours ago )