Six reasons Londoners should probably stop whining about the tube strike

Here we go again: a crowded train, during a partial shutdown in 2009. Image: Getty.

Break out the bunting, hand out the paper hats and let joy be unconfined. For, tonight begins the latest installment of a festive tradition as old as London itself: the 24 hour tube strike.

At 6.30pm tonight, members of four trade unions – Aslef, RMT, TSSA and Unite – will walk out, in protest at the staffing of the new "Night tube" services being introduced next month. Spokespeople claim that the changes in pay and conditions on offer are inadequate to make up for the introduction of night shifts. This is the second such strike in a month.

Until Friday (mystifyingly, 24 hour strikes seem to extend into three days), Londoners are likely to react with their traditional stoicism. They’ll bear their mild inconvenience with a shrug, only occasionally turning to social media to suggest anyone on strike should be fired or, if you're a fan of Jeremy Clarkson, shot.

Whatever your views on the strike, though, here are six reasons you should think before Tweeting.

Your inconvenience is not a side effect

Yes, the tube staff do know that you're trying to get to work. Making it a pain in the arse is the entire point of the exercise.

By taking to the internet to register your displeasure, all you're doing is helping to highlight how much disruption the transport unions can bring about if they feel the need, and strengthening their hand in negotiations. If you really want to beat them, pretend it doesn't bother you. Tweet about what a lovely walk to work you're having, and how fragrant the man you found yourself crushed against on the number 73 bus this evening was.


If you claim to be left-wing, you should probably shut up

If you believe in the right to strike, right up until the point when it makes your life slightly more difficult, you don't believe in the right to strike at all. Either rethink your views on industrial relations or just sodding deal with it.

If you believe in free markets, you should probably shut up too

There's a strain of thinking on the right that says that pay, like prices, is set by the interaction of supply and demand, and that any attempt by the state to interfere in such matters is only going to make things worse. That applies in every case except public sector pay disputes, when suddenly the state knows exactly how much people's labour is worth, and everyone employed by it should just take what they're given and shut the hell up.

There is a very obvious logical inconsistency here: either pay is set by workers' ability to demand more money for their labour, or it isn't. If you truly believe in free markets, then whether or not it's the taxpayer who's picking up the tab is pretty much irrelevant. Throwing a tantrum and howling, "But I don't want them to have more money!" doesn't change the fact that tube staff have the power to bring one of the world's richest cities grinding to a halt, and that’s why their pay has risen faster than yours.

Don't like it? Become a tube driver.

"Tube driver" is a senior role

Actually, you can't, at least not instantly: since 2008, driving a tube train has effectively been a sort of senior post, somewhere junior staff work up to after years of training and toil in the ranks.

Whether this is the best way of managing the network's staff is perhaps open to question, but nonetheless, it makes it a nonsense to compare tube driver's £50k pay packet with the £22k starting salary of a nurse or the £18k one for a soldier. That £50k isn't a starting salary at all – it's a reward for seniority.


Driving the tube is bloody horrible

It's also a reward for the fact that it's a pretty miserable job. Not as miserable as being a soldier, admittedly – but certainly more miserable than being, say, a newspaper columnist.

Think about what driving a tube train actually involves. It's shift work, so sometimes you'll start at 5am and others you're working til gone midnight. Whatever time you start, you'll be spending approximately eight hours in a small box on your own, doing a series of mind numbingly repetitive tasks, but unable to lose concentration for even a moment.

In that time, you can't read a newspaper. You can't waste 20 minutes chatting with a colleague. You certainly can't tweet about how bored you are. On certain lines, you'll barely see daylight. And there's a not insignificant chance that, one day, someone will jump in front of your train, and you’ll have to live with the guilt.

Lord knows there are some terrible jobs out there that don't come with £50k pay packets, but... I'm kind of okay with paying people well to do that job. A lot of the people who'll be spending today whining, "Well I don't earn that much" also don't have jobs that are quite that shitty.

They're not the only ones on strike anyway

The last two points are a bit of a red herring, actually, because – it isn't only the tube drivers who are actually striking. Every grade of tube staff voted for industrial action. Their concern is that, by adding to the hours in which the tube is open without significantly increasing staff numbers – by introducing the Night Tube on the cheap – the existing staff will be over-stretched and passenger safety could end up compromised.

Today's strike isn't about that £50k pay packet at all.

All that said, it's about time the tube did offer all night services, and TfL would be negligent if it wasn't trying to make it happen as cost effectively as possible. I'm not saying that the unions are entirely in the right, and management entirely in the wrong on this one. I don't actually think I know.

But my point is – neither do you.

 
 
 
 

How bad is the air pollution on the average subway network?

The New York Subway. Image: Getty.

Four more major Indian cities will soon have their own metro lines, the country’s government has announced. On the other side of the Himalayas, Shanghai is building its 14th subway line, set to open in 2020, adding 38.5 km and 32 stations to the world’s largest subway network. And New Yorkers can finally enjoy their Second Avenue Subway line after waiting for almost 100 years for it to arrive.

In Europe alone, commuters in more than 60 cities use rail subways. Internationally, more than 120m people commute by them every day. We count around 4.8m riders per day in London, 5.3m in Paris, 6.8m in Tokyo, 9.7m in Moscow and 10m in Beijing.

Subways are vital for commuting in crowded cities, something that will become more and more important over time – according to a United Nations 2014 report, half of the world’s population is now urban. They can also play a part in reducing outdoor air pollution in large metropolises by helping to reduce motor-vehicle use.

Large amounts of breathable particles (particulate matter, or PM) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2), produced in part by industrial emissions and road traffic, are responsible for shortening the lifespans of city dwellers. Public transportation systems such as subways have thus seemed like a solution to reduce air pollution in the urban environment.

But what is the air like that we breathe underground, on the rail platforms and inside trains?

Mixed air quality

Over the last decade, several pioneering studies have monitored subway air quality across a range of cities in Europe, Asia and the Americas. The database is incomplete, but is growing and is already valuable.

Subway, Tokyo, 2016. Image: Mildiou/Flickr/creative commons.

For example, comparing air quality on subway, bus, tram and walking journeys from the same origin to the same destination in Barcelona, revealed that subway air had higher levels of air pollution than in trams or walking in the street, but slightly lower than those in buses. Similar lower values for subway environments compared to other public transport modes have been demonstrated by studies in Hong Kong, Mexico City, Istanbul and Santiago de Chile.

Of wheels and brakes

Such differences have been attributed to different wheel materials and braking mechanisms, as well as to variations in ventilation and air conditioning systems, but may also relate to differences in measurement campaign protocols and choice of sampling sites.

Second Avenue Subway in the making, New York, 2013. Image: MTA Capital Construction/Rehema Trimiew/Wikimedia Commons.

Key factors influencing subway air pollution will include station depth, date of construction, type of ventilation (natural/air conditioning), types of brakes (electromagnetic or conventional brake pads) and wheels (rubber or steel) used on the trains, train frequency and more recently the presence or absence of platform screen-door systems.

In particular, much subway particulate matter is sourced from moving train parts such as wheels and brake pads, as well as from the steel rails and power-supply materials, making the particles dominantly iron-containing.


To date, there is no clear epidemiological indication of abnormal health effects on underground workers and commuters. New York subway workers have been exposed to such air without significant observed impacts on their health, and no increased risk of lung cancer was found among subway train drivers in the Stockholm subway system.

But a note of caution is struck by the observations of scholars who found that employees working on the platforms of Stockholm underground, where PM concentrations were greatest, tended to have higher levels of risk markers for cardiovascular disease than ticket sellers and train drivers.

The dominantly ferrous particles are mixed with particles from a range of other sources, including rock ballast from the track, biological aerosols (such as bacteria and viruses), and air from the outdoors, and driven through the tunnel system on turbulent air currents generated by the trains themselves and ventilation systems.

Comparing platforms

The most extensive measurement programme on subway platforms to date has been carried out in the Barcelona subway system, where 30 stations with differing designs were studied under the frame of IMPROVE LIFE project with additional support from the AXA Research Fund.

It reveals substantial variations in particle-matter concentrations. The stations with just a single tunnel with one rail track separated from the platform by glass barrier systems showed on average half the concentration of such particles in comparison with conventional stations, which have no barrier between the platform and tracks. The use of air-conditioning has been shown to produce lower particle-matter concentrations inside carriages.

In trains where it is possible to open the windows, such as in Athens, concentrations can be shown generally to increase inside the train when passing through tunnels and more specifically when the train enters the tunnel at high speed.

According to their construction material, you may breath different kind of particles on various platforms worldwide. Image: London Tube/Wikimedia Commons.

Monitoring stations

Although there are no existing legal controls on air quality in the subway environment, research should be moving towards realistic methods of mitigating particle pollution. Our experience in the Barcelona subway system, with its considerable range of different station designs and operating ventilation systems, is that each platform has its own specific atmospheric micro environment.

To design solutions, one will need to take into account local conditions of each station. Only then can researchers assess the influences of pollution generated from moving train parts.

The ConversationSuch research is still growing and will increase as subway operating companies are now more aware about how cleaner air leads directly to better health for city commuters.

Fulvio Amato is a tenured scientist at the Spanish National Research CouncilTeresa Moreno is a tenured scientist at the Institute of Environmental Assessment and Water Research (IDAEA), Spanish Scientific Research Council CSIC.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.