It’s hard to believe that it’s really happening. After 18 months of wrangling that cast the whole project in doubt, London’s first 24-hour subway service will launch this summer. According to an announcement by two rail workers’ unions Monday, two London Tube lines will run all night on weekends starting this August. By September, a total of five lines will offer late night service. This is surely great news for any Londoner who goes out late but shudders at the price of taxis or the mayhem of the night bus. By encouraging more people to stay out later, it should also give the city’s nightlife economy a major boost.
But while the launch of the Night Tube is welcome, the project is not so much sprinting past the finish line as staggering over it, panting hard. The service will arrive almost a year late, and its introduction will now be staggered. Meanwhile London has endured a full year of transit strikes, as unions and City Hall slugged it out over the plans. So why has the issue proved so divisive?
Partly because there was bad blood between the city and its rail workers right from the outset. First off, London’s City Hall should make a note to itself for future reference. When you announce a major plan to change a city’s transit network, it’s usually a good idea to talk to the unions who will deliver the plan before going public. When it came to London’s Night Tube plans, however, the U.K.’s various rail unions first heard about the Night Tube’s launch date not from their bosses, but in the media. Coming at a time when Transport for London were closing all the Tube network’s ticket offices with a loss of 950 jobs, it’s no wonder union members looked at the plan sprung on them with some skepticism.
This attitude was confirmed when it turned out Tube drivers would be forced into a shift pattern that involved habitually moving from weeks of night shifts to weeks of day shifts, disrupting family life and potentially causing danger due to exhaustion. This news was sweetened by promises of bonuses—on top of already competitive salaries—but the result of the standoff has been a series of tube strikes. What surely made these strikes yet more maddening for City Hall is that they knew all-too-well that their negotiating position wasn’t especially strong. The job of driving trains is highly specialized and takes a lot of training, so it’s not as if there was pool of potential strike-breaking operators they could just bring in as a stop-gap.
These strikes have caused disruption and seen delayed Londoners pulling their hair out with frustration. They have also earned the unions some critical scrutiny. With tube operators earning base salaries of just under £50,000 ($72,000), rail worker unions have been painted in London’s generally right-leaning media as greedy leftovers from the more belligerent industrial relations culture Britain experienced in the 1970s. In some ways, their defenders see them this way as well, just minus the greed. As representatives of workers carrying out a skilled, very responsible job, the unions have succeeded in maintaining good pay levels for their members as remuneration for other traditionally working class jobs has been systematically downgraded.
The dispute has cast a pretty harsh light on City Hall as well. Despite being the Night Tube’s most vocal cheerleader, Mayor Boris Johnson has at no point met any of the unions—indeed he’s laid out his opposition to the movement as a whole in his own ongoing role as a journalist. Believing the unions are hindering progress is a valid point of view, but refusing to meet with them when they’re representatives of the people you’re trying to negotiate with is no way to solve a dispute.
Finally, it seems a compromise has been found. Rail Union ASLEF mentions improved pay and conditions for night drivers as a factor, but there are as yet no details as to what’s been brokered. Hopefully, as London prepares for a new weekend onslaught of early morning travelers, all the bad blood running in the city over this project will soon be forgotten.