Overcrowding on the tube is nothing new, but in the age of coronavirus, the issue has taken on more urgency.
Every morning social media is flooded with images of people packed into tube carriages like the proverbial sardines. This is happening, despite TfL repeatedly pleading with customers not to use its services, unless they are a key worker, whose journey is essential.
🏠✔️ Stay at home - do not travel unless essential— Transport for London #StayHomeSaveLives (@TfL) March 25, 2020
🧑⚕️ Key workers, if your journey is absolutely essential, the busiest times are 05:45-07:30 and 16:00-17:30. If possible you may want to avoid these times. #coronavirus #covid19
Thanks for sharing Nick Creations pic.twitter.com/VNLYqEDpKg
The message has been at least partially successful; tube usage is down considerably. Yesterday (Tuesday 24 March), was 88% less busy than the same day last year. On the bus, usage is down 76%. So why are the services we're seeing on social media still so busy? Because the number of services running has been radically reduced — many lines have only been running one train every 10 or 15 minutes.
All this has led to a war of words between central government and the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan (who in effect is the head of TfL). Each side has one key demand for the other. Central government believes TfL needs to be running more services, while Sadiq Khan claims the government needs to be stricter on closing businesses.
The Health Secretary Matt Hancock had this to say in his 24 March press briefing:
When it comes to the tube, the first or best answer is that Transport for London should have the tube running in full, so that the people travelling on the tube are spaced out and can be further apart, obeying the two metre rule wherever possible. And there is no good reason in the information that I've seen that the current levels of tube provision should be as low as they are. We should have more tube trains running.
Sadiq Khan claims this is impossible, due to the levels of sickness among staff — drivers, station workers and critical control centre staff. Nearly a third of TfL's workforce have called in sick, many of whom are trained for specific lines, and therefore cannot be transferred over at short notice to fill in the gaps. While some feel that TfL reduced the level of service on the Underground too soon, there seems little possibility of upping it now.
Sadiq claims the issue with overcrowding on the tube stems from who's using it. There's lots of anecdotal evidence that construction staff are using the tube, who many claim aren't key workers. However, the government has not paused construction work. On the contrary they have cited the following as one of their reasons to leave the home:
Travelling to or from work, only where it absolutely cannot be done from home.
Physical construction clearly cannot be done from home, so many of these workers are travelling in — and apparently are being told to say they're 'essential workers' if questioned on why they're using public transport, even if they feel they're not. This may now start to happen more, as 500 British Transport Police are being deployed across the network to ensure that only essential journeys are being made. They are also there to funnel passengers through different routes and switch off escalators in a bid to ensure platforms aren't overcrowded.
Unions say fewer passengers on the tube but still overcrowding in places. This was North Greenwich. Tfl says running all trains it can and have implemented crowd control. pic.twitter.com/6oJ6ApZOpp— Tom Edwards (@BBCTomEdwards) March 25, 2020
All these measures do seem to be working, to some extent. The mayor announced that today's (25 March) tube usage looked to be down by a third compared to yesterday, and bus travel down 20%. However, this might not be enough. The number of TfL staff sick or self-isolating continues to rise, and as that happens, the number of services being run will be reduced further. This could lead to even more overcrowding, putting those who are unquetionably key workers — such as NHS staff, and those who work in food stores and pharmacies — at even greater risk of catching Covid-19.