Mind the (Service) Gap

river-541456_1280There’s a(nother) 24-hour Tube strike on the way in London this week. But I remember the fun-and-games of London Transport strikes in the early 1980s.

Do you work in London, commute by Tube?  If so, you have my sympathy. But having studied and worked in London for years, done my share of commuting and borne the brunt of a fair number of transport strikes, I confess, it’s just great being a home-based worker.

Working From Home on a strike day is an option for many. Laptops, broadband, mobile devices, personal hot-spots – all make this relatively easy. But it wasn’t always like that.

In my first job back in the early 1980s, I worked in a company based in Farringdon on the fringe of the City of London.  For several months, London Transport (buses and tube trains) engaged in a series of all-out strikes, often running for 2 or 3 days at a time and scheduled at no more than a few days’ notice.

Not only was this in a time long before mobile communications and remote working, but my company needed a full complement of staff in the office, every day, for the work it undertook. On a strike day, that meant getting upwards of a thousand people into the office from every part of London and the Home Counties. With no buses and no tube trains, it was a logistical project of epic proportions.

I worked in what would today be called the HR department, and it fell to my immediate boss – and therefore to me – to handle it.

We knew where everyone lived of course, from their personnel records, held on the company’s mainframe computer (remember those?).  But how to get them into London and home again?

For the most critical workers, we booked hotels. We got there fast and paid top rates, so we got rooms. But people – horror of horrors – had to bunk up together. One just didn’t do that in those days.

Then we set up contracts with several coach firms. We put a massive map on the wall and we worked out routes beginning in the suburbs or even further afield and winding their way into London picking up as many staff as possible at pre-arranged points. We worked out timings which often involved those in the farthest reaches being at their pick-up points at 5:00am.  That might not sound too outrageous today, but those were the days when people rarely commuted more than an hour and never started work before 9:00am. We had coaches snailing into London from Essex, Kent, Surrey, Middlesex, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire.  And we communicated all this to every individual without the assistance of email – just phone calls, hand-delivered memos and lists pinned to notice-boards.

We organised car shares too, persuading people from different departments and vastly differing statuses to squeeze in together and actually talk to each other on these protracted journeys. Formality gave way to cheery resilience and here and there, a glimmer of ‘Dunkirk Spirit’.

Of course, provision had to be made in London for all the extra cars. Without the WFH option, the only alternative for many was to co-opt the family car and join endless queues on the arterial roads. Such queues began around 5.00am and lasted all day; come to think of it, not unlike a normal workday in London in 2015.  I remember temporary surfacing laid out by the Army in Hyde Park and St James’s Park and other places, which turned them into massive car parks on strike days, grass chewed and flattened in the interests of keeping London moving.

Come around 4:30pm – only the most modest of concessions for the day’s discomfort – all those coaches and cars would head for home, forming the kind of queues which were alien to commuters of 35 years ago, but all too familiar today.

This fun-and-games took place perhaps four or five times over the couple of years I worked at the firm. We got quite good at it – getting to coach firms and hotels before everyone else, the logistics, the communication, the massaging of executive egos, the polite rejection of all but the most compelling of excuses for non-attendance. As a young and naïve junior secretary, it was both a great way to get to know everyone and a superb lesson in project management.


Author: Jools

Abundant, Bold, Confident, Determined, Empathetic, Forthright, Grumpy, Healthier, Individual, Just me, Kind, Loving, Mellifluous, Natural, Optimistic, imPatient, Quirky, Real-world, Single-minded, unTreatable, Unwound, Verbal, Wilful, eXtraordinary, Young and old, Zero-tolerance.

19 thoughts on “Mind the (Service) Gap”

  1. Bunking up together didn’t happen back then? Does it now? Certainly not for this introvert! 😉

    Sounds like a logistical nightmare. If you could pull that off, there are no limits to what you can do!

    1. It was…. interesting! As for ‘bunking up’ – we had to make best use of the limited number of rooms, so (horrors!) even the introverts had to share. 😉

  2. Thank goodness I haven’t been asked to bunk up with anyone when I travel on business, but some of my colleagues have. Occasionally being a female in a male dominated industry has its perks.

    1. True indeed. I’ve had to do it once or twice and it’s always a bit awkward. Unless the circumstance is exceptional, it’s not unreasonable to expect that someone giving up their personal evening time and staying away from home, should be afforded the courtesy of a room of their own. That’s my feeling anyway!

    1. When it comes to cities like London, the best and often the only option, is to take the Tube or bus. Gridlock and astronomical parking charges tend to drive (no pun intended) you towards public transport. Thanks for joining in, Charlotte 😀

  3. I remember these days very well, Jools. Trouble for me was that I lived within walking distance of the office so had no excuse to ‘work from home’. I got a lot more work done when the office was quiet, so that was the plus side.

  4. That brings back very grizzly memories; I cycled most of my commuting life but we only had one shower in the office and on strike days the three of us who normally coordinated our ablutions had to accommodate others. We were not amused! We changed offices in 1989 by which time I was a partner and I insisted on much greater provision for showering which made me popular with the increasing numbers of cyclists.

    1. I think that was about the time that shower facilities began to spring up (no pun intended) all over the place. I don’t know if it’s just a question of perspective, but the strikes these days don’t seem to induce the levels either of suffering, or of stoicism, that they did, back in the day.

      1. I suspect it’s because the unions are so neutered they rarely get 100% take up by the staff, because some just want to wrk and get the money and they can no long blackleg people as they once did, get them fired and so on.

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