Strike Stops London Subways

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Passengers jostle to enter the Underground station at Waterloo Station in central London

Shortly before 11 a.m. Tuesday, a high-speed Eurostar train pulled out of Paris' Gare du Nord station. After carving up the French countryside, and shooting out of the English Channel tunnel, the train sped through southern England. And in just a little over two hours, after clocking speeds touching 200 mph, its passengers got off at St. Pancras station in central London. That record-breaking journey — staged to show off an upgrade to Britain's end of the line that will shave 20 minutes off the usual time between London and Paris — "marks Britain's entry into the European high-speed rail club," cheered Richard Brown, the boss of Eurostar.

Deep below St. Pancras terminal, however, things were somewhat slower. Of the dozen lines of London's Underground subway network (known almost universally as the Tube), which normally shuttles more than 2.5 million passengers each day over 250 miles of track, nine were shut. The cause: 2,300 union staff began a three-day strike on Monday evening, bringing the capital's creaking transit system to its knees. The action followed the collapse of Metronet, a contractor that maintains most of the city's subway tracks, trains and signals. The firm was plunged into bankruptcy in July after running out of cash. (The three Underground lines still operating are serviced by a different company.)

The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), which represents the strikers, wants assurances that no job losses, involuntary transfers or pension cuts will result from Metronet's going to the wall. London's mayor, Ken Livingstone, and the employers have given "clear written assurances that meet all of their concerns," Transport for London (TfL), the body responsible for the city's transit system, insisted in a statement. So with the strike under way, Livingstone blasted the unions, calling the walkout "the most purposeless ever called." Even British Prime Minister Gordon Brown asked the workers to "get back to work as quickly as possible."

As the remaining subway services and London buses groaned under the weight of extra passengers, tempers flared. Early this morning in plush Notting Hill, West London, one well-dressed middle-aged woman, having failed to find room on a string of packed buses, resorted to clubbing other waiting passengers out of her way with an umbrella to get on board.

By Tuesday afternoon, both sides were headed back into talks aimed at solving a dispute that could cost the capital's economy as much as $100 million a day. "We'll drive our points home and try to make clear those assurances are solid," a TfL spokesman told TIME. If negotiations fail, the RMT has warned another strike could follow next week. Getting to Paris quicker than getting to work could be something Londoners will have to get used to.