4 Oct 2023

Going Underground

The rise of hybrid working has meant that diurnal tube journeys are no longer an inevitable aspect of living and working in London. Over the summer months the tube is overwhelmed with tourists and visitors and, as the holiday season draws to a close and the return to work picks up pace, it is becoming apparent that London Underground etiquette, which has been honed and disseminated since the first subterranean trains began to run in 1863, is beginning to look a bit frayed.

The first underground trains were inordinately loud, making conversations impossible. The prevailing tendency was to mind your own business, immuring yourself in your own unreachable and self-contained zone, a behaviour that is still very recognisable today.

The introduction of escalators into crowded stations in 1911 introduced new challenges to tube passengers. Initially, guards instructed passengers to walk up the escalators, treating them as moving staircases. Gradually, underground workers introduced a system where those who wanted to stand still could do so on the right-hand side, while people who walked up the escalator used the left-hand side. This system is still in place today.

The congestion of the London underground, the huge numbers of passengers, and complexity of the route system, were all challenges that were addressed by the railway authorities, who began to issue a series of innovative instructional posters, which were intended to initiate their users in the correct underground etiquette. The posters focused on social conduct and ways of ensuring the journey was as pleasant as possible: they advised how to enter a crowded carriage; warned against blocking the doorways; pleaded with people on the platform to let passengers off first; recommended moving down the platform to reduce overcrowding – all these instructions can still be heard today.

Often the messages were framed in a moralistic tone, stressing the fact that ‘good’ tube behaviour was considerate towards other people. A 1918 poster instructed passengers to move down inside the carriage because “everyone cannot get a seat at the busy hours, but more could get a strap or standing room if the doors were left free from the crush. Think of others. A door obstructer is a selfish person.”

Many of these challenges remain today and, while trains have become faster, more frequent, and quieter, passengers – especially in the aftermath of the Covid shutdown and the working from home revolution – may lack the awareness and acuity that underground travel demands. Losing yourself in your phone, shutting yourself off with the help of headphones, or dawdling dreamily in train doorways, are all signs of a worrying lack of engagement with the real world, which can inconvenience other passengers.

Now is the time to brush up your underground etiquette, by following these simple rules:

Debrett's Guide to Underground Etiquette

•Be prepared when you enter the underground station, and have your Oyster card, debit card or phone ready to place on the reader. Especially in rush hours, the flow of passengers through the entrance gate is fast and relentless, and people will be annoyed if you hold them up while you fumble in your bag or pocket.

•If you want to stand still on the escalators, stick to the right-hand side, allowing people to walk up and down on the left-hand side. Always leave enough space for walkers to pass on your left.

•Once you arrive at the platform, move along so that you are not blocking entrances and exits.

•When the train arrives, stand to one side of the opening doors, and allow passengers to disembark. Do not jostle or barge into other passengers in your eagerness to board – another train will be along very shortly.

•Once on board the train, move down quickly inside the carriage – there are plenty of handles and rails to assist you. Do not bunch up in the entrances near the doors as it will make it difficult for passengers to disembark.

•The carriages can be quite crowded so try not to take up excess room with your luggage and possessions. If you are wearing a backpack, be aware that there is a hefty protuberance on your back that might well barge into other passengers – it is best to remove it before boarding and place it between your feet.

•Only use one seat – do not dump your possessions on the vacant seat next to you.

•Do not occupy more than your allocated space by slouching or sprawling in your seat or manspreading.

•If you are standing by the doors on a crowded train, it is a good idea to disembark and stand to one side to let other passengers off. Don’t panic – you will be able to re-board the train.

•If you are listening to music or podcasts, use headphones or earbuds. Loud music leaching out of your headphones will be frowned upon – tubes are conventionally quiet spaces.

•Minimise eating and drinking on the tube. Lurching trains and sudden stops can easily lead to embarrassing spillages and smelly foods can be overpowering in a confined space.

•Do not stare at your fellow passengers. If you find yourself without the distraction of your phone, or a book or newspaper, try to fix your gaze above the opposite passengers’ heads, where you will adverts and tube maps to distract you.

•Be aware that overt staring can be interpreted as ‘intrusive staring of a sexual nature’, which is a prosecutable offence.

• It is important that you respect the Priority Seat signs. In any case, if you see an older person, or someone who is pregnant, or a mother with a small child in tow, it is a considerate gesture to offer them your seat.

 •If you are offered a seat, graciously accept it, even if you do not feel that you need it – accepting politely will encourage considerate behaviour. If you are only staying on the train for a couple of stops, say so and politely refuse.


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