Stand on the right! Mind the Gap! A guide to good Tube etiquette


A crash course on how to use the London Underground system

On any given day, London is utterly rammed with tourists. But over Christmas, rammed doesn’t begin to cover it, by mid-December there are millions of tonnes of animated human flesh wandering about the streets, filling up the shops, restaurants and all of London’s other cavities. 

London is Europe’s most visited city, with over 27 million people staying overnight each year, including 14 million international visitors.

With so many tourists in the city, Londoners are pretty used to it all. Nonetheless, observing a few conventions can help you get around more quickly, avoid crime and will also help you to rub along with other Londoners.

Bearing that in mind, here is a guide to etiquette on the London Underground that will help first-time visitors to the British capital enjoy their time below the surface of the earth.

Etiquette on the tube

The London Underground, or the “Tube”, as it is popularly known, is the oldest underground railway system in the world. Despite some lines being over 150 years old, it remains one of the easiest ways for tourists to move around the city quickly and easily. However, there are a few pitfalls to beware of.

1. The Gap

The most important pitfall is a physical one. The “Gap” isn’t just a clothing store. In London it is the perilous fissure between train and platform. Every year, untold numbers of people fall into the gap. This is a move best avoided if you enjoy having legs.

2. Do you know which way you are going?

No Trousers Day tube

Unlike other European Metro systems, the Tube relies on passengers knowing which geographical direction they are travelling in. It is essential therefore, to know if the station you are planning to get to is North, South, East or West from the station you are travelling from.

Signs on the Northern Line, for example, will say “Northern Line Southbound”, or “Northern Line Northbound”, which can get a bit confusing if you’re topographically-challenged. Some people believe it is bad luck to travel south on the Northern Line, but sometimes it cannot be avoided.

Pick up a free London tube map, and use that to plan your route. Try to avoid blocking the entrance and exit of a platform by stopping to examine the route on the wall. This seemingly harmless bit of standing is a source of great rage to Londoners who detest any additional impediment to their already constricted movement.

3. Rush hour

At peak hours, from 06.30 – 09.30, and from 16.00 – 19.00, Monday-Friday, the Tube becomes a subterranean human flesh pipe. Humidity levels soar due to the high rate of aerobic respiration from the huge quantity of mammals making their way to and from work.

Many trains can become too full to board and most passengers will not find a seat. This can become something of a metaphysical and existential ordeal. Travelling at this time is not recommended, and passengers will also pay more than during off-peak hours.

4. Luggage

Carrying large bags should be avoided on the Tube if possible, particularly at busy times. Bicycles may only be taken on certain lines, though never during peak hours. This excludes folding bicycles, which are fine to be taken on any Tube train, though on the whole, cycling is much faster and more pleasant anyway.

Passengers should keep their luggage close to them at all times and never leave it unattended. Unattended luggage may cause a security alert and could be removed and destroyed. You don’t want that, and neither do Londoners, who have to endure this sort of easily avoided incompetence all the time.

5. Escalators – Stand on the right

Tube crowd escalators

The cardinal rule when visiting London is to stand on the right when enjoying a journey up or down an escalator. This keeps the left side clear for passengers who wish to walk past.

If you only remember one thing, then it should be this thing. Standing on the right is the golden rule, nay, the very foundation of all successful Tube travel, and Londoners are impatient with tourists who don’t observe this simple instruction. A recent experiement at Holborn Station has attempted to undo the stand on the right law. It has been widely condemned, and even described as “the beginning of the end for public transport”. So you can just ignore this madness.

6. Wash your body

Before attempting a ride on the Tube, make sure your body is clean and smells nice. Once you get underground, it is hot and there is little space. Inevitably, all the human beings come into close proximity with one another, and if there is one thing that can make a Tube ride a psychological trial, it is being close to a stinker. Also brush your teeth please. No-one really likes the smell of napalm/gingivitis in the morning.

7. Reading

Tube stress

This man has no book. Pity him

So long as it’s not too full, a Tube carriage can be an excellent place to enjoy a story. Bring a book or a newspaper. Just remember to stop reading and disembark the train when you reach your destination station. Under no circumstances should you read a fellow passenger’s reading material by leaning over their shoulder.

8. Music

The Tube is not a quiet environment. In some places, the roar of the train is so loud that it can prevent even simple cognitive processes occurring. As such, it is not an ideal location for listening to music, as passengers must necessarily turn their music up to eardrum-damaging levels. When the roaring of the train subsequently ceases, all the other passengers will then be able to hear your music spilling out of your headphones. This will enrage them, and they will then judge your musical taste, which they will find to be inferior.

9. Payment with Oysters

An Oyster Card deposit costs five quid, and is refundable upon return of the card. You can then top-up the Oyster Card, a bit like when you had a pay-as-you-go mobile as a teenager.

Alternatively, if you are in possession of a chip and pin card with “contactless” capability, you can just thrust that at the card reader and the barriers will part for you, just as the Red Sea did for Moses.

For an even more high-tech payment experience, you can use a function called Apple Wallet, which stores your card details on an iPhone. Then, to access the subterranean hell-world of the Tube, you simply fling your phone at the card reader, and the barriers will part for you, a bit like wind through the centre-partings that adorned the heads of 90s era boy bands.

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