Etiquette for Travellers on the London Underground Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Etiquette for Travellers on the London Underground

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Britain is a place revered for the high regard its people place on etiquette, and indeed, the preservation of reserve even in the most stressful of situations. The London Underground is just one such place which accommodates this idiosyncrasy, with its own set of behavioural rules for the troglodytes who choose to utilise it as their main form of transport to get to and from their place of work.

It is, in short, still the best way to get around the labyrinthine streets of London Town, and a visitor may be confused about how one is to behave correctly without sounds of contempt emanating from fellow travellers.

So here is a guide on how one is to behave when entering the subterranean world of the London Underground.

Asking for Directions

Make sure that they are not questions which you can answer easily yourself: for instance, direction of travel. Looking at the London Underground map, if you have to go westbound, then the direction of travel is going to the left of the Tube schematic. If you have to go eastbound, then you go right. Northbound equals up, southbound - well, you work it out.

There is one major exception to this simple directional tool, and that is the Circle Line - where being a circle, there is no real direction at all. Confusingly, it has westbound and eastbound direction, as opposed to the more logical clockwise and anticlockwise direction.

If you must ask questions, then do so in good time. There is nothing more irritating to the well-seasoned commuter than to say - 'have we just passed [enter station name here]?', just as the train departs from it. Staff and commuters will be helpful alike when devising suitable travel plans. It is important to remember to say 'please' and 'thank you' after the question and its answer respectively.

Buying a Ticket

Ensure that you establish which ticket to purchase. This can be facilitated by deciding which is suited to your journey. The multitudinous types of tickets which can be procured from the ticket office, or indeed, the ticket machines, are not described here, as they are described very well at Transport for London.

The point here is that speed is of the essence. The faster you can buy your ticket, the less the people have to wait behind you. Have your change ready as well. This will speed you through the machine, or indeed, past the man giving you the ticket.

Don't hold your ticket next to magnetic things, such as handbag clasps, or mobile phones. This will wipe the magnetic strip, rendering it impossible to get through the barriers. Don't fold it either, as this will damage the strip, too.

The Ticket Barrier

Again, you must be prepared. Even before you get to the ticket barrier, have the ticket ready in your right hand, magnetic side face down. Form an orderly queue to the barrier, and when you reach it, slide the ticket into the panel facing you. The barrier will then suck it in, and it will pop it out at the top. If there are no problems with the magnetic strip, then as you remove your ticket from the top, you may pass - but do so quickly. This again, ensures that the people behind you get through quicker.

If there is a problem with your ticket because of one or more of the reasons outlined in the previous section, then the barrier will not let you through. Instead, it will beep loudly, and a red sign will flash up saying 'Seek Assistance'. if this happens, then go to a member of London Underground staff, who will then establish the nature of the problem. Do not on any account:

  • Put the ticket through again.

  • Force your way through the barrier.

  • Go through the opening barrier if the person behind you has already inserted their ticket, thus leaving them stranded on the wrong side of the barrier.

Putting your ticket through the barrier again will only result in the same thing happening, holding up more passengers queuing behind you. Forcing your way through will hurt.

Walking to the Platform

Assume a brisk pace, with determination and vigour. This again, will not lead to hold-ups behind you. If you must stop, then first take a glance behind you to assess the flow of walkers, and gently ease your way toward the side, and stop in a gentle and controlled fashion. Stopping suddenly can lead to injury; either by a fellow traveller bumping into you because they have not anticipated your sudden drop in speed as they walk, or by some very hot coffee from a fellow traveller, also walking just as fast and not anticipating your sudden drop in speed...


You know you've been in London for too long when you automatically stand to the right on an escalator.
- Anonymous

If you are going to walk up an escalator, do so at a similar brisk pace, on the left-hand side of the escalator. If you choose to stand, make sure that you always stand to the right-hand side, and try to take up as little space as possible, without touching anyone. Do not in any circumstances obstruct the left-hand side with clumsy posture, bags, suitcases, children or loved ones.

If you wish to move from the stationary right-hand side to the moving left-hand side, then look behind you for a suitable gap between ascending passengers, manoeuvre quickly into it without contact with your fellow travellers, and assume the brisk pace outlined before. Once the brisk pace is assumed, you should not stop just in front of the bottom or top of escalators. This will result in exactly the same injuries as with stopping suddenly when walking to the platform. Find a safe space to stop, and manoeuvre yourself toward it safely.

Use the correct escalator for the direction of travel. In other words, if you wish to ascend, use the up escalator. If you wish to descend, use the down escalator1.


A question asked again and again is on the issue of buskers. Should one refrain from giving money to an unlicensed individual/persons as they are breaking London Underground rules, or instead reward them for having the gall to entertain the commuting moles in their dreary and featureless trek deep under the capital city, and the admirable guile to avoid being caught?

The answer to this is of course, 'only if they are good'. Hence the person who can sing in tune, play in tune, improvise a fair bit and knows the bowels of London well enough to pick out the areas with the best acoustics will certainly have a fine nose for places and an ear for a tune.

Two places with particularly good acoustics include the bottom of the second set of escalators as you descend to the Piccadilly Line at Piccadilly Circus for the jazz and Beatles aficionados, and about a third of the way down what has been named 'The Tunnel of Hell'2 for violin solos.

Then there is the question - 'how much?' indeed, how much you feel is necessary for the quality of the performance. For tourists, this may be a very good method of getting rid of all those brown coins which the travel agents or the bureaux de change will not accept.

Licensed sites are usually occupied by buskers deemed to have some musical talent - as decided by London Underground.


Begging is not permitted anywhere on London Underground property.
- A sign which is often ignored on the London Underground

Then there is the more difficult issue of beggars. It has been argued that the money that is collected from the public by them is used primarily for the purchase of alcohol and/or to sustain their addiction to illegal substances. However, whether this is true or not, to have no home, money or indeed security must be at the least depressing, and it is unsurprising that some do turn to such avenues as a form of escape.

As a result, if you give money to a beggar, some disparaging looks may be carefully directed at you from fellow passengers. You could then not give beggars money. However, you may feel guilty at this course of action. A suitable alternative would be to give them some food. The other slice of that sandwich which you don't feel like eating, or the mini-tube of stacking crisps which you really didn't want to eat could be given to someone else who would appreciate the gift in more ways than you could imagine.

The Platform

General Rules

Understandably, people do not wish to travel too far, so there is a tendency for passengers to build up just in and around the entrances to the platforms. To prevent this from occurring, utilise your walking skills and use the entire length of the platform - again, with the brisk pace as described before.

No flash photography.

A friend of mine snapped a shot of an incoming train, only to hear an announcement requesting that pathetic tourists refrain from popping flashbulbs in the eyes of the conductor while he's attempting to stop a train. Well, without the 'pathetic'. But whoever sits there spying on the platforms is quick on the uptake. There's nothing like that in NY.

For Overground Platforms

I apologise for the jerky stop, but someone opened their umbrella in front of the train... once again, I apologise...
- Eastbound Piccadilly Line driver, arriving at Acton Town

To say that it is a bit wet in Britain is akin to saying that the Sahara is a bit warm at midday. Hence you may find yourself on a platform with an umbrella. When the train pulls in, do not try to close your umbrella in front of the train driver as it pulls in. Not only will the driver not appreciate your umbrella-closing skills, neither will any of the passengers on the train, as he will have had to make a very jerky and uncomfortable stop.

Always have your mobile phone set to discreet. If it is ringing, answer it as quickly as possible. Then when you converse over the phone, be as quiet as you can. Then, after the conversation, set your phone to discreet. There is no need for that mistake to happen again. This also applies to being within the train on overground sections of track, where there is mobile phone reception.


Don't. London Underground staff can see you smoke, as the following announcement demonstrates:

London Underground would like to remind our customers that smoking is not permitted anywhere on the station. And that includes you... yes you, the smug git in the red jacket at the end of the platform...
- A non-recorded announcement on the Eastbound platform of the District Line at South Kensington

On the Train

Eye Contact

If God had wanted us to make eye contact on the Tube, then why did he give us the Evening Standard?
- A writer for the Evening Standard3.

Unless you have a significant other to make eye contact with, or indeed, relatives and suchlike, eye contact is a London Underground etiquette no-no. On no account does a person make eye contact with another passenger on the Underground, in any circumstance, even accidentally.

Physical Contact

  • Off-Peak Period - As for eye contact, unless you have a genuine reason for touching someone, refrain from doing so. When choosing seats, don't sit right next to the only person on the carriage. Instead, sit at the other end and surround yourself with the tranquillity of emptiness.

  • Peak Period - If you have a seat, and find that someone requires it more than yourself - ie, they have lots of baggage, the elderly, pregnant women, young children or anyone who appears to have had an unfortunate day4, then give up your seat to them. This is instant kudos, not only to the person to whom you gave up your seat, but also to yourself.

  • If you wish to sit with your legs open, ensure that your legs form an angle between them of no greater than 10°.

  • When waiting, or when the train is arriving at the platform, always stand behind the yellow line. Train drivers have enough to cope with without worrying that someone is going to lose their balance and fall at an inopportune moment. Trains push air in front of them as they travel, and it can sometimes be enough to catch out the unwary.

  • Once the train is travelling past you, try not to edge forward in an effort to be the first onto the train. This can still be dangerous, and this traveller has seen bags and cases hit by the train as people surge forward.

  • Once the train has stopped, the doors will open. This is not the sign to pile onto the train. Others will be wanting to get off, and it is much easier to board a train with fewer people on it. It will also avoid 'buffeting' as people have to force themselves out against the incoming tide. If you make a mistake and step on too early, then don't be afraid to step back down again. You won't get left behind.

  • While waiting for passengers to disembark, stand back from the door. Stand to the sides, don't stand in front leaving one step clear in front of the doors, as this means that people will have to push past. If you can, stand to the side away from the exit, so people are getting off the train and turning away from you. This is the side of least resistance, but does mean you need to know your area.

  • Once all the passengers are off, then board. Move as far into the carriage as you can. Don't hover round the door because that's the exit you want further down the line. Move down between the seats if you can, as there will be more room there, and less chance that if the train gets really packed you will end up crushed. There's also the best chance of getting a seat if someone leaves. If this is not possible, then still move as far in as you can. You may find yourself getting more intimate with complete strangers than you may ever have done before. There is no other helpful advice here other than to just hope it will end soon, and not to complain - no one else does.

  • Stand well clear of the doors so that the train can depart. If you don't, this will incite loud sounds of contempt from the driver and other London Underground staff, such as:

Look, if you don't stand clear, none of us are going home!
- Piccadilly Line driver, afternoon rush-hour

To the man in the grey coat: what part of 'Stand clear of the doors' don't you understand?
- London Underground staff, South Kensington station, Piccadilly Line Westbound platform at morning rush-hour

Verbal Contact

Unless it is to ask the way, to ask for a newspaper which someone has read, to say 'excuse me!' to get to the Tube doors, or the persons with whom you wish to converse fall into the categories outlined in the past two sections, under no circumstances are you to engage in conversation with anyone on the Tube.

If you are by the door when the train stops and don't want to get off but are in the way of disembarking passengers, do step out. In all cases, the waiting passengers will allow you space and you will be the first back on the train. People will get a warm feeling when they think about your kindness.

Facial Expression

None, save for looking sullen, downcast, and generally depressed. Smiling should not occur, as it is generally seen that there is no valid reason for any positive emotion to be expressed while using this means of public transport. If any emotion is to be expressed, then it is usually in response to an announcement along the lines of:

I'm sorry for the delay, but we're being kept here for a couple more minutes to let the Rayners Lane train go first - why they couldn't have let us go first as we got here before them, I don't know... but anyway, sorry for the delay...
- Eastbound Heathrow branch Piccadilly Line driver, on approach to Acton Town, morning rush-hour

Even in response to an announcement like that, one should not exclaim vocally. To make known your disquiet, affect a slight grimace, wrinkling your brow very slightly, roll your eyes, or sigh very gently.

Sounds of Silence

If you are listening to music, make sure it is very quiet. You may be listening to a whole range of vocals, swirling woodwind, swelling strings and phat bass, but the rest will only hear something along the lines of 'tch thc cth thc thc'. The same goes for talking. Despite the ambient train noise being somewhat less than ambient, shouting will only add to the cacophony. The best thing to do may be to take a crash course in lip-reading or sign language.


Make sure you don't eat smelly food on the train. Despite having signs for 'Ventilation', the train carriage is essentially an enclosed space. Hence any strong smelling foods will diffuse through the air quickly. The same is true of very strong perfume, aftershave or flatulence.

Make sure you are wearing a good antiperspirant and deodorant as well. If you are unlucky enough to travel at peak times of the day, there will be a high probability of your good self travelling with someone's face in your armpit, or indeed, the converse. So to facilitate good Tube relations, be scentless in all ways.

Reading Material

Books - Considering delays, a nice big book may be suitable - at the time of writing, popular titles observed on the Tube include The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Revision material in cue-card form can also provide excellent exam preparation for those long journeys.

This helps in avoiding eye contact with your fellow travellers.

Newspapers - London has three free newspapers called The Metro, London Lite, and The London Paper, which are akin to a thin tabloid. They have the advantage of being quite small, so that your elbows aren't occupying more space than is necessary to read the paper. The same goes for other tabloids. Just ensure that you keep your elbows down as much as possible.

If you are a broadsheet reader, then it becomes more difficult. The paper that it is printed on covers a greater area, thus you may find yourself taking up a great deal more space. To avoid this, fold the paper lengthways so you end up with a very narrow newspaper. Then as you finish reading the columns on the front page, turn it over. When you effectively finish reading the front, turn the page so that the first columns are where the first columns on the front page were, while maintaining its narrow format. Continue through the paper until read. Or just choose a 'compact' broadsheet.

As with books, both types of newspaper are also incredibly useful in ensuring that you don't make eye contact with anyone else on the train.

When you have finished reading your paper, it is customary to leave it in an area where other passengers may also pick it up to read it. On the Tube, this can be in the space between the back of the seat and the window, or on a spare seat. However, this leads to the issue of disposal at the end of the day, so it is usually better to take the paper with you, and share it with colleagues, fellow students, or your child's playgroup. If someone asks for your paper when you have finished with it, then give it to him or her. This is a common occurrence among Tube travellers.

Do not covet thy neighbour's newspaper - don't read over fellow-travellers' shoulders. Not only is it impolite, it's also just downright annoying.

Computers - Size matters, and so small is best. A laptop can be regarded as a maximum in size, and PDAs are commonly seen around the Tube. For games, ensure that you have set the volume to mute.


If you have some wrappers or other similar unwanted products or items, keep them with you until you get to a bin. Do not ask if there are any bins on the Tube - there aren't any5.


If you are carrying a backpack, take it off your back prior to entering the carriage and place it on the floor adjacent to your feet. This will also ensure that you don't take up more space than is deemed necessary. The same applies to shoulder-bags.

If you have several pieces of luggage, then place them in the spaces allotted. Do not let them accumulate at the doors.

Falling Asleep

Acceptable, as long as you do not snore, flop over on a fellow passenger's lap, or take up more than one seat. As no one speaks on the Tube, make sure you keep your ears peeled for your stop, for no one will tell you that the train has terminated.

Generic Advice

  • If the Train is Full - let people off the train first and move right down inside the carriage and, as they say, use all available doors. This will enable more passengers to get on, hence facilitating everyone's journey.

  • If the Train is Ridiculously Full - wait for the next train to arrive - don't add to the crush; these are people, not sardines. The next train should only be a few minutes.

  • If You Need the Toilet When on the Tube Train - cross your legs and hope for the best. Do not complain, do not show it; just bite your tongue and bear it. Toilets at Tube stations are few and far between; most of them are on the new section of the Jubilee Line.

  • If Someone Obviously Needs Help - such as with a multitude of heavy bags down several unforgiving flights of stairs, or indeed a particularly stubborn bottle-cap, then help them with their burden, don't stare at them as they struggle.

  • If You Have Waited for over 30 Minutes - you have in all probability, accidentally walked into a Circle Line station.

  • There are three options:

    • Take a cab
    • Take the day off/give up getting to your destination
    • Walk
1However, this can be waived if you are a student collecting money for charity, and wish to provide valuable entertainment for the sullen faces that pass by.2Although lacking paving by 'Good intentions', the tunnel at South Kensington station appears to go on forever, or at least to be a great deal longer than one may previously assume, and has the unique scent of weeks-old urine which gets much worse during the summer.3The equivalent of a local paper for the whole of London - but the size of London being what it is, it has about the same significance as the Daily Mail.4A good example of this would be someone who looks as if they are going to faint. Prevention is better than cure.5There is a very good reason for this, and that is to prevent people from planting explosives.

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