Jack Brown: Rush hour Tube etiquette – unspoken rules and why they matter

Jack Brown: Rush hour Tube etiquette – unspoken rules and why they matter

My name is Jack Brown and I have used public transport in London all my adult life. However, over the past few months, the frequency with which I commute at rush hour using the Underground has increased. I am fortunate in that I live at the (best) end of the Victoria Line, and so am often blessed with a seat for the first part of my journey, but this advantage is lost when changing lines and when returning home.

During this particularly hot summer, I have found the experience increasingly trying. I don’t think I am the only one. The Victoria Line is not quite the worst offender for maximum temperatures, but it’s not far off. And whilst Tube ridership is falling, for reasons as-yet-unknown, peak hours are still rammed and I regularly have to let several trains pass by before I’m able to squeeze onto one. Once I do get on, it’s a pretty uncomfortable, sweaty experience, and one that most commuters focus on trying to forget, even as it is happening.

As a fairly small man, I spend plenty of time squished between the larger and more powerful, with my face pressed into the armpit of a stranger while trying to breathe through my ears. And it’s not just the trains that are a crush: the stations, escalators and platforms are all busy, and provide impressive potential for conflict between adrenaline-pumped commuters in a hurry.

It is for this reason that I have decided to record my rules for good Tube etiquette in an honest effort to significantly improve the experience for all. Some of these rules are universally acknowledged and abided by. Others are understood by many, but observed by few. I’m sure I am not the first to attempt to write these rules down. The list may be incomplete and some items on it may be up for debate or disputed. But I feel that it is important – no, vital – that we set down some basic standards.


  1. Let’s begin with perhaps the most important rule of all: there is a queuing system for getting on to extremely busy rush hour Tube trains. Just because there isn’t a Tokyo metro-style single file queue, it doesn’t mean the queuing system doesn’t exist – and you know it. If I have to wait for two or three trains to go past before I can get on one, but you just breeze up all fresh and cheery, sneak around the side and shove your way on in front of me, you have jumped the queue and should be publicly shamed and outcast from mainstream society, just as you would be had you jumped a queue anywhere else in a British public place.
  2. Don’t get on the Tube before people get off – it creates panic and fear in those who are waiting in an orderly fashion. It is akin to shouting “fire” in a crowded room.
  3. If someone steps off the Tube temporarily in order to let others behind them leave the carriage at their stop, they have right of way to re-enter before anyone waiting gets on. Don’t push on ahead of them, no matter what your position in the “queue” on the platform. There are no exceptions to this rule, and if you do break it, even accidentally, you must get off the train, leave the station and walk the rest of your journey, for you have gravely sinned.
  4. If you are standing in the carriage aisle, between the rows of seats, you have first dibs on the seat in front of you if it is vacated. If a seat directly behind you becomes available, however, the situation is more ambiguous. You will have to consult others (with a gesture towards the seat at a bare minimum) before you can rightfully claim it. If you are facing directly down the carriage, rather than sideways, and hoping to cover potential seats on both sides – hard luck. You will now have to consult before taking either seat. You can’t cheat the system.
  5. Those sitting in priority seats must look up at each stop and double check that an elderly person, pregnant woman or someone who needs to sit down more than you hasn’t just got on. If you fail in this, accidentally or deliberately, and someone in a non-priority seat gives up their seat for the person in need, then you’ll have to live with the fact that everyone on the train thinks you are actually, genuinely evil. May the sound of tutting ring in your ears for the rest of your miserable life.
  6. A controversial one, perhaps, but I strongly believe that the stand-up seats or “rests” at the very end of each carriage by the doors are for one person only. Yes, you can fit two bums up against them, but this is unreasonably intimate.
  7. No man-spreading (or spreading of any kind, for that matter), if you are lucky enough to be seated.
  8. Arm rests are not for resting arms on – they are dividers between seats, to keep us from touching each other and potentially catching something.
  9. When arriving on a platform after walking through a Tube station, do not instantly stop and make a leisurely decision about whether left or right looks more appealing. If you do, you will be blocking the entrance to the platform and will be thrown in front of the next train as punishment (or should be).
  10. When leaving an escalator do not instantly stop. Same principle as Rule 9. If you slow down or stop, you will cause a pile up and someone will probably end up being sucked underneath the escalator and taken all the way back to the top/bottom, delaying their commute by several minutes. More importantly, everyone will be angry.
  11. Walk up/down the left hand side on escalators at all times because otherwise everyone will just lose their minds at you and you will have to pretend to be a tourist. And they will shout at you regardless.
  12. Absolutely no using the unofficial “walking side lane” when approaching the escalator unless you actually intend to walk up it rather than stand. Walking vaguely on the left hand side of the almost-queue-shaped mass of people leading up to an escalator, only to cut into the unofficial “standing side lane” at the last minute, is disingenuous and dishonest. The same applies to trying to cut in at the last minute at motorway junction exit with a long queue. I know what you’re up to, mate, and I am prepared to crash into the back of you to prevent the triumph of injustice.
  13. Get. Your. Oyster. Card. Out. Before. The. Barriers. Even tourists. There is no excuse for being caught by surprise by an exit when you are leaving a station. What else did you expect to find on your way out? An entrance? (For an entrance, you would also need your Oyster card, so you should have had it out anyway).
  14. Move down the carriage at all times, whenever possible or a fellow passenger will shout “Can you move down the carriage, please” and no one will like that person. It doesn’t matter if they’re right. The only way to prevent “that person” getting the opportunity to be “that person” is to just move down the carriage independently of them, in advance. The upside of this is that if they still decide to be “that person” you can look outraged at them and gesture towards your lack of space to move. This makes you a king/queen of the Underground and you will have a wonderful day.
  15. On a related note, never, ever allow your bag to be caught in the carriage doors. This is easily done, but will prevent the doors closing first time, delaying the train by up to four seconds. This sends all Tube drivers, without exception, into an uncontrollable rage. You will be verbally assaulted publicly and angrily via the train’s public address system as if you were a childlike moron who has committed a hate crime.
  16. All bags must be taken off of backs/shoulders/arms and placed between your legs, in order to reduce your footprint as much as possible. This even/especially applies to large handbags. No exceptions!
  17. No reading or looking at mobile phones while walking within the station. This is especially important on stairs or escalators. You might not notice, but it makes you walk slow and stupid and you will get in other peoples’ way. Unacceptable.
  18. Finally, pursuant to Rule 17, anyone who continues to watch Netflix on their phone/iPad while walking within the stations (an increasing and alarming trend) shall have to ride on the outside of the train as punishment. Seriously, who watches TV while they walk?

Any further suggestions welcome. Thanks are due to Joanna Clark, who is passionate about queues, for help in clarifying and developing some of the above rules.

Read previous pieces by Jack Brown here.

Categories: Comment, Culture

1 Comment

  1. Matt says:

    Agree with all if it. Beautifully summed up. Just wish there was a way of transmitting it via my phone to the (insert swearword of choice) who boarded a late-arriving train, ignoring those of us who’d been waiting for ten minutes and rugby tackling the poor sods disembarking to claim the only available seat. Would have been nice to have sent him a psycho kinetic text as he pulled out his phone and started to play a video game. I don’t think the withering stare cut it….

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