Jack Brown: The rules of Tube etiquette – an update

Jack Brown: The rules of Tube etiquette – an update

London is a fast-moving place. As a world city, we often face global challenges. These challenges can arrive suddenly and lead to an acceleration of the pace of life. In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, the challenge has hit the capital first and hardest but, unusually, has led to a slowing down, rather than a speeding up.

There has been concern over some Underground trains remaining very full during the morning peak,  but when I last used the Tube network, shortly before the reduction in weekday services, they had become eerily quiet.

There is a risk that the army of Platform Mice that live in (seemingly) every London Underground station will realise that this is their moment and seize control of the trains. But their leadership is weak and they are inexperienced and divided. We have access to a great deal of technology that they simply cannot operate. And ultimately, their brains are the size of beans. We must believe we can keep their rebellion at bay.

It is therefore reasonable to assume that London and its public transport network will, one day, return to normality. So it is perhaps worth revisiting the rules for good Tube etiquette in advance of that time. This is an opportunity for a reset – a period of remote home-based training for thousands of increasingly self-isolating Londoners – before a new era of civilised decency on the Tube begins.

It has been a year-and-a-half since I first committed to paper the rules I thought would be the definitive guide to Tube etiquette for at least the next thousand years (or at least until Crossrail opens – whichever is sooner). How wrong I was. The original 18 rules must now be amended. Omissions – some inexcusable – have been pointed out to me by others. Further suggestions have also been made that, with some consideration, warrant inclusion.

The law, like our constitution, is a living, breathing thing that evolves over time. When the facts change, we must change with them. So it is time for an update to the rules. Please refer to the original rules for comparison and completion.




Rule 19

There was early advice from Transport for London not to touch the poles or “central support pillars” in the middle of carriages for fear of picking up or spreading the coronavirus. This means the introduction of Rule 19 will be deferred until the COVID-19 crisis has passed. It will, nonetheless, be fundamental to future Tube decorum. The rule is that leaning on these pillars is completely forbidden in what is one of the most volatile parts of the train. Perhaps better described as the “poles in the centre of standing areas”, they are vital to keeping order amid the gaping vacuum of hand rails that is the central portion of a Tube carriage. Without them, passengers will be thrown all over the place, as if inside a tumble drier. In non-virus crisis periods, preventing others from being able to hold on to the pole is selfishness of the highest order. It is completely unacceptable.

(Thanks to Victoria Pinoncély, John Stolliday, Amy Leppänen and Austin Williams, all of whom pointed out this appalling omission.)


Rule 20

Kate Spiliopoulos raised the issue of “people who get on busy Tube lines at rush hour and then loudly complain to the carriage that it’s crowded and this is unfair to them personally”. I could not agree more and have encountered this abomination on more than one occasion. Unforgivable. Kate suggests that the appropriate punishment is death by “LASER DEATH GLARE”. This seems to me a little mild, but it is a good starting point.


Rule 21

Elizabeth Balgobin encouraged awareness of short people. She thinks it common sense and common decency to check that the “gap” stopping you getting on board a train isn’t actually just a vertically-challenged human before you force your way through. But Elizabeth also suggests a slightly more controversial second rule, seemingly devised following an unusual but memorable experience: no brushing your hair whilst on the Tube, due to:”elbow encroachment and short person covered in your hair”.

Due to the severity of the crime of elbow encroachment (already mentioned in rule 8), alongside the horrifying levels of dead skin and all sorts of other human and non-human detritus that we are already breathing in when on the Underground, I think hair brushing is banned. And as a fairly short person myself, I obviously think that paying respect to the short should be law, above ground as well as below.


Rule 22

Several months back, the teaching team of a King’s College Strand Group course called The Treasury and an Introduction to Economic History raised another important point. Even in the pre-COVID19 era, Nick Macpherson suggested that coughing or sneezing without covering one’s mouth was the most serious offence possible on a Tube train. Mario Pisani added that the correct mouth covering technique when standing on the Tube uses the inner crease of one elbow rather than the hands, so as to avoid transferring the cough-affected hand directly back onto an overhead rail or hand grip you are using. This amounts to something like a practical and less stylised version of what the young people call “dabbing”. Very considerate, and should be taught at school.

BONUS: This “elbow crease” technique has since seemingly become government policy. It can therefore be enforced by throwing non-compliers into the Tower.


Rule 23

Philip Chapman proposed a rule which I, as someone who commutes from and to the end of the Victoria Line, was already contemplating introducing. When arriving at the final stop, all on board are eager to be the first off and then run towards the exit escalator before the crowding gets too bad. But there is a clear order of precedence here. It is that those who have been forced to stand by the doors should never, ever be usurped by someone who has had a seat the whole way and  suddenly jumps up at the last minute and pushes past. All those who ignore or attempt to subvert this hierarchy are well aware of what they are doing. Yet honouring it is a matter of such simple common sense that the mere idea of having to write it down is getting me upset.


Rule 24

Chris Madel raised the very important issue of wheelie bags – fine in airports, where there is space for them to freely roam, but a terrible trip hazard and a diabolical liberty in the confined spaces of the Underground. This is a real problem, and particularly in instances where the handle is hyper-extended, leaving the bag trailing several feet behind the commuter, all-but-invisible to fellow passengers and causing potentially lethal rage through tripping.

Chris recommends either a blanket ban, with confiscation for those who disobey, or a rush-hour ban and an “awareness course” for offenders. I lean towards the former, but with controlled explosions rather than confiscations of said bags, should they be used with hyper-extended handles. What about those using the Tube to get to the airport, you might ask? Not my problem. Zero tolerance. Wheelie bags are absolutely forbidden.


Rules 25 & 26

The events of 17 October 2019 at Canning Town station, whereby Extinction Rebellion protestors climbed on top of a Tube train, attempting to halt it, before being pulled down and assaulted by angry commuters, prompted two new rules previously thought too obvious to be written down: don’t climb on top of the train, and don’t hit anyone.




Rule 1: amendment (terminology)

Caroline Coxhead branded those who attempt to sneak in around the edges of queues to get on board trains as “the Side People. There is evidence that this sort of behaviour is indicative of a certain quality or trait in a person that goes beyond Tube etiquette alone. I am therefore retrospectively amending Rule 1 to include this terminology. “Side People” are a scourge and something must be done.


Rule 4: addendum

The original Rule 4 is about who gets first priority to a newly-vacant seat. However, as Roger Evans observes, this absolutely does not make it acceptable to leave a seat empty on a packed carriage. Whilst it is clearly illegal to break the speed limit, driving too slowly can also get you pulled over. A similar principle applies here. Evans says he doesn’t care about what you’re trying to say about your “virility or virtue” by continuing to stand – you’re clogging up the standing space by not sitting down. This is actually a very good point, and something I too have encountered. Offering the seat to someone else first is fine, but if they won’t take it, for God’s sake, sit down. (Worth re-stating that this rule only really applies to a packed Tube carriage).




Honourable mentions

Damian McBride (who was not necessarily intending to contribute to the list) claimed that eating apples on all public transport was a top three life crime. I remain unconvinced. However, he also claimed that I was one of “history’s greatest monsters”, which is reasonable.

Twitter user “Mark H” expressed some concern that “unwritten rules will always be broken”, particularly in the “impending Brexit utopia” in which we now live. Not sure what to do about that I’m afraid.



The real Rule Number One of Tube etiquette is, of course, for the time being, to stay home where possible due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I send my love and respect to everyone who is paying attention to the government advice and socially distancing or self-isolating despite its challenges, to all those who are genuinely unable to do so be this due to work or other commitments, and, of course, in particular to the key workers, who have always been key, but suddenly seem even more so. Take care of one another.

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