The unwritten rules of the London Underground

The unwritten rules of the London Underground

The London Underground is a fearsome place. Its first line, the Metropolitan, opened in 1863. So the Underground train system – also known as the ‘Tube’ – has seen well over a century of rats, mice, delays and drunken brawls. And, as any Londoner will tell you, there are unwritten rules to travelling on the Tube. Here are just a few.

Don’t talk

On my first ever trip on the Underground, my colleague, who’d moved to Bath from London and was accompanying me on a trip to our Head Office in Waterloo, smiled when I carried on chatting to her after we’d boarded the Tube. “I can tell you don’t live in London” she said. “Nobody talks on the Tube.” How strange, I thought. But now, after eighteen years of living in the capital, I know what she means. A blank muteness envelopes people as they step over the gap into a carriage. Even the closest of buddies carry on their conversations in a discreet whisper. Don’t ask me why. It just is.

Unless, of course, you’re travelling at the weekend, after 11pm; or heading west on Notting Hill Carnival weekend. Then, if you’re not hollering and tooting, you’ll be in the minority. You have been warned.

DO NOT spout religion

A recent development, this one. Brits are blessed with a stubborn doggedness when it comes to battling on through adversity, but sadly, the spate of recent terrorist attacks have made everyone understandably twitchy. Train lines around Wimbledon had to be closed recently after a preacher loudly quoted passages from the Bible, and talked about Doomsday, causing commuters to force open train doors and flee onto the tracks. The man meant no harm, he claimed. But – really? If you’re on the Tube and feel the urge to hold forth on religion, save it till you’re out of a train on terra firma, not tens of metres underground.

Mints are a must

Almost three million journeys are made on the London Underground every day, with around 50k people crossing the platform at Waterloo Station in the three-hour morning peak alone. The Tube is busy. This volume of bodies, pressed up against each other is bound to lead to unsavoury odours. Make sure your breath isn’t one of them.

Never stand on the left

Londoners do not like it when other people hold them up. Before the law caught up with inflammatory talk on social media, there was a popular, London-based Facebook group called ‘I like to punch slow-moving people in the head’. I’m yet to witness this happening, but it’s true that commuters get very, very angry when people stand in their way. On the Underground, signs advise you to keep to the right – when walking through the tunnels, and especially on the escalators. The left lane is for people who want to charge through, on their way to the office. Not so you can stand two abreast. Flaunt this rule at your peril.

Don’t forget the post-tube cleansing ritual

The Tube is dirty. Even right down to its core: Aldgate station is built on a massive 1665 plague pit, with more than 1,000 bodies buried beneath. After a day’s commuting, your hair will need a wash, any light coloured clothes will be covered with a film of dust, and you won’t believe the black gunk that comes shooting out when you blow your nose. If you’re the sort of person who prefers not to take a daily bath, if you’re commuting in London, that needs to change. Before flies start buzzing round your head, and friends battle to sit six seats away from you in the pub.

Do you have any rules to add?

If you liked this London post, check out the most visited graveyards in London, also in this online magazine.

For up-to-date travel advice, see the Transport for London website.

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  1. December 20, 2017 / 8:41 am

    Haha, was nodding along as I read this – so many years spent commuting in the tube, I’m quite glad it’s only an occasional trip these days – give me a sunny alternative any day!

    • Nell
      December 20, 2017 / 1:30 pm

      I know. I always have a bit of a shock when I descend back into those tunnels….

  2. December 20, 2017 / 4:11 pm

    This is so funny, Nell. I remember the time when I lived in London and travelled by Tube – the black stuff in your hanky, the silence and the odours. When we go to the capital now, my husband always says that I change personality when I’m underground – I know instinctively where I’m going, where to exit the platforms and charge ahead like a woman on a mission!

    • Nell
      December 21, 2017 / 2:16 pm

      The Londoner never leaves you, Trish!

  3. December 21, 2017 / 2:36 pm

    Oh yes, I can totally see why you’d want to swap that commute for a week in the sun! I do love London but it’s very much a small doses place for me. And I talk on the tube 😉

  4. December 29, 2017 / 6:16 pm

    This made me laugh. Mind, the London tube is much friendlier than the Paris one! One thing which had always shocked me is how no one ever gets up for pregnant women on the tube here.

  5. April 15, 2019 / 10:02 am

    Ahh yes the old “No talking on the tube” I did once make the mistake of talking to someone on the tube via my daily commute…..ended up marrying her

    As for smelly people…there used to be a guy who frequented the jubilee line who smelt so bad I actually saw him clear whole carriages at rush hour – You would see him get on and it would be a mass exodus of people running for their lives

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