Dating back to 1863, the London Underground, or Tube, is the world’s oldest metro system. It’s operated by Transport for London (TfL). It is one of the most efficient public transit systems in the world and carries millions of passengers each and every day. It’s one of the best ways to get around London, and one you’ll probably try, whether that’s getting to/from the airport, sightseeing, or just to get to another train station for a day trip beyond London.
While I’ve already covered the basics of riding the Underground, there are a few important tips I missed. All the wonders of the London Underground aside, there are some rules that everyone follows. While you might not know these before arriving in London, you’ll learn them pretty quickly once you take your first few Tube rides. Instead, skip the learning curve and brush up on these rules of London Tube etiquette before your trip.
London tube etiquette is predicated on two things: courtesy (for fellow passengers) and safety (for you and for fellow passengers). If you follow these simple rules, you’ll move through the system like a local – and have a much more enjoyable ride each time you tap your Oyster and join the fray.
1. Stand on the Right
If you’re planning to stand on the escalators – up or down –, remember to stand on the right to allow others to walk past on the left. Londoners have no qualms about telling you to move over if you’re standing on the left, and it’s a dead giveaway that you’re either A) a tourist, B) had too many pints at the pub, or C) both (go you!).
In all parts of London life, the right is for standing or those moving more slowly and the left is for walking or those moving more quickly. Just like on the roads!
2. Move Down the Platform
Once you arrive at the appropriate platform for the tube line you want to board, move down toward the middle of the platform. If you stand near the entrance or exit to the platform, it’ll clog up with people making it harder for everyone to get on/off the train and where they want to go.
Now I’ll be honest, there were times while living in London when I didn’t move down the platform, or moved to a very specific spot on the platform. This is because I knew where the exit was on the platform I was planning to disembark. If you see someone do this, assume they’re a local and move right along toward the middle of the platform instead.
On some busy platforms during rush hour, TfL will have workers making announcements about this, in case you forget!
3. Stay Behind the Yellow Line
Did you know that London underground trains have horns? I didn’t either – until I got honked by one for standing on the yellow line! It was super embarrassing as literally everyone on the platform turned to see who wasn’t following the rules to stay behind the yellow line…
The yellow line is there for safety, as some trains enter the station very quickly and can cause wind. Take my advice and learn from my mistake: stay behind the yellow line and everyone will be happy.
4. Stand Back for Others to Exit
Given how many people take the Tube each day, it’s very likely that every single time you want to get on a train, someone is about to get off. The only way the system will work is if you allow those on the train to exit before you start boarding. Once they’ve stepped past, you can easily get onto the train – and because you let them off, there will be room for you!
(Can you hear the bitterness in my voice for all the illogical people who try to enter the train when there’s no room since nobody can exit?)
5. Mind the Gap
One of London’s most iconic phrases, “Mind the Gap” is something you’ll hear so often when riding the Tube that you might forget exactly what it means. This is especially true as many London platforms have been modified to “fix” the gap for step-free (accessible) access to trains.
Nevertheless, it’s painted on every platform for a reason: there may be a gap between the train and the platform. Sometimes it’s horizontal and you need to step across, sometimes it’s vertical and you need to step up. Take a quick look before boarding the train and you won’t have anything to worry about.
6. Move to the Center of the Carriage
Just like on the platform, London tube etiquette dictates that everyone should move down inside the carriage toward the center so that more people can fit onto each train. In a city of nine million where two million of them use the Underground every day, it takes a village to ensure there’s enough room on every train for as many people as possible.
Just like with the platform etiquette, you’ll see people disregarding this one all the time – but that doesn’t make it any less true; many of those people are getting off in a few stops so stay near the doors. If you know you’re riding for several stops, find a seat or move to stand near the center of the carriage.
7. Only Butts Go in Seats
If you are fortunate to find a seat and happen to have an empty one next to you, that’s not an opportunity to offload all of your souvenir bags, purse, luggage, or even your feet onto the neighboring free space. Leave seats open for others to sit, and certainly don’t put your dirty shoes on a seat someone else will sit on. The Tube takes pride in its cleanliness and how long the trains and seats last – in part because everyone knows to follow this London Tube etiquette rule.
8. Make Seats for Others in Need
There’s another rule about seats that’s worth knowing: it’s good Tube etiquette – and common courtesy – to offer up your seat to anyone who looks like they might need it more, especially people with physical restrictions, the elderly, and pregnant people. In fact, there are several seats in every bank designated for people who might need them, so you should be especially aware if you sit in one of those seats to give up that seat if one of those people needs it more.
9. Hold On
If you end up standing on the Tube, be sure to hold on. There are handrails and poles throughout the carriage, and there’s nothing more embarrassing than standing there trying to be cool and not hold on – only to fall into the stranger next to you when the train gives a funny lurch.
(Okay, getting honked at by the Tube driver is more embarrassing, but only just.)
10. Don’t Lean on the Poles
Similarly, if you’re using a pole for support, that doesn’t include leaning on it instead of holding on properly. If one person leans on the pole, that means about 5-6 other people have nowhere to hold onto.
While Londoners are a friendly bunch, everyone on the Tube is desperately trying to pretend they’re not all crammed so close together – so touching one another even on accident is a big faux pas.
11. Do Not Hold the Doors
If you happen to be near the doors when they begin to close, don’t try to hold them open for any people running to catch the train. This isn’t New York City, people – and the doors will not re-open. I’ve gotten caught in the doors, and it’s not pleasant… it’s also filthy and usually leaves black marks on your hands, clothes, or any other part of you that gets caught or tries to hold the door open.
(Also, London has a great system – if you’re about to miss the train, don’t run and hurt yourself. Another train will be along shortly – sometimes as often as 2-3 minutes!)
12. Step Off to Allow People to Exit
One last rule for when you end up standing on the Tube. If you find yourself standing near a door, it’s more than likely you’ll be in someone’s way at some point during your journey.
The best way to handle this is to step off the train when the doors open, step over to the side, and allow anyone who needs to exit to pass. Other people on the platform will see what you’re doing and allow you first access back onto the train once the exodus has happened – you won’t miss the train.
(I guess I could add another etiquette point here: if you see someone step off to allow others to exit, allow them to step back onto the train first.)
13. No Rubbish Left Behind
Finally, whether you’re standing, sitting, head-standing, or doing child’s pose – whatever – do not leave trash on the train when you disembark.
In fact, food and drink aren’t allowed on the Tube, so you shouldn’t have anything to make trash in the first place, but in the event you do, take it all with you. Stick it in your bag (because a day bag is critical for getting around London each day) or pocket, and dispose of it later.
Londoners work together and have a common understanding of the value of the Tube and almost everyone does their part to keep it nice. Even though you’re a visitor, the same London tube etiquette applies to you.
Are there any London tube etiquette rules I missed that you know? Share them with me in the comments!