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London Underground - Top Tips 2

Updated on June 23, 2016
Cathy Le Feuvre profile image

Cathy is a writer/broadcaster based in Jersey, Channel Islands (Great Britain). Author (so far) of five books & a radio presenter/producer!


Negotiating the London Underground Train system

If you're visiting London any time soon, you'll find there are lots of ways to get around the city - bus, boat, train and even bikes! You could walk and of course you can take the 'Tube' - the London Underground - a system of trains which run beneath the capital.

But if you're going to dive underground and use the subterraneum system, and especially if you've never ventured onto the 'Tube' before, here are a few (more) tips to ease your travel stresses

The first ten pointers are in 'Tips for Travelling the Tube Part 1' - please feel free to visit those as well!

Standing on the right ... on the escalators!
Standing on the right ... on the escalators! | Source

1.Keep Right

It might seem peculiar to start with this one but believe you me it WILL help when you're travelling the Tube.

To get up and down from the platforms you may have to take an escalator. Some people like to stand quietly and let the moving stairs do the work while others, particularly the manic commuters, walk down (and UP) those stairways.

And unless you want to upset many of your fellow travellers, one great tip is - STAND ON THE RIGHT HAND SIDE OF THE ESCALATOR!

Although in Britain we drive on the LEFT hand side of the road, on the Tube, we stand on the RIGHT. It's weird, I know, but that's how it is. It's not a law or anything like that, but if you look closely there are notices asking you to 'stand on the right'. And listen carefully to the public announcements and you may hear an ever-so-polite member of the London Underground staff asking you to stick to this protocol.

Standing side-by-side on the escalator chatting away oblivious to the fact that a line of people is backing up behind you on the moving stairway is certainly not part of the deal! Not unless you want to be subjected to sideways glances of derision from people in a hurry to get to work or home. And it may rescue you from being dug in the back by a newspaper, or a briefcase!


2. 'On board information'

In every Tube train carriage, whatever the line, you will find information about the destinations on the line on which you are travelling.

This information usually runs along at eye level (when standing) along the length of the carriage seating area.

It will be a long line - coloured to match the line you are travelling. It will have each station marked from start to finish. Using this chart...if you reach any particular station on the line, you you may discover how many stations you are from your destination just by counting along to the one you want. Hopefully that will help you to get prepared to disembark at the correct station.

The more modern trains also have digital displays telling you which direction you are travelling in ('this train terminates at....). These will also inform you when you are arriving at a station and which lines are interconnecting at that station.

Most trains have announcements - 'The next station is ....Baker Street...' - and some also remind you of the attractions you can visit if you choose to get of at any particular stop. 'The next station is ... Regent's Park...for buses to ZFL(London Zoo)'

Step Free - or Not!

In addition, watch out for the 'step free' information.

Unfortunately, not all London Underground stations cater for people who are in wheelchairs or have restricted mobility, are lugging prams and pushchairs or who have other encumbrances - like heavy luggage. Many of the stations suffer from stairs ... whether it be a few steps up to the level where you'll find an escalator, or a towering stairway which means you'll need to be fit to make it to the top!

The 'Step Free' Tube stations indicate where there are no steps to take you to street level. Which means there should be working lifts and escalators to take you up to the ticket hall.

And listen out for announcements about 'Step Free' because - especially if the escalators are limited, or the lifts are not working - you should be told!

What does this mean for you? If you require help and can't 'do' steps, it means you have a slightly limited choice about where you can get on and off a train. Check out the 'Step Free' stations in advance to ensure you don't get caught out when in the bowels of the earth!


3. Check out the Tube Map

London Underground provide pocket sized 'Underground System maps' which are really helpful when travelling.

However, for those with fading eyesight who can't make out the tiny print on these maps, on most platforms and in many station foyers there are larger versions of the Tube Map. You might have to stroll down the platform a little way to find one but it should be there.

There's also a version of the Underground Map in the Tube trains carriages themselves, usually posted in the centre of a seating section on both sides of the carriage. However, the advertising space is usually confined so the map on the train is generally smaller than that on the printed version - it only covers the really central Underground 'zones' into which London is segmented.

So if you're heading for a station outside the main centre of the city, you'll need that handy pocket Tube map which covers all zones and all areas of travel.

Rush hour on a busy London Underground platform
Rush hour on a busy London Underground platform | Source

4. Avoid Rush Hour Madness

It's worth remembering that although London is a major tourist destination, it is also 'home' to many millions of ordinary people who use the 'Tube' to travel to work - so while it might be exciting for you as a 'newbie' on the Tube, you may notice lots of glazed-over eyes from the regular travellers. They're not being rude...they are just as likely to be bored, tired or just wondering whether they have enough milk in the fridge for a longed-for cup of tea!

Last year, a London Underground report reckoned that the system carried a record 1.26 billion passengers! And during the 'rush hour' when people are trying to get to and from work, it can feel like all of these people are trying to get on YOUR train!

'Rush hour' can be anytime from about 6:30am to 10am and 4pm to 7pm and it's at these times that the stations, platforms and trains can get very overcrowded. Indeed, sometimes there are restrictions at certain stations during busy periods.

Let's take Holborn Tube Station ... as just one example...

It's a busy station 'hub' between the City and the West End. At Holburn, the Central Line and the Piccadilly Line intersect and it often overcrowds during rush hour, when the staff will close the entrance to avoid heavy congestion on the platforms below. If you're planning to get on a train at Holburn, you may have to wait for the station to re-open or take a local bus. However, you may also wish to walk to an alternative station close to Holburn, like Covent Garden. Be warned though, Covent Garden is also very busy and the access is often restricted there too.

If at ALL possible, one piece of advice is to avoid travelling the tube trains during the rush hour.

Late night trains can be lonely places once the crowds have thinned out!
Late night trains can be lonely places once the crowds have thinned out! | Source

5. Late Night Mayhem

On the subject of packed trains...London is a place where the nightlife is AMAZING!

There are top class shows and theatres, restaurants and bars to die for and the city really comes alive at night ... which means that often the streets are as busy at midnight as at midday, especially in some of the hot tourist spots.

SO - be aware that although late night trains are not as packed as during the 'rush hour' it can be very busy indeed, especially in the 'central city' train zones.

Although there's no alcohol allowed on the Tube (see my Top Tips 1) you do have to watch out for slightly intoxicated people. Most will be harmless but you need to be more alert at this time! I'll say no more!

If travelling at night also be aware that as you leave the central zones the crowds may thin out. For some travellers it can be intimidating to find yourself the only passenger in an empty carriage, or one of two passengers with a rather dodgy looking person at the other end eyeing up you and your handbag.

My advice...if you know you're headed out to a station where few people may be travelling at night, board the front carriage of the train. Apart from the DLR (Docklands Light Railway) which is an automated, driver-less system, the Tube has drivers. There will be someone in the drivers box at the front of the carriage and if you feel threatened by a fellow passenger, you can bang on the door.

Never tried it myself ...but have thought of doing so a few times!

Baker Street - one of the older stations on the London Underground - the Bakerloo Line (originally called the Baker Street & Waterloo Railway) opened in 1906
Baker Street - one of the older stations on the London Underground - the Bakerloo Line (originally called the Baker Street & Waterloo Railway) opened in 1906 | Source
Interesting historical reading!
Interesting historical reading! | Source

6. Time Travellers!

One of the interesting things about the London Underground is its history, and taking a trip on the Tube can feel, at times, a little like time travel.

The subterranean train system dates back to the 19th century and some of the original platforms and stations still exist and are in use.

Indeed, London boasts the world's first ever underground railway. The Metropolitan Railway opened in 1863 using gas-lit wooden carriage hauled by steam engines/locomotives and today some of the original stations are still in use, although it's all a bit more high-tech these days. In fact, some of the new stations are ultra-modern and quite space age in feel!

Watch out for interesting signs and information - while you're waiting for your train you may discover some interesting reading material!

Didn't know that travelling could be an educational experience? You do now!

7. Ask Ask Ask

When you're in a strange city, it's very easy to end up just wandering around like little lost sheep and on the Tube it can be very easy to get lost, end up going the wrong way, using the wrong line and generally becoming very, very confused.

It's important to look out for all the indicators which will tell you where you are. Raise your head and you should see directions to the lines available at any station. Watch for the 'colour coded' lists ... and then check the signs to tell you where you need to be headed...

For example 'Northern - southbound' (black line) or 'Jubilee - northbound' (silver line) - look for your intended destination and you should be fine.

However, if you don't know whether where you are headed is north or south of where you are, that's no help.

If you're lucky and you spot someone who looks like they know what they're doing...and that person isn't in such a rush to get home/to work that they can find a moment to point you in the right'll be fine.

However, if in doubt try to find a member of the London Underground staff. They wear blue uniforms and will have the London Underground logo on their shirt/jacket sleeves. If you can't find one in the general confusion that is below ground, my suggestion is head back to the 'way out' or 'exit' and you should find a member of staff there from whom you can seek advice. You should not need to swipe your travel card out...there should be staff members available to help on the travel side of the barriers.

Even if it means spending a little more time going back to the main foyer, it is far better than becoming utterly confused below ground.

And if you find yourself completely lost, then just get into the fresh air and get your'll be surprised how quickly life becomes less confusing when you are able to see some fabulous London landmarks!

Tube stations often sit right beneth London landmarks - like the Big Ben tower at the Houses of Parliament in Westminster
Tube stations often sit right beneth London landmarks - like the Big Ben tower at the Houses of Parliament in Westminster | Source

8. Time is of the Essence

Given that you may not know where you're going, and you may have to wait a while before you can get on a train or station which isn't packed to the gunnels with other lost travellers and rather sleepy London commuters (see Tube Top Tip #1 at the top of the page...hope you're following...) you may find that your journey on the Tube takes a little longer than expected.

One good tip is to ensure you give yourself plenty of time to reach your destination.

Although Londoners often look like they're in a hurry, it's probably because they can't wait to get above ground! Most of us who use the Tube daily, or regularly, will factor in extra time to account for potential delays, congestion and general slow people, or those standing chatting on the (left hand side of) the escalators! Or people aimlessly looking at Tube maps, too embarrassed to ask for directions and wondering if they should, after all, have their eyes tested when they get home!

Take your time. Running can cause serious injury if you slip over on a stairway or moving staircase. Don't run on the platforms, as trains do come by and you really don't want to fall in front of one.

If you have an appointment to make in a specific place, check out your handy little Tube Map, work out where you're going, ask for directions, and I would say give yourself an extra half hour in addition to what you think it will take you to complete your journey. When you're early everyone will think you are fabulous! Or you can spend that extra time sitting in a café near your rendezvous spot and watching the world go by!

One of the Underground exits at Baker Street - 'home' to the fictional Sherlock Holmes! But he won't be around to track down your belongings if you don't keep an eye on them!
One of the Underground exits at Baker Street - 'home' to the fictional Sherlock Holmes! But he won't be around to track down your belongings if you don't keep an eye on them! | Source

9.Watch your belongings!

This one is obvious. Like most world cities London does suffer from its share of people who's intention is other than honourable. You'll notice that in some stations there are warnings signs - 'pickpockets operate in this area'.

Make sure you don't leave your bags open with your purse/pocketbook, telephone and other valuables on full display and ready to be lifted by someone who thinks your stuff should belong to them. Watch out especially when in those crowds of people. If someone bumps into you and distracts you this could also be a ploy to allow an accomplice to get into your belonging while you are busy apologising to arguing with the 'bumper'.

If you do suffer at the hands of a sneaky thief of pickpocket, immediately find one of those London Underground staff and report the theft. The police will be called and you'll be able to file a report. You might not get your belongings back but you will have the satisfaction of knowing that others may not suffer as you have.

By the way, this rule doesn't just apply to the Tube. Watch your bags wherever you are. I've known people have their bags stolen in bars, restaurants, at bus stops and even in the toilets! If you are able ... never take your eye off your stuff!


Top Tips 1

My first Top Tips for Travelling the London Underground included some handy hints for making life a little more bearable on the train system which runs underneath the UK's capital city. If you want to check out the whole article click here...but here's a sneak preview!

1. It's called The Tube!

2. Follow the Colours - simple guide to getting around

3. Get in the Zone - know where you are

4. Oysters and other methods of payment

5. Take a Back Seat - where to sit in a carriage to maximise comfort

6. Don't Panic - another train will be along soon

7. No Smoking! No Booze

8. No mobiles/ cells!

9. Carry Water

10. Life Above Ground - get out into the light to check where you are!

10. First & Last

Finally, the London Underground train system is a 'metro' service. Which means that, if all is going well, trains run regularly ... that's around every few minutes throughout the day.

However, they don't run all night.

I won't go into details here - suffice to say the London Tube trains don't run 24-7, and this may catch you out if you're a night owl!

Also be aware that there are no fixed timetables for the service. Train times - last and first - tend to differ according to where you are coming from or may be headed to on the Tube, which can be a bit of a pain if you have absolutely no idea where you are anyway.

But... if it a general rule of thumb, the Tube trains start from around 5:30am and run until between 12:00 midnight - 12:30 am. The advice is - if in any doubt whatsoever, check with station staff to ensure you know what time your last train will get you home. Especially if you're heading to a destination outside the main city centre, you don't want to be left on the street. The stations close up...there will be no sleeping on a bench in a tunnel waiting for an early train, even if you felt so inclined.

And if you're planning on catching the Tube to make an early flight from one of the London airports on a Sunday morning, be aware that on the Sabbath trains start one hour later than on other days - at 6:30am.

So - you miss the last train back to your accommodation? What do you do?

There are night buses - they run throughout the wee hours but you do need to know where you're going to avoid spending the whole night wandering around the streets of London. If catching the bus, be sure you are in company ... travelling London as a single, as in many major cities, isn't a great idea.

Or you can catch a cab which will may cost you a small fortune. And if you opt for a taxi be sure to catch one of the iconic London 'Black cabs'. There are people who run 'private' taxi firms who will be happy to pick a lost-looking person up on the street. Unfortunately these' 'pick up from the curb' are not all registered and may be unsafe.

The best advice? Check your train times in advance and be sure you're don't miss the last train home! Or run - very very fast!


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