An Idiot’s Guide to Using the Underground

I think, one way or another, I must use the London Underground more-or-less every day. I use it to get to work, to go shopping, to visit friends, to explore the city and blah blah blah you-get-the-idea. If I could get an Oyster card permanently implanted in my hand, I probably would.

So I feel that I’m reasonably qualified to say that there are certain people who just don’t get it. Who have difficulties. Who, to put it bluntly, can make a real hash of a simple thing like getting on a train.

What I initially thought was needed was a sort of ‘Idiot’s Guide to the Underground.’ The problem with “For Dummies”-type books and their many imitators is that they’re inherently self-defeating. If someone is intelligent enough to realise they have a problem, pick the relevant book up and apply its advice then they must, ipso facto, not be an idiot. A real idiot would simply do nothing about it and continue in their brain-wasting ways unto death. Therefore, I’m going to just collect together all the ways people manage to ruin Tube travel for the rest of humanity and suggest that they just continue doing exactly that.

I call it…

You am idiot, want on tube

The London Underground can be very bewildering. It has, oh, lots of stations – more than seven, at least. And the lines are all pretty colours, which can be distracting. Fortunately, help is at hand.

To the platform

I’m afraid you’re going to have to buy a ticket – most if not all stations have automatic barriers, which are a form of robot that can read your ticket (not literally). They do not respond to verbal arguments or physical violence.

Having bought your ticket, approach the barriers carefully. They may appear superficially similar, but this is actually incorrect – some are further to the left than others. To save time, you might want to make your decision as you approach the barrier, wavering from left to right as you approach. If you have large bags with you, there is a gate to allow you through more easily, but this is by no means compulsory.

Now you will come to the escalator. This is a device that can save a lot of time. Therefore, you can afford to approach it slowly, particularly as you come close to its beginning – perhaps you would like to practise wavering from side-to-side a little more?

It is commonly suggested that you stand on the right. However, the left is far less congested, and therefore is an ideal place for you, your friend or your luggage to rest. If you are with a friend, you may wish to turn around and attempt to walk up the down escalator. This is highly risible to all concerned. If you do have luggage, remember that to get the maximum benefit from the convenience of the escalator, you should not attempt to pick it up until you are approximately three inches from the lower end. You should then pause immediately after stepping off in order to take stock.

On the platform

You have come on to the Underground because you do not wish to walk – that goes without saying. Therefore, to get on to the platform and then start walking along it is counter-productive. Far more sensible is to stand immediately in front of the entrance. The more of you there are, the more energy is saved overall. You’re practically an environmentalist!

When trying to determine where your train is going, there are electronic indicators on the platform and announcements over the PA system, and each train carries an indicator of its destination on the front. However, you should not eliminate the possibility that this is all an elaborate conspiracy against you personally, and therefore should check with as many passengers as possible that the next train is, in fact, going where you want it to go. They may be privy to secret knowledge that they would like to share with a lost soul like yourself.

Getting on the train

Having firmly established that TfL is not conspiring to send you unwittingly to Mill Hill East for some nefarious purpose, when the train arrives, you can get on board. Remember, though, that the train does not stay in any station for a very long time. To ensure that you can actually get on, you should stand as close as possible to the doors when they open, and immediately force your way in. Other people may try to get off the train first, making said forcefulness difficult, but they must be forgiven – they do not comprehend the importance of your journey.

If, by some chance, you have arrived just as your train is about to leave, you should attempt to force the door open. They can’t leave while you’re holding it open, and their attempts to prevent your party of five people from waiting two whole minutes until the next train are frankly inconsiderate.

On the train

Take a seat, although if you are feeling sociable, you may wish to get up, run up and down the carriage or swing from the bars. If, as mentioned before, you have large bags with you, the seat next to you makes a convenient receptacle, particularly in rush hour when putting it on the floor will get it jostled.

On the other hand, you may prefer to stand, particularly on short journeys. The best way to demonstrate this intention is to stand next to an empty seat in such a way that nobody else can get to it. However, it is worth noting that if your journey is that short, you should stand as near to the doors as you can and stay there. Sure, there may be more room further down the carriage, but logic dictates that if space is at a premium, you should be where you can get off and thus create space as quickly as you can.

If you think you’re likely to get hungry, you may wish to bring a delicious kebab or box of fried chicken to consume along the way. Note that there are no bins on the train, but TfL does employ a lot of cleaners and so you can safely leave the packaging behind.

Leaving the train

Having ascertained that you are at your destination, step off the train and wander aimlessly around the platform to get your bearings. When there are so many people about, it can be difficult to develop a full spatial awareness. Other commuters may bump into you, perhaps even swear at you, but who’s going to be laughing when, through a lack of spatial awareness, they wander on to the track? Not them. Because they’d be dead.

Uh-oh! Another escalator! Fortunately, the same etiquette applies for the “up” escalator as for the “down” escalator.

When you reach the barrier, either put your Oyster card on the reader or insert your ticket into the “in” slot on the machine. This is normally located on the front of the barrier, but you may wish to try inserting the ticket into the top slot just in case.

If your ticket or Oyster card will not let you out, correct procedure is to keep trying up to twenty times. If the barrier still won’t open, take a couple of smart side-steps in front of the line of people next to you and try the next one, then the next, and so on until you reach one that opens.

You may consider trying one of the barriers that has a red cross on its display. This represents the cross of St Andrew, brother of Simon Peter, who is said to guard the entrance to Heaven. Therefore, it may be possible that this is a Da Vinci Code-style test of wit, and the crossed barriers actually represent a way to the “world above.”

You’re out

Congratulations! Try not to get run over as you cross the road.



Filed under London, London Underground, Randomness, tourism, Transport

9 responses to “An Idiot’s Guide to Using the Underground

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  2. Grumpy B.

    What would your advice be for builders and decorators? Is it cool to wear dirty, dusty work clothes with an occasional bright spot of fresh magnolia paint?

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  5. Ellie

    Well … Tom… Let me tell you…

    This post is a great disappointment to me… You see, I’m not a life long Londoner. I’m the epitome of the ‘country mouse’ … I live near Ironbridge in Shropshire. We don’t have an underground, we don’t have trams … we only just about have Double Decker buses! and on the subject of buses …we wait, we get on, we state our desired destination to the driver, we hand him the fare, he hands us a ticket, job done. Why you Londoners have to make things soooo complicated I will never know! I have to find a shop that can sell me a bus ticket???

    I have to visit London a lot at the minute as I have 2 children with different health issues who are being treated at different hospital there … Being able to get around by tube would help me a lot.

    Someone once said (I forget who or why) “It’s only easy if you know how” and that’s true for me … I do NOT know how to use the underground AND it terrifies me! I don’t like not knowing what I’m doing .. So I googled “an Idiots guide to using the Underground” and TaDa! Here I am …

    Aaaaaand yet I still don’t know how to navigate my way around that purdy coloured map o’yours cause you’re post was just a hissy fit at the kinda people that annoy you when YOU are doing what comes naturally to you as it’s all you’ve ever known.

    Thanks … for nothing ;(

    • TGW

      I’m not entirely clear what the issue is here. You went looking, specifically, for a guide to the London Underground aimed at idiots. You found one, and now you’re complaining because you read it and decided that, by implication, it’s calling those who take its advice literally “idiots.” Which it is. I don’t know how much clearer or less ambiguous I could have made it. Do you habitually try to leave buildings through doors marked “NO EXIT” and then complain because you can’t get out? Do you deliberately pick clothes that are two sizes too small and then whine that they make you feel fat? I really don’t think I can be held responsible for your acts of intellectual masochism, Ellie.

      I suspect that you should have Googled something less likely to turn up an offensive result. As a general rule, looking up the word “idiot” with regard to yourself is not a good start. Perhaps you would have been better off with something like “a user’s guide” or “a simple guide.”

      Also, it’s “your post,” not “you’re post.”

    • Talk2Frank

      Erm, the underground is no more complicated a concept than normal trains except it is in a tunnel.

      If that baffles you, perhaps the best thing to do is to stay in the country and watch a lot of kids TV.

      Except you managed to reach our fair city, presumably on a train from some rural idyll like Kemble Junction, so the concept of arriving at a platform, getting on the noisy moving thing in front if you, then getting off again when the sign outside the window matches your destination clearly can’t be a new one.

      I can only conclude that the tunnel is the confusing factor and therefore that all non-Londoners rely on the position of either the sun or stars in order to navigate accurately.

      How quaint.

  6. David Nelson

    Bit late to the party here, but I live in London and use the tube all the time and found this amusing. However, I have to say that any time I go to another country and try to use the underground/metro/tram system I start to feel like an idiot who doesn’t know what they’re doing – do you validate the ticket? Do you buy a ticket on board? Do you have to open the doors or do they open automatically? (and so on)

    It makes me realise that people who come to London probably feel that way when they get here so whenever I see someone struggling I try to be nice about it (or at least mutter the insults under my breath like a true passive aggressive swine).

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