There are various rules which are ingrained into the very core of Londoners. By far the most important of these is strict escalator discipline: we stand on the right, we walk on the left.
I’m increasingly belligerent towards people that flout this golden rule. In the past I used to glare loudly at transgressors. Now I find myself shouting up the escalator.
Yet at Holborn station, Transport for London are tearing up the rulebook and actively encouraging people to stand on the left. This three week trial is intended to improve passenger flow at one of London’s busiest and most poorly designed stations by fitting more people onto the escalators at a time. The logic is this: Holborn’s escalators are the second longest on the tube network (after Angel’s) and many people end up queuing to stand on the right leaving the left side rather empty.
It’s true that Holborn is a nightmare of a station. It’s not the worst of course: that honour is held by Bank, a station so fiendishly difficult to navigate that it must have been designed by a committee chaired by Beelzebub himself. It’s easier to get out of purgatory than it is to find the correct exit from Bank station.
Measures to improve the flow of passengers and reduce congestion at stations are important. But so is basic tube etiquette. Making travelling on the Underground a more pleasant experience is reliant upon people observing a few basic rules: allow passengers off the train before boarding, don’t eat hot food whilst crammed into someone else’s armpit on the Victoria Line, and definitely don’t make eye contact with the person sitting opposite.
Once exceptions start to be made, bad habits will take hold across the whole tube network. What if TfL decides to extend this trial to other stations? For a glimpse of the dystopian future which would be ushered in by the breakdown of escalator etiquette one only has to look as far as the Brussels Metro. In the heart of Europe there is no escalator discipline at all. Good luck if you’re in a rush.
There are obvious (and expensive) solutions to help smooth passenger flow on the tube, such as station rebuilding and remodelling. Holborn station is due to have extensive remodelling work carried out, though it will not be complete until 2022. But there are other, far cheaper and simpler changes that would help. The Mayor and TfL could encourage employers to give workers flexible hours rather than requiring a 9am start time. Allowing employees to start between 8am and 10am could make a significant difference at busy stations.
But some changes are just too extreme. Once you start allowing people to stand on the left side of an escalator you may as well paint London’s buses yellow. I oppose this abomination with every fibre of my being.
Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly
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