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Mind the gap: Don’t make small talk and other unwritten rules of Tube travelling

The London Underground service can be a joy but just don’t get caught looking at anybody

Locals consider it a truism that only psychopaths look directly at fellow passengers on the London Underground. Definitely don’t make small talk. It is best to not even casually glance around the carriage, as this will mark you out as odd.

Everybody’s gaze must land somewhere. But where? If it were a bus, people could simply look at their phones. Yet the majority of the Underground is deep beneath the surface with no mobile signal, which reduces the impetus for mindless smartphone scrolling. The lack of signal also means the Tube is mercifully free of chattering voices, which makes smalltalkers seem all the more unhinged.

Many people pretend to read books but this must be just a ruse. It’s far too bumpy to focus on words on a page. That leaves just three viable options to land your gaze without causing alarm. Look at nothing, which isn’t as easy as it sounds. Crane your neck upwards to read the list of tube stops on the maps over your head, which can be mildly entertaining inside one’s own mind – (“Where is ‘Morden’, anyway? Middle Earth?”)

But when neck ache or map boredom sets in, I take the third option, which is to look at other people’s shoes. It doesn’t even have to be done on the sly. Shoe watching on the Underground is a perfectly acceptable activity. Everybody does it.


Certain patterns become apparent. A proliferation of formal leather shoes on men or heels on women is often a sign that you are on the Bank branch of the Northern Line as it heads towards the centre, for this section passes through the financial district of the City of London.

The District and Circle lines hit many tourist sites around Westminster, while the Piccadilly and Victoria Lines are popular with tourists going to the West End. At offpeak times during the day on these lines in central areas, carriages are filled with women wearing brand new trainers and men with dubious deck shoes, which seem to be standard issue for overseas visitors to London.

When London’s grimy hot summers kick in, shoe watching must turn into feet watching as people begin to glide around in flip flops. That makes the whole exercise somewhat less appealing. But this is just one of the vagaries of travelling daily on the Underground, which for all its eccentricities is an absolute joy for anyone from a country without such an extensive travel network, such as Ireland.

After a few weeks of daily Tube use, one begins to develop meaningful relationships with certain lines

Newcomers soon pick up the other unwritten rules of the Tube. There are the rules that everybody knows, even tourists, such as always standing to the right on escalators and walking on the left. It is a remarkably simple and effective system for accommodating the movement of people in a hurry alongside those who prefer to rest their legs.

UK National Rail services are plagued with passengers placing bags on seats but this never happens on the Tube in London. It is considered far too rude. Similarly, people wearing space-eating backpacks as they stand in the aisles are liable to be glared at – this is one of the only times when it is acceptable to make overt eye contact with another human being.

It was disconcerting last week to read that the Republic’s National Transport Authority says contactless payment on Irish public transport is “years away”. Contactless payment is one of the best things about London travel. There is no need to buy tickets or even an Oyster card. Get the cheapest fares by simply tapping a bank card or mobile phone, if you have a service such as Apple Pay, upon entry and exit at a station. Another unwritten rule: have it ready to tap before reaching the barriers or risk annoying everybody behind you as you dig it out.

After a few weeks of daily Tube use, one begins to develop meaningful relationships with certain lines. The Northern line (coloured black on the maps) is infuriating: it is extensive but much less reliable than other lines; it has the longest gaps between trains; its tunnels are the deepest and smelliest; and the dizzying proliferation of branches means often you must make extra connections just to stay on track.

The Victoria Line (light blue), which is handy for West End shopping, is the best. Trains run every minute or perhaps every two minutes at offpeak times and they move much more quickly than other lines. The trade-off is that the Victoria line is by far the hottest and stuffiest. Trains on the Bakerloo line (brown) are as old as Zeus and should be avoided unless you’re not in a hurry. The District and Circle lines (green and yellow) are the most modern, spacious and comfortable in which to travel.

As London city has expanded on the surface, an entirely separate ecosystem and culture has sprawled underneath. The Tube really is a distinct city beneath a city. The system is 160 years old this year. For all its flaws and glorious foibles, long may it continue.