This is an updated version of a post from 2010 - not much has changed except that now, I am older, wiser and a Veteran Commuter!
While in the UK’s capital city, you will at some point find yourself travelling via the London Underground, more commonly referred to as ‘the Tube’ or simply ‘the Underground’ (that’s the subway or metro for non-UK readers).
If you want to survive the experience, heed the teachings of The Art of War by Sun Tzu.
Please take a moment and read this guide. Then when you are ready (and only then), venture on to the oldest subway system in use and observe the rules of engagement.
Notes for tourists are in red.
The Underground Commuter
The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses makes but few calculations beforehand. Thus do many calculations lead to victory, and few calculations to defeat. . . It is by attention to this point that I can foresee who is likely to win or lose.
The Art of War, Sun-Tzu
London Underground commuters are a particular breed of traveller: hardened and fearless, they are an elite force of tactical specialists. They can detect an empty seat within three seconds, whilst standing on a packed carriage, and completing an intermediate level Sudoku puzzle. They can simultaneously read a newspaper and display perfect balance, standing unsupported on a moving train. They also have an uncanny ability to ignore fellow passengers, bad smells and the protests of other travellers.
Tourists should avoid rush hour at all costs. You are generally unprepared for the gauntlet that ensues. Are London’s sights really worth the hassle?
Operation: Journey Planner
Know your enemy and know yourself and you can win a hundred battles without a single loss.
The London commute can, and should only be described as a military operation; one that must be rigorously checked and adjusted for all eventualities.
Firstly, one must prepare for battle. Sun Tzu said “know your enemy” and the commuter’s greatest enemy is the bastion of evil better known as Transport for London (TfL). TfL is a fiendish body of local government that manages to turn even the brightest day into Dante’s Inferno.
Meticulous planning and reconnaissance are essential for success! But beware the delays, overcrowding, planned engineering works and malfunctioning barriers and expense that plagues any London Underground journey.
It’s generally wise to check the TfL website the night before AND on the day of travel, as well as sign up for email and SMS alerts. Nevertheless, be prepared for misinformation, unreported delays and unexplained station closures.
Degrees of Delays
The quality of decision is like the well-timed swoop of a falcon, which enables it to strike and destroy its victim.
Embarking on any journey throughout London requires a rapid scan of all Underground line statuses before you enter a tube station and therefore, lose all connection to the outside world.
This is important because an unexpected ‘minor’ delay can result in lateness by up to 30 minutes. This often happens on a Monday morning or when you have an important meeting.
Severe delays have been known to make grown men breakdown and cry on the platform. This tends to happen when you are trying to get home or attend a planned social engagement.
Line closures are particular brand of evil. These are believed to be responsible for reducing a Londoner’s life expectancy by 0.118% per occurrence. Line closures often happen during evenings and weekends, or simply when it’s the most inconvenient time imaginable.
Delays make an already passive aggressive commuter a very dangerous entity. However, during a line closure you are collateral damage! There will be no mercy and no quarter given. You have been warned!
Are you not entertained?
The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.
The veteran commuter would rather be late for work, than enter a tube station empty handed. One will always have some form of entertainment at hand: books, magazines, newspapers, phones, handheld games, Kindles, iPods, knitting, Sudoku and crossword puzzles are choice weapons of mass distraction.
Because of the solitary nature of commuting, loud noises are broadly frowned upon. This includes, loud conversations, overzealous people having a good time, the tinny sound of second-hand music and smartphone owners who have their keypad tone turned on.
People do not speak to each other on the London Underground. It’s a social faux pas. This is probably not stipulated in your pocket-sized guide book, but it’s a universal truth. Learn it and abide by it.
Oysters at the ready!
Quickness is the essence of the war.
Commuters are tacticians: the moment they walk through the turnstiles, Oyster cards are strategically positioned for faster access through interchanges. The seasoned expert knows where to stand on the platform depending on their destination, exit route or how late they are that day.
They have also acquired great speed and dexterity. For example, the longest escalator on the tube is at Angel (60m/197ft, with a vertical rise of 27.5m/90ft). Look closely, and you will see them get up and down those stairs in record time.
Commuters know how to negotiate crowds and can access platforms, machinery and exits faster than the casual passenger.
NOTHING pisses off the seasoned commuter more than someone who is NOT PREPARED to access entrances and exits as quickly as possible! Engage in such behaviour and you become a persona non grata. This is dangerous territory and I suggest you retreat until a fresh wave of commuters masks your position before making your way towards the escalators/stairs/lifts/platforms (delete as a appropriate).
Day vs Night
Thus, what is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy’s strategy.
The morning commute can be depressing to observe (and even more soul destroying to experience).
Commuters don’t interact with each other. There’s little opportunity for smiling, laughing or talking because everyone is concentrating on how much they hate commuting to work.
Anyone who does smile, talk or laugh is usually lucky enough to travel with a friend or partner. However, it’s more likely to be one of the following:
- Not from London
- New to London
- A tourist
- Part of a group of tourists
- Under the influence of alcohol, drugs or both
Passengers who engage in non-standard Tube behaviour will be met with stony glares. You may also notice the volume increasing on iPods throughout the carriage or a sudden interest in handheld devices. Other commonplace behaviours are indifference, feigned ignorance and shunning.
The evening journey can be less frantic, unless there are delays or line closures (see Degrees of Delays above).
After work, Londoners can transform into friendly outgoing citizens, thanks to after work drinks and the promise of a takeaway and an evening of television. Alternatively, they may seem more anti-social because they are tired and now have to commute home, while others enjoy a night of loud revelry. (See Are you not entertained? above).
The veteran commuter has learned these lessons well and is prepared for any eventuality.
PS: London Underground really isn’t a good example of London’s humanity is it?