Monday, November 22, 2010

Stairways to heaven

My more-or-less daily ride

 I have discovered why everyone stands on the right – indeed is commanded to – on the escalators of the London Underground. Usually escalator-etiquette mirrors the road rules – drive on the left, stand on the left. London seems to be a rare aberration in this regard. This all-important mystery has been solved. It seems that the very early escalator design had an unusual step-of arrangement on a diagonal, which meant that the steps finished sooner for the right foot than for the left. The idea was that one kept one’s left foot on the moving stair and stepped off with the right. In order to allow the moving passengers to do this, the standing passengers were asked to stand to the right. The Times broke this news in 2009 after the discovery and restoration of an old film from 1928 which used a visual joke about it.

When shunt escalators were replaced by comb escalators from 1924 onwards, the rule stayed in place and continued to mystify foreigners who expect British people to overtake on the right, as we do on roads.”

As I make my way down several levels at Kings cross Tube station to reach the Piccadilly Line, Transport for London (the catching name of the, er, transport department for London) has installed a series of posters giving quirky factoids about the escalators in the Underground. Usually these posters advertise new shows and exhibitions – you can find out a lot, reading the posters on the way down the escalators, which are unusually long. Amongst the facts I’ve learnt about the Tube escalators is that :

The Tube network has more than 400 escalators.

They operate for up to 20-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week, 364-days-a-year.

Each one carries up to 6,000 people, and their luggage, every hour.

During their 40-year lifespan, each will travel the equivalent of a trip to the moon and back.

Fox rides escalator

Then there is the story of the urban fax who took the escalator on his way home, as reported in the newspapers:

"We were all just stunned," added Miss Arkless Gray. "It's not exactly a sight that you expect to see on your way home from a Saturday night out. We did that London thing of just smiling at one-another to acknowledge we'd each seen something interesting. You don't normally make eye contact on the underground unless something unusual is going on and this was definitely one of those times." After getting bored of being the centre of attention, the creature cooly made his way out. Miss   Arkless Gray said: "He was so casual. He left under the ticket barrier and toward the bus station exit. Maybe he was trying to catch the last bus home.”

It seems the fox was much more urbane than this dog, who seems a little confused by the whole escalator business. Dogs must be carried on the escalators, unlike foxes.

The longest escalator in the Underground is at Angel Station and is 60 m (197 ft) long, with a vertical rise of 27.5 m (90 ft).The first escalators were installed in 1911 at Earl’s Court Station, and a gentleman with one leg was invited to be the first to use it, to demonstrate its safety.

In another interesting factoid, in 1933 the first Underground map in diagrammatic form was devised by Harry Beck, an engineering draughtsman at the London Underground Signals Office. In 1933 The London Underground sponsored a major graphic design innovation when it made a trial printing of a new subway system map. Beck submitted his design proposal that, as one website puts it, “replaced geographic fidelity with a diagrammatic interpretation.” Or as another puts it: Beck “broke the most hallowed rule in the cartographic textbook when he created the map in 1933--that geographical accuracy is fundamental to a map.

Beck's 1933 Underground map
Today the Tube diagram is a design coup, explaining clearly and beautifully – if inaccurately as to scale and location – what is going on down there. You can buy it as a poster.

Absolutely essential to London life

Images from:


  1. Hong Kongers always stand on the right too - it's absolutely necessary in the rush hour; stand on the right and hurry up the stairs on the left. Outside of the rush hour some people are not so strict, but they are even advertising it now, "Stand right, Walk left". PS they drive on the left too. Like the British.

  2. Their 'standing on the right' tradition is probably a British import (like afternoon tea at The Penninsular)rather than the result of an archaic technical experiment, I assume.

  3. We stayed in flat opposite Sadlers Wells last year and Angel was our station. I well recall that long escalator ride and the decompression chamber at the top for the frail and fainting. Though preferred it to the vile lifts at Russell Square. Yes, stand to the right and mind the gap.

  4. When are you coming to London again, Harry?