Do you want to sit down on the Overground during rush hour? Then prepare for war

Posted October 4, 2011 in transport  |  97 Comments so far

A few days ago, on an Overground train from Highbury to Kensington, I had a shocking experience – I failed to get a seat.

If you know how crowded the Overground can get at rush hour, this might not sound all that surprising. Believe me, though, I was good at getting seats. I’d learnt the ropes and tend to overanalyse behaviour on public transport, so it had never been a problem. But I’d been away for a few weeks and my seat-acquisition skills had gone beyond rusty – they were useless.

Empty Overground train

Overground trains never look like this during rush hour

So, as a form of therapy, I decided to try to work out the “rules” of the seat-acquisition game on the Overground. Here they are, in illustrated form.

The theatre of conflict

The Overground train arrives and dazed commuters spill on to the platform. Everyone stands aside to let them pass. But this act of kindness is the exception, not the rule. Once you all step into the carriage the competition for seats begins. You are now in a theatre of war.

The theatre of war

The strategic theatre where war is waged

Know your enemies

You share the strategic space of the carriage with many other players. Here’s a brief rundown of who they are:

  • Aspirants – People standing who want to sit down. This includes you.
  • Civilians – People standing who don’t want to sit down, maybe because they’re not going far.
  • Occupants – People currently sitting down. Don’t be fooled though: they’re still in the game.

In a typical combat situation (or “rush hour”) here’s how the players might be distributed across the theatre of conflict.

Populated Overground carriage

Stepping into the arena

Civilians linger near the doors while Aspirants occupy strategic positions nearer the seats. I’ll come to these later. First, here’s an ill-advised opening move that could undermine your whole campaign.

Don’t take the wrong turn

When you first get on the train you might turn towards the divide in between two carriages. Don’t! This is an unforgiving quagmire. Much like Napoleon in Russia, your campaign will come to a crushing, drawn-out end if you venture here.

Here be dragons

There are few seats here so chances of victory are slim. On one side you’re bordered by the crowded doorway, on the other you’re hemmed in by the barren, seatless inter-carriage zone, so withdrawing to another region could prove impossible. Stay well away.

Get into position – but act casual

Get yourself into the long aisle, where the seats are most abundant. This is the fertile valley of the Overground carriage.

But don’t push past people to get here. Try to act casual, like you don’t really want to sit down anyway. As Sun Tzu said, “All warfare is based on deception“. Seem too predatory and you’ll raise the suspicions of other Aspirants, losing the element of surprise. Let them think you’re a disinterested Civilian.

Finding your spot

Find a good place to lurk, but don't appear too keen

A well-chosen spot gives you a tactical advantage over three, maybe four, seats. Take care when picking your spot, and check for things like:

  • Have the seat occupants only just sat down? If so it might be a while before they get off.
  • Can you guess where their occupants might be heading to? For example you can spot BBC people easily (branded building passes, reading Ariel, cooking up ways to irritate the Daily Mail). They’re going all the way to Shepherd’s Bush, so find a new spot.
  • Who else lurks in the same area? If there are pregnant or infirm Aspirants you should move elsewhere – unless, of course, the Overground has completely erased your sense of ethics.
  • Are the Occupants checking the station name or folding up their newspaper? If so then they may be close to departure.

Having found your spot you’re now engaged in a tactical skirmish with other nearby Aspirants. This will play out in a smaller and more manageable space.

Tactical scenario

What it all comes down to - hold your position to capture the flag

Things might seem straightforward from now on – someone will get up, you’ll sit down, mission accomplished. But it’s still too soon for complacency.

Entering end game

This might be the end of your campaign if earlier strategic decisions were sound and luck’s on your side. Other passengers, however, play by their own rules, so there could be some surprises ahead. Here are some end-game scenarios and how to handle them.

1. The Occupant’s Deceit

The Occupant of a contested seat puts their book away. Suddenly you’re interested in nothing else, watching them like a hawk to be sure you’ll bag their seat.

Occupant's deceit

Don't be misled by someone putting their book in their bag. They're not leaving the train - they're just messing with your mind

Distracted, you fail to notice a seat that is legitimately yours becoming empty. An opportunistic Aspirant sneaks in to grab it. Then, to compound your error, the Occupant you’re eyeballing just sits there looking like butter wouldn’t melt in their mouth and you’re stuck on your feet. You lose this round.

Don’t let any single Occupant claim your undivided attention – sometimes people put their books away because they’re bored of reading, they want to sleep, or they simply enjoy messing with your mind.

2. 360-degree Combat

It’s easy to get a kind of tunnel vision when staring at the same three or four people for so long. You can easily forget that there’s a whole other row of seats immediately behind you.

360 degrees

Overground veterans develop 360-degree perception of their surroundings, much like chameleons

So when a seat behind you becomes vacant, will you be quick to notice? If not then it’s a lost opportunity. The trick here is to somehow know what’s going on behind you without overtly gawping – remember your Sun Tzu. As always on the Overground, subtlety is essential.

Edit: A few people commenting after this was posted mentioned that they look in the window to see the reflections of people behind them. I didn’t know this trick. No wonder I’ve been spending so much time standing

3. The Art of Misdirection

Imagine two Aspirants have equal claim to a seat and the Occupant gets up. Who wins? Sometimes it’s about who acts smartest, not who acts first.


The Occupant's direction of departure can be influenced to your advantage

The departing Occupant decides which door to head towards. Sometimes it’s the nearest door, but on a crowded Overground carriage they’ll usually choose the path of least resistance.

Exploit this to your advantage by shifting your position to create an easy route for them. As they move past, do that “orbiting” kind of motion that people do in busy spaces, spinning around them so you switch places while gracefully intruding between the seat and your thwarted enemy.

Get it right and you’ll effortlessly drop into their seat while looking like a helpful and polite person, and not the scheming and conniving seat-fancier you are.

A final note – and a confession

This guide should help you achieve comfort on the Overground, but I must confess that my last few journeys have been spent standing up, so maybe I’m not the best teacher. Maybe I’ve lost the hunger, the brutality, the sharpness of wit that’s needed to compete on these trains. The truth is that I don’t need that hunger any more – my company is moving next weekend, to an office 20 minutes’ walk from my house. I’m pretty happy about this.

So while my days as an Overground commuter are over, yours may be only just beginning. If so, be careful out there – and don’t let the war for seats escalate any more than it has to. Enough blood has been shed.

Edit: There’s now a follow-up to this post, about the Geneva Convention of public transport – the sacrosanct, unspoken rules that we all must obey

97 comments so far.  Post a comment

  1. October 4, 2011 at 1:17 pm [ Permalink

    I sterling piece of strategic thinking.

    Do you remember the old Silverlink trains? Back in those days the main strategy was ‘how do I get OFF this train’, nevermind finding a seat.

  2. Jonathan Morris
    October 4, 2011 at 2:20 pm [ Permalink

    If you can remember the old Silverlink trains, jump over to FCC and get a service to Moorgate – you may even get one of the old trains if you’re (un)lucky. Sure, there will be seats tucked in the corners, but if you grab one, you’re on the train until it terminates…

  3. Hannah Ford
    October 4, 2011 at 5:46 pm [ Permalink

    Another tactic I employ is this: always offer the recently-vacated seat to the aspirant. This means that a) you remove other aspirants from the competition by confirming that there are only two real contenders for the seat. And b) more often than not, your casual ‘I-don’t-really-need-this-seat’ manner will throw off your main rival and make them feel greedy if they take it, so they’ll gesture to you to sit down.


  4. Hannah Ford
    October 4, 2011 at 5:46 pm [ Permalink

    Then get off the tube at the next stop, head to the life shop and buy one.

  5. JK
    October 4, 2011 at 10:32 pm [ Permalink

    How terribly sad. Gentlemen don’t sit when there are women and/or elderly standing. That is all.

  6. Daniel
    October 5, 2011 at 2:32 am [ Permalink

    This is the best thing I have ever seen.

  7. Meaghan
    October 5, 2011 at 9:10 am [ Permalink

    I had to do a quick mental check to see if I had written this myself (especially at the mention of a rush hour a few days ago between Highbury and Kensington, my two stops, where I also didn’t get a seat – it was traumatic).

    This is so wonderful. I might even let you take the available seat next time we’re competing on this overground route :)

  8. Jimmy
    October 5, 2011 at 9:35 am [ Permalink

    The even distribution of seating in these new trains has removed one of my favourite seat obtaining strategies from the Silverlink days. There used to be a row of 3 seats adjacent to the carriage entrance, opposite a row of two. This meant you could stand in a space that was close to the doors, had first choice of 5 possible seats, and was sheltered from the rip tide effect of having to move down the carriage. There were only two other plausible strategies, standing by the entrance or getting gradually forced to the back of the carriage where you may have found a seat, but would have spent the remainder of the journey suffering from acute exit anxiety as the number of passengers between you and the exit piled ever higher.

  9. October 5, 2011 at 9:49 am [ Permalink

    Simply superb. Very thorough! Other types of rolling stock certainly have different techniques, as we Met users are realising now that the A stock is being replaced by the S, which is similar to the Overground layout but with some nuanced differences.

    I should point out though that in this age of equality, women have no more right to a seat than men, and if there’s no ‘baby on board’ badge, you must assume obesity. The age of chivalry died some time just after Harriet Harman joined the government…

  10. October 5, 2011 at 10:07 am [ Permalink

    Despite being a superb account of life on the Overground, and stunning tactical advice, you’ve failed to identify one particular type of miscreant: the people who sit down for one stop

    Their behaviour is unpredictable at best

    How you can prepare for these people I just don’t know. They dive in and dive out like thieves in the night, constantly leaving me left to rue my missed opportunity.

    The slags.

  11. October 5, 2011 at 10:43 am [ Permalink


    I think the diagrams and tactics for ‘Getting served at a busy Pub Bar’ would be quite similar…

    certainly, the orbiting motion required to maneuver into a bar-side position is very similar to step 3 of the end game – with the added consideration of allowing enough space for people with hands full of drinks to get out, without inadvertently allowing some other punter to take their space

    Though of course, getting served is a two stage process, where the final play involves actually attracting the bartender’s attention.

  12. October 5, 2011 at 10:48 am [ Permalink

    @JK, Of course you must give up your seat for anyone infirm but why women? You may not have received the memo but nowadays we practice gender equality which means that female Aspirants have just as much right to feel the wrath of my seating tactics as their male counterparts.

  13. Iddles
    October 5, 2011 at 10:55 am [ Permalink

    A valiant attempt at trolling, JK, but could try harder.

  14. October 5, 2011 at 11:29 am [ Permalink

    Interesting but over complicated. The person is clearly a noob because they are taking the overground to do a trip from Highbury to Kensington.

    I play a higher stakes game because I do this every day. I am aiming for a corner seat and a newspaper. I am usually successful in this aim.

    Since you are on a tactical one I will quote Sun Tsu:
    “To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”

    I consistently get that corner seat by bypassing the seat battle described above with correct deployment.

    Get on at the right stop. If I was doing your journey I would get on at Canonbury and get a seat and be comfy in it while you all crowd in at Highbury.

    Get on at the right carriage. 2nd from furthest away is normally the best for tubes because it avoids the slightly increased furthest away from carriage traffic.

    If you want the corner seat, aim for the seat nearest to it, then slide down when it is empty.

  15. Oliver
    October 5, 2011 at 11:34 am [ Permalink

    On many occasions I have been known to casually put my book away to elicit exactly the kind of response shown in Fig.1

    I’m an ar*ehole

  16. Gary
    October 5, 2011 at 12:29 pm [ Permalink

    To monitor the row of seat behind you, you should use the reflection in the windows. This is the preferred strategy as to the people in the seats in front of you, it looks like you are just avoiding awkward eye contact.

    It is also a great way to look at woman without seeming like the creep you really are.

  17. October 5, 2011 at 1:17 pm [ Permalink

    I’ve always taken the strategy, aim for something obtainable, during rush hour.

    Aim for the area near the car end. There are only four seats here but there is also something to lean on, while you wait for the precious seats. And never as much of a crush, owing to the lack of hand rail.

    There is no point getting tired out waiting!

    “Victory is the main object of war. If this is long delayed, weapons are blunted and morale depressed.” – Sun Tzu

    Paddington to Moorgate, Circle / Hammersmith and City Line

  18. Women of London's public transport..
    October 5, 2011 at 1:39 pm [ Permalink

    Dear men,

    In between our bouts of preening and pouting at our reflection in the windows, we do notice you staring at us and we still think you’re creeps. The same goes for inter-carriage staring, that glass is not one-way…


  19. Seasoned seater
    October 5, 2011 at 1:50 pm [ Permalink

    This is a subtle and tactical form of art. Techniques like this should be handed down and not published on the internet

  20. October 5, 2011 at 2:14 pm [ Permalink

    This is brilliant – didn’t realise other people put so much thought into this too :), I thought I was just a bit OCD. Well, except for this one bloke who’s like my early morning nemesis at Lee station. Good stuff.

  21. The OG
    October 5, 2011 at 2:22 pm [ Permalink

    There are a couple more tricks:

    If you usually get the same train at the same time, you may start to notice a few of the same people. I haven’t noticed many, but there are a couple of people who I’ve started to recognise and remember where they get off.

    Much more fun though is when you do get a seat, and spot the same people standing very near to you so they can grab your seat when you get up. These people have probably started to recognise you too, and will stand as close to you as possible. (Why else would the same person always stand near me?) The solution here is a bit extreme, but you can totally confuse them if you have more than one stop where you can get off. Instead of getting off at your normal stop, ride to a later stop. You only need to do this once to avoid being crowded by the same people over and over again even when the rest of the train is empty.

  22. valerie@wildbeginnings
    October 5, 2011 at 2:26 pm [ Permalink

    Its always reassuring when you find out that other people are as calculating and ruthless in the pursuit of the prize as you are.

  23. JES
    October 5, 2011 at 3:01 pm [ Permalink

    This is all well and good but none of you have managed to characterise much less solve the problem of the most nefarious denizen of the undergound, The Seat Hopper.

    The Seat Hopper will jump seat at the first opportunity to be closer to a nearby, seated cohort (typically without telegraphing the pairing for fear of contravening the tube’s no-talking rule). In doing so, they believe that being an existing seat owner grants them carte blanche to claim any other free seat in the vicinity, even one already claimed by an aspirant. This in turn frees a seat under the juristdiction of another Aspirant, dashing your carefully laid plans of seat annexation.

    Any ideas how to combat these snakes in the grass?

  24. Richard G. Clegg
    October 5, 2011 at 3:34 pm [ Permalink

    In a situation with relatively few aspirants (off-peak) then they often crowd near the door. In this case (and this case only) then the inter-carriage gap is the best place to stand. You are clearly nearest to the empty seat in two half-carriages. There are likely two or three people in the door area and those people can lay claim to only half a carriage each. This is my best strategy in a less-crowded situation — by subsequent turning and making firm eye contact with aspirants in the two adjacent door areas you can clearly establish dominion over “your” half carriages and by careful surveillance and an early turn and move you can get slightly more than half by being “obviously closer” to someone about to get off.

  25. Mat of Kilburnia
    October 5, 2011 at 6:09 pm [ Permalink

    Well I’m usually wondering if someone else needs a seat more than I do to be getting smug about getting a seat. I know this is in semi-jest but the battle for seats and selfish pushy passengers are one of the reason I try to walk everywhere.

    Just please, please tell me you’re not one of these awful creatures who get on trains whilst people are still getting off

  26. Jordan
    October 5, 2011 at 8:32 pm [ Permalink

    Brilliant. However, I think the battle really begins much earlier than this. I’d love to see your tactics for actually getting on the bloody train in the first place. We are already running through our battle plan in our minds about how to take your position on the platform where we believe the doors will be, and how to “hold, hold, hold” as William Wallace said, making sure nobody blocks you. You also need to play that, politely let people off the train and time your dash onto the train perfectly. Too soon and you’re an obnoxious moron, too late , like stalling at the green lights in and F1 race, and you’re destined to be a desperate aspiring occupant.

  27. Daz
    October 5, 2011 at 10:20 pm [ Permalink

    “The Overground train arrives and dazed commuters spill on to the platform. Everyone stands aside to let them pass. But this act of kindness is the exception, not the rule.”

    It is actually a bye-law offence not letting people off the train before getting on yourself.

  28. petepoo
    October 6, 2011 at 1:42 pm [ Permalink

    Top tactical tip for getting on the train in the first place are to stand at the very side of the door, rather than in the middle.. the middle alwas attracts the longest queue and also is forced to stand aside when people exit.. standing at the very corner of the door means you can nip in like a nuala the lioness queen while everyone else is distracted by the proverbial buffalo stampede of people exiting.. 12 months of overland warfare from homerton taught me much..

  29. October 6, 2011 at 2:33 pm [ Permalink

    The trick I usually pull on the London Bridge to Brighton train (at East Croydon) is to act as if I’m getting off the train… look determined to get off, focus ont he door, not the seat. Other Aspirants don’t see you as a threat.

    And then … *BAM* … you sit in the chair your co-aspirant was going to take after he’d let you walk past to get off.

  30. meredith
    October 6, 2011 at 3:08 pm [ Permalink

    this is seriously brilliant. it feels like you’re inside my head while i’m on the tube in a way i’ve never been able to articulate. can you work on a strategy for avoiding tourists from ‘the continent’ on oxford street next???

  31. Steve
    October 6, 2011 at 3:09 pm [ Permalink

    @Women of London’s public transport.

    Dear Women,

    Some of us are men are gay and we’re likely staring at your atrocious split ends, clown make-up or dress sense of a 5 year old who’s been raiding Mummy’s dressing up box again.

    Gay Men

  32. October 6, 2011 at 3:16 pm [ Permalink

    “Gentlemen don’t sit when there are women and/or elderly standing. That is all.”

    Gentlemen don’t treat women like little china dolls, and instead recognise that the birth of the women’s movement means that women have equal rights and equal cause to suffer standing up from West Brompton to Highbury and Islington.

    I will always stand up for:

    The elderly
    The disabled
    Those who are pregnant
    People who look exhausted

    Anyone else, unless there is a really good reason, can stand.

  33. lorraine
    October 6, 2011 at 3:20 pm [ Permalink

    there were times I was left standing at Stratford station, as my aggressive husband pushed his way onto a commuter train, leaving me ‘the wife’ left standing. He always said I could fight my own battles. Sure did, I held the car keys so he would be waiting further East Essex :P

  34. October 6, 2011 at 3:26 pm [ Permalink

    Brilliant. I’ve fallen for the The Occupant’s Deceit far too many times. Could you post a follow up on strategies for the #29 bendy bus?

  35. October 6, 2011 at 3:34 pm [ Permalink

    I find the best place is to stand near to the corner of the door.

    People will need to get past you to get off, and this impossible in your blocking the door. So, you have to tell them to move a little so you can move in to their area, which gives them room to move into your area by the door so they can exit. Keep eye contact with the occupant at all times in the movement process, avoid any with aspirants as they will figure out your movements. You will then be stood near to the now empty seat.

    Be careful not to let other aspirants get involved in the ‘shuffle’, at most it should be used as a distraction to other aspirants while they have to think where everyone else is moving to. If need be, make them move further away by asking the other aspirant to move, or else they may move in to the occupants space and you failed.

    Sometimes a circular shuffle is required, it’s like moving through a rotating door, face the occupant, move in a circle in tandem, and boom you have the seat next to you. Great for blokes if it is a cute lady, you can get close to them, and sometimes you get a cute smile from them. Best not doing the circular shuffle on a hot summer’s day with smelly carrier bag men with long beards.

  36. Nette
    October 6, 2011 at 4:22 pm [ Permalink

    I do this every day, subconsciously, on the Northern Line. But I find the best way to monitor both sides of seats is to stand looking either backwards or forwards (which you choose will depend on the occupants of the seats and whether there appears to be a more likely free seat coming up soon – I look towards that). Then if one surprisingly does come up just behind you, you can always try the ‘slides effortlessly bum-first into the seat manouevre’. It’s a classic.

  37. Dan Raywood
    October 6, 2011 at 4:33 pm [ Permalink

    I get on the Piccadilly line at Southgate and travel all the way to Hammersmith every day. Getting a seat is not normally an issue but on the rare occasion that it is (such as this morning), my usual tactic is to stand in the centre of the seating sections and take my first opportunity at one of the three passenger departure points – Finsbury Park, Kings Cross or Holborn. If that all fails, meh, I sit down all day at work anyway.

  38. October 6, 2011 at 4:40 pm [ Permalink

    I take to wearing dark glasses and carry a white stick. The trick is NOT to make an obvious move for the seat until ushered by a gentle hand leading me to a seat vacated by an unlucky sod due to my poor eyesight. Of course you run the risk of being ‘outed’ as soon as you pick up a newspaper by mistake and begin to read it (even if it is upside-down)

  39. jim
    October 6, 2011 at 4:40 pm [ Permalink

    With regard to giving up a prized seat I say that if you travel on a train during rushhour you’re fair game, pregnant women and the blind are the only exception to the rule.

  40. Craig
    October 6, 2011 at 4:52 pm [ Permalink

    I often use The Art of Misdirection when waiting to buy beers at the bar. Ensure that the person currently being served leaves you the opportune space and block out your competition.

  41. Herbert
    October 6, 2011 at 4:55 pm [ Permalink

    Lewes to London Victoria – elbows and ruthlessness are all. Nice liberal people live in Lewes, which means they reach depths of viciousness unknown in London. Fight.

  42. god of sitting down
    October 6, 2011 at 4:57 pm [ Permalink

    There are a few things missing here:
    1. Learn where the train doors will be when the train arrives. Make sure you are there exactly! one step to the left or right will put you behind someone else.
    If you end up at the join between 2 carriages, its game over and everyone else will shower you with shame.
    2. Learn which doors have the least number of people pouring out of them. by entering a less popular door, you can follow the crowd who are leaving and steal the last empty seat before the battle even starts. (infiltrate and conquer method)
    3. A trick i often use on the underground is to get the un-popular train and switch.
    example: I’m at Temple, and want to get to whitechapel… 1 minute before the train that goes there directly, there is a train that only goes as far as Tower Hill. I get on that, which usually has quite a few empty seats. Then I get off one stop BEFORE tower hill – if i stay on, it pulls onto a terminating platform (game over). I simply step off and wait 1 minute for the train that i really wanted. Tower hill is a busy interchange, so i then employ my infiltrate and conquer method to claim my seat.

  43. October 6, 2011 at 5:54 pm [ Permalink

    You’re overanalyzing indeed…

    Thanks for the fun read, though!

  44. Robyn
    October 6, 2011 at 6:21 pm [ Permalink

    Excellent. I’m no longer a London occupant but I executed many of these strategies on the rube during my time there.

    It rather goes against the etiquette of ‘dont talk/no eyecontact’ but smiling at a person sitting sometimes resulted in then directly asking if I’d like a seat as they left’ Bingo

    And I’m just going to say it, I’m a woman and if a guy offers me the seat when two of us battle for it then I’m going to take it. The tube has different rules, if you’re offering away your seat then prepare for the concequences.

    I’ve now moved to a new city and an currently developing a new transport based strategy.

    Happy commuting all

  45. Joel Lothian
    October 6, 2011 at 6:24 pm [ Permalink

    It’s pretentious cobblers like this that makes the rest of the UK hate folk who live in London. Stop f**king moaning, idiot.

  46. Carly
    October 6, 2011 at 7:00 pm [ Permalink

    I recognise many of these strategies, and find that this seat-mating dance more amusing than angry birds for delaying boredom on a train.

    Re waiting for people to get off – during my first year in London, early one Friday morning on the central line, a huge Kiwi was obviously feeling the effects of the night before during morning rush hour. He stood to leave the tube but as it was just him getting off, the dirty rotten City folk surged forward, only to have him vomit over the first two rows of suits. It was absolutely priceless, and my money is on every single person who witnessed that never pushing forward ever again!

  47. stefield
    October 6, 2011 at 8:21 pm [ Permalink

    On @2. 360-degree Combat:

    “The trick here is to somehow know what’s going on behind you without overtly gawping”…

    …THE TRICK is to utilise the internal reflection from the carriage window you are facing.

    Using this method, you can keep one eye on the Occupants and Aspirants within your immediate field of vision – and the other eye on those taking up strategic positions to the rear.

  48. Andrew S
    October 6, 2011 at 9:17 pm [ Permalink

    Don’t forget that someone with a bike or a mum with pushchair screws it all up due to taking up a lot more space than a normal passenger.

  49. Tulyar
    October 7, 2011 at 12:33 am [ Permalink

    I travel often with a folding bicycle and recall one night some 20 years ago when, on the third attempt I managed to board a train from Moorgate at Finsbury Park, and managed this only by placing the folded bike just inside the doors, against the draught screen and standing on top of it to wedge myself against the ceiling. On less crowded trains I have been known to use the bike as a seat, as the main tube of a typical small wheeled folding bike is at just the right height to do this.

    Another good maxim for all travel, and handy for those bank holiday trips by any form of public transport is to always buy luggage you can sit on comfortably. This can be a valuable alternative strategy to rising above the battle for a seat and falling foul of the dreadful emerging discovery that the seat you have so easily captured was actually not being used for a reason (that damp feeling or the way you start sliding forward and downwards because the stop bumpers on the seat squab are bent or broken, and it slopes like the main street in Clovelly when your weight hits it.

    I mus confess however to being a real creep as a kid, when I was for a while attending Great Ormond Street for eye treatment and making regular trips on the Piccadilly Line to Holborn, and positively seeking ladies to offer my seat to. The residual effect of this is that I have spent years practising to be a gentleman, reading all the right books – like Emily Post – but of course facing the conundrum that a gentleman never asks whether he has been behaving like a gentleman

  50. Katy
    October 7, 2011 at 7:21 am [ Permalink

    Joel Lothian – of somewhere outside of London, unless you live in the mighty capital, you won’t understand. i’m sure there are plently of seats on your steam train. this is a great blog.

  51. YoungM
    October 7, 2011 at 11:30 am [ Permalink

    JK – I can see your point, but it is blindingly obvious you do not work in London nor live there (and if you do it’s not been for a long amount of time). I am a lady myself but I know it’s dog eat dog on the tube. We have all been working long hours. And if men had to stand instead of women then men would never get a seat. That really wouldn’t be fair. Gone are the days of carefree travel in and out of London. The world has changed.

  52. phild500
    October 7, 2011 at 11:54 am [ Permalink

    With the old Rude Boy express trains it was always thinking why did i get on the train at all and I am safer standing up. The new trains ahve muddied this thinking and, as a result, this excellent summary of seat strategy is a welcome addition to the Overground travellers arsenal.

  53. Ols
    October 7, 2011 at 1:13 pm [ Permalink


    Need to do one on the war to get that magazine (usually Stylist and Shortlist) that someone nearby has almost finished. There will be lots of people with their eyes on the prize. I say it’s about getting the eye contact as soon as they’ve put it down and asking for it quickly

  54. Misslistmaker
    October 7, 2011 at 4:39 pm [ Permalink

    A man after my own heart. Seat acquisition is not laughing matter. Think you might relate to some of this…..

  55. Jordan
    October 7, 2011 at 5:45 pm [ Permalink

    I was about to say that another way to get a seat is to get pregnant, which is infinitely easier if you are female. But although the axiom is that both gentlemen and women should give up their seats for a pregnant woman it happens less and less. I always offer my seat, but I must confess I have gotten it wrong once and took an ear-full for insulting an overweight and dis-proportioned woman carrying lot’s of weight in her abdominal area. It strikes fear in you and you spend the first 2 minutes trying trying to subtly work out if they are indeed pregnant, whilst during this 2 minutes you are feeling shameful at taking so long to offer your seat also.

    Pregnant women, please wear the ‘Baby on Board’ badges. Over-weight women, please wear the ‘I’m just fat’ badges.

  56. October 9, 2011 at 12:32 pm [ Permalink

    I must confess I often keep an eye out for people who are desperate to sit down so I can steal vacant seats just to annoy them (this works especially well if I’m getting off in just 1 stop anyway).

    I must say I only do this if it’s men because a) as I am a woman they won’t have a go and instead just grumble quietly to themselves, and b) as I am a woman they should have done the gentleman-ly thing and offered me the seat.

    Chivalry is DEAD on the tube so I make it my business to rile rude men. *Smiles smugly*

  57. Therese
    October 9, 2011 at 1:43 pm [ Permalink

    These tactics are also very successful on the tube and when on the tube may I recommend aiming to enter the first or last carriage as these are almost always the least crowded.

  58. Aussiemum
    October 10, 2011 at 3:25 am [ Permalink

    Ha ha – very funny!

    I am relieved to see that in all this warfare everyone is agreed that the prize must be sacrificed for someone who may require the seat due to ill health, limited mobility or other restrictions. I live in Australia and was really impressed by the number of people who were willing to offer their seat to me while I was pregnant even before I was showing that much (I guess they could tell by the desperate way that I was hanging on that I was feeling faint and nauseous)!

    On occasion I had young men yell down the packed carriage and ask me if I wanted the vacant seat near them. After that no-one dared to take it before I got there, and the guy usually was offered a seat by another passenger for being such a top bloke.

  59. Jon B
    October 10, 2011 at 6:33 pm [ Permalink

    @Daz October 5, 2011 at 10:20 pm

    If only that byelaw were enforced…

  60. Rational Plan
    October 10, 2011 at 7:28 pm [ Permalink

    While were at it lets have a go at those selfish bastards who think they can block off the spare seat on the evening service out of Waterloo.

    I don’t give a shit if you give me evils for asking to move your coat and what right do you have to use your bloody laptop on 18.30 to Reading.

    Sure you can spread everything you own out about to discourage people sitting next to you, but as that carriage fills up recognise you have lost and accept it gracefully Don’t start humphing out the side of your mouth or once actually pick up the shoulder strap of my bag and flick it over some invisible line, I spent the rest of that trip in silent fury.

  61. October 10, 2011 at 7:31 pm [ Permalink

    Here was my post on my occasional evil streak about people “pretending to leave”:

  62. Twickenham Toiler
    October 11, 2011 at 12:43 am [ Permalink

    Great stuff, but a few comments from a seasoned campaign veteran (and lighten uo some of you out there):
    1. No mention of ‘The Drain’. These rules don’t apply there. Think Tokyo transit, all-out war. Chose your spot on the platform, exactly 1 ft (300mm in metric) either side of the position where the doors will open, never the middle. Nobody gets out at Waterloo in the morning, since the train arrives empty, but the evening at Bank is a different matter. The door positions are reasonably accurately set out on the platform, unlike other Underground/Tube stations. However, for years there has been a semi-official graffito at Waterloo on the opposite wall to my favourite spot which says “PAC loop”, whatever that means. Find a similar private indicator. When the train arrives, double your notional body width by spreading your elbows out, briefcase splayed, coat over arm, golfing umbrella prominent (if you have a free corporate one, useless for anything else) – any impediment is legitimate. Don’t hesitate, have your newspaper or book ready, make for the nearest seat and immediately sit down and read it.
    The Golden Rule is – DON’T MAKE EYE CONTACT. Only one stop anyway, so no point getting up.
    One stop unless, of course, you are a rare tourist who has ill-advisedly ventured down to the depths – I’ve seen a few lost souls get to Bank, realise they were on the wrong line, and have to go back to Waterloo. Easy to spot, but don’t spoil our mutual pleasure by informing them they are not on the Central (or “red”) Line, especially if they are travelling Canadians, since it enlivens a dull morning.
    2. Overground – I disagree with your tactic on carriage ends. There are two useful methods. Similar rules apply.
    Method A: Again, stand where you know the doors will open, but also pick a spot at the rear of the fifth carriage, so if the train is magically shortened from 8 to 4 carriages without any announcement you are not forced to scurry back to the first available door with half the remaining passengers (sorry, “customers”). You will get on, they will not.
    Don’t live in St Margarets, Wandsworth or similar minor interludes, since only one train stops every 4 days at your station and you all try to get on at the same time every morning and off again in the evening. Better to head the opposite way to the next major interchange and catch the train back from there (this “Bishops’s Move” also holds true on the Northern Line for the “Bank vs. Charing X Branch” gambit as well).
    Head for a carriage end but with dividing doors to the adjoining carriage, and insist on passing on through, apologising to those who are moving up towards the doors to get off in the next couple of stops (a variant of the “revolving door/rotation” technique).
    DON’T at any cost shout “Move down inside” since they just might, and that would defeat your purpose.
    Lurk at the back near the communicating doors and pounce when ready (use “aggressive hovering”), as soon as Occupants start move forwards to get off. The other rules about Occupants now come into force, but you will have no other Civilians or Aspirants in play.
    Method B: Alternatively, enter the carriage behind your intended location and come through the dividing doors to occupy the same position. But be warned, this is a “Knight’s Move” and requires speed and flexibility, and no baggage. It does not work if a seasoned player has adopted Method A. They will prevent you from getting into the carriage proper and you will spend the rest of an uncomfortably noisy and draughty journey in the gap between the carriages standing on the moving plates. This is especially interesting to watch on the approach into Waterloo.
    And, yes – “Know your Enemy” (Clausewitz). Hover near regular travellers who get off at the station after yours. Eventually they may smile and offer you their seat when about to leave, which outflanks other Aspirants. Possession is nine tenths of the Law.

  63. gusset25
    October 11, 2011 at 3:40 am [ Permalink

    do these tactics also work on the underground? or is there a separate guide?

  64. beckybadluck
    October 11, 2011 at 6:55 am [ Permalink

    I run the gauntlet of up to three trams across Zurich.

    There are single seats on many of the older trams and these are the real prize! People who already have seats regularly make a kind of sliding dash for the single seat when you (who have been standing)think it’s in the bag!

  65. Paul
    October 11, 2011 at 10:49 am [ Permalink

    My own rule is to never sit down on the tube when wearing a suit as the smell from the seat cushions seems to transfer and of course ruins the crease.

    When in casual clothes at the weekend it’s usually tourists and casual commuters who don’t really offer competition for a seat.

  66. Caroline
    October 11, 2011 at 2:03 pm [ Permalink

    I read about your article on the newspaper. I think your viewpoint is very interesting and very useful!
    Can I translate this article into Chinese, so my friend in Taiwan can understand?

  67. Pato
    October 11, 2011 at 3:37 pm [ Permalink

    Love this. A few other points…

    if travelling into town, do not even consider the Banker, they are going all the way!!!

    If it is very busy I just go all in and corner the individual wearing jeans, or most looks like a builder. They rarely travel far on my journey on the District line.

    Always utilise your peripheral vision to keep up the deception of disinterest!

  68. October 11, 2011 at 5:38 pm [ Permalink

    Great guide, when I was working in London I did something very similar. If you travel regularly you can actually learn who will leave when. The trick is to get on at the same time, take the same route and get on using the same doors every day. After a while you will know some people or at least type of people and when they get off.

  69. tmavric
    October 11, 2011 at 5:59 pm [ Permalink

    Try this…
    If looking for a seat,say,southbound at Finchley Road.Departing passingers head off the train to your right(where the exits are).So,stand to the far left of the door you want to enter;(last carriage far end of platform)let them off,and bam!You get a seat.Works for me:)

  70. Betty Power
    October 11, 2011 at 9:54 pm [ Permalink

    Any suggestions re: optimum strategy for classical musicians travelling with cellos? Also, will you be addressing London bus travel next?

  71. Francis Ocloo
    October 12, 2011 at 7:55 am [ Permalink

    Made interesting reading. I laughed over and over again

  72. Francis Ocloo
    October 12, 2011 at 8:11 am [ Permalink

    it made reading interesting

  73. Katie
    October 12, 2011 at 12:56 pm [ Permalink

    Just out of curiosity, how many self-defined ‘gentlemen’ would still give up their seat for a female if it seemed fairly obvious to them that she was transgendered? My experience as a transwoman is that there are not many males who believe in traditional gender roles who would do that. Hardly ‘gentle’ on their part, don’t ya think?

  74. Angel Mireles
    October 12, 2011 at 2:14 pm [ Permalink

    AWESOME: This is a excellent set of strategies!!! Very necessary for living in my dear city! Thanks a lot from Mexico City.

  75. October 12, 2011 at 2:31 pm [ Permalink

    Love it. Getting a seat is, as John Barnes memorably quoth, learning how to ‘hold and give, but do it at the right time’. I never make a ‘never sat on a chair before’ mad dash – how undignified! – and if I lose out on a seat, I never show my disappointment, unless it’s clearly been teefed from my grasp by someone far more devious than me. They can burn in hell.

    I’m also one of those arseholes who likes to toy with people’s emotions by putting my book or magazine away.

    Where possible, I stand in the middle of the carriage facing both rows of seats. If I’m facing a row, I make sure to angle myself in such a way that the person getting off has enough room, but we’re both blocking the other competitor for their seat, and I can slide in neatly. I look around a bit and check the carriage window reflections, casually smoothing my hair or checking my makeup. Except I’m not; I’m priming myself for the kill.

  76. PJ
    October 12, 2011 at 2:42 pm [ Permalink

    Fart in sum1’s face that shuld do it

  77. Savvyshopper
    October 12, 2011 at 5:05 pm [ Permalink

    Let’s consider the following:
    People who take up more than one seat (not because they’re large but because they think they’ve paid more for their ticket than you – they haven’t!)
    People who want YOU to share their newspaper/magazine by opening it in YOUR FACE! Then proceed to brush your light coloured jacket/coat with newsprint!
    People who have a real problem with their elbows…A guy sat next to me recently who couldn’t stop twitching his elbows – I had to stop reading as I was preparing myself for the next twitch and thought he might knock my Kindle (yes I read one of those) out of my hands.
    People who sit on the outside of a two-seater and then have to move/rearrange everything while you (but it’s not you it’s them!) are holding up everyone getting on the train! And they tut when asked to move – what’s that all about?
    I love commuting really!

  78. philip ross
    October 13, 2011 at 12:40 pm [ Permalink

    now there is a different strategy for an empty or half empty train. Do you sit down in the empty block of four? Not if it is going to fill up, you could be squashed in by three fat blokes, best bet is to find a part occupied block. Ideally with a small person next to you and opposite you. Of course there is the technique for encouraging and discouraging people from sitting next to you. On a train that is always full it becomes an art.

  79. Tom Bridges
    October 13, 2011 at 2:24 pm [ Permalink

    Good article, and agree with every word except the initial positioning. Yes, do aim for the long corridor of seats between door and divide, but stand three quarters of the way along towards the divide. This will give control of the most likely departure route (doorwards) alowing you to follow the traffic into a seat.

  80. Tony
    October 13, 2011 at 2:36 pm [ Permalink

    Super, how does it work with the new Met train. Silverlink sounds scary

  81. October 17, 2011 at 1:29 pm [ Permalink

    I disagree about avoiding the train-door-end of the carriage. If you position yourself right you can have first-in access to as many as four seats, and have competing aspirants on only one side of you. I find this tactic works best. For me, at least.

  82. EF
    October 19, 2011 at 1:06 am [ Permalink

    An excellent guide for those using the overground, although I feel some of these moves may be of a beginner level.

    For the more advanced Aspirant, try stuffing any excess clothing i.e. jumper/large scarf (especially during the winter months) up your blouse or work clothing giving the impression you are indeed pregnant which although morally questionable will secure your seat on most journeys (in addition to many smiles and the occasional chatter). However for the more adventurous man, walk with a stick, no matter your age, enter onto the carriage with a slight limp, this will again secure your comfort throughout your journey however (similar to the aspirational female) may lead to some questioning.

    Happy travelling – see you on the rails my worthy opponents.

  83. EF
    October 19, 2011 at 1:11 am [ Permalink

    I commented before reading your Geneva Convention – I of course am liable to stand trial for my suggestions (or War Crimes), I do apologise.

    See you at the Hague.

  84. Nick
    October 25, 2011 at 3:56 am [ Permalink

    Hey you might wanna drop them a note since it seems lifted from this article without credits

  85. October 25, 2011 at 4:10 am [ Permalink

    Hmmh… Yahoo seems to have plagiarised your article and pictures for our local public train service (the MRT) over at

  86. October 25, 2011 at 5:06 pm [ Permalink

    Just one to alert you about this article, it’s a literally copy-paste of your article. Even with the small attribution at the bottom, I feel it is rather unfair that entire articles be copied, minor references of the Overground changed to the MRT, and a small tiny link at the bottom placed.

  87. October 25, 2011 at 5:08 pm [ Permalink

    Sorry, for my previous comment, I am referring to this:

  88. November 21, 2011 at 3:35 pm [ Permalink

    I regularly travel to London and use the tube / overground as transport to shoots. How will your strategy work whilst carrying a bag or two of camera equipment – or any other you may have..

    But a brilliant article nonetheless, and certainly made me smile…..

  89. November 21, 2012 at 12:35 pm [ Permalink

    Agree with other comments, it’s all about “the boarding”. If you don’t get off to a good start then it’ll be all up hill from there.

    The post ignores the “spheres of control” that exist on most underground (and other) trains caused by the narrow isle and the fact that aspirants are forced to stand in single file. On the overground train you describe aspirants are free to move around each other so it is impossible to control more than a couple of seats in a crowded carriage. In a narrow isle train you can control a greater number of seats by positioning yourself strategically on the isle.

    Strategies include:

    1. On an un-full train enter the narrow passage between seats and stop at the beginning of the passage thus blocking other aspirants from taking up strategically strong positions in front of occupants who are potentially leaving. By doing this you can control a whole row of seats if no other aspirants are competing from the other end. Strengthen your blocking position giving yourself a reason to “not notice” other aspirants eg by reading. They will know what you are doing and you will know they know what you are doing but the unwritten rules of the tube are that people are not allowed to talk to each other and this may prevent them from asking you to move. If someone does ask if they can move past you feign surprise and move towards the centre of the carriage in front of them (see point 3.)

    2. When forced to move up a narrow carriage only move as far as you have to to make room for the pushy aspirants behind you. This way you retain control of all seats in front of you that don’t have aspirants guarding them.

    3. In a full narrow carriage move to the centre of the carriage and stop between the middle 4 seats. This should give you control over 4 seats as leaving occupants will often “sweep” competing aspirants towards the door and away from the seat they are vacating. Being behind a leaving occupant is strategically very strong. If you can’t control the middle sport the seats you should pay most attention to are the ones between you and the closest door. These are the seats that are most likely to be swept clear as occupants move towards the exit.

    A tip for new players is if you spot a seat that is empty and seemingly surrounded by aspirants then check the seat very carefully before sitting in it as it could have something spilled in it or the neighbour could be someone that you wouldn’t want to sit next to eg homeless.

    And finally always give up your seat to the old, distressed, less able and the pregnant. We are commuters playing a game not animals.

  90. Andy Davis
    November 28, 2012 at 3:45 pm [ Permalink



    I love this! This is defo getting shared!

    Thank you sensei for the training!

  91. […] trying to find a seat on the London Overground at rush hour–so much so that Brendan Nelson compares it to war. Brendan Nelson classifies train commuters into three types and gives thorough advice for this […]

  92. January 31, 2013 at 2:33 pm [ Permalink

    When I initially left a comment I seem to have clicked the -Notify
    me when new comments are added- checkbox and now each time
    a comment is added I receive four emails with the same comment.

    There has to be a means you can remove me from that service?

  93. February 1, 2013 at 10:05 am [ Permalink

    What email address are the comment notifications being sent to? Please email it to rather than posting it here, in case you get harvested for spam…

  94. February 7, 2013 at 10:14 am [ Permalink

    “Do you want to sit down on the Overground during rush hour?

    Then prepare for war »” was in fact seriously engaging and informative!
    Within todays society honestly, that is really hard to do.
    Thank you, Wilburn

  95. April 22, 2013 at 4:34 am [ Permalink

    Hi! Someone in my Myspace group shared this website with us so
    I came to check it out. I’m definitely enjoying the information. I’m bookmarking and will be tweeting
    this to my followers! Excellent blog and superb design and style.

  96. July 11, 2013 at 4:13 pm [ Permalink

    haha, fantastic! I am usually an aspirant or civilian but on the underground rather than the overground. Usually it is too busy to be an occupier, but after using strategic moves as you suggested in your post, I do sometimes become one! :)

  97. michael hopkins
    February 6, 2015 at 4:05 pm [ Permalink

    I never forget. I was sleeping in corner seat on central line. Somebody poked me and wake up. I suddenly wake. a pregnant woman angrily showing me the pictures on the window. seat can be offer to disabled, elderly or pregnant person. I stand up and gave my seat with my sleepy eyes. She didn’t even said thank you. Owner of the tube. I have been travelling 23 years and I always give my seat happily those people who need. I never seen aggressive behavior like this. I am very upset with her action.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment