Even in war, there are rules: the Geneva Convention of public transport

Posted October 10, 2011 in transport  |  13 Comments so far

Most commenters on last week’s Overground seat-acquisition strategy post shared nefarious techniques of their own – many of which made me feel like a bit of a novice.

But some questioned whether it was right to engage in this conflict at all when there are elderly people, pregnant women, and other travellers less able to cope with the stresses of modern commuting. Mat of Kilburnia went as far as suggesting the unthinkable:

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

As if! Everyone who knows their way around an Overground or Tube carriage understands that this is a cardinal rule, fundamental to the code of conduct. It’s shocking that anyone would even consider that.

You see, even in war there are rules and ethics – and in this respect the strategic space of the train carriage is no different from any other modern theatre of conflict. And although there’s no International Criminal Court of public transport, there’s certainly a Geneva Convention. Here are three of its basic rules.

1. Let people get off the train first

It’s a beautiful thing when a load of commuters get off a train. No, seriously. Like herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically across the Serengeti or flocks of starlings rippling across the sky (this is a murmuration, fact fans), a crowd of Tube travellers surging on to the platform is a magical moment, particularly for those of us left behind who can finally breathe. So why try to stop it?

Getting off the tube at St Johns Mackerel

Anything goes with these people, as long as you don’t aim to kill

It’s amazing that people still do this. You’d have thought that by now it’d be a forgotten social aberration, like bear-baiting or smoking in kindergarten. Maybe it’s tourists who do it? Or people on a combination of PCP and Special Brew? You’d have to be on something not to see that this causes problems for everyone, yourself included.

The punishment: Transgressors can expect to be shoulder-barged or roughly pushed aside.

2. Don’t send conflicting signals about leaving

This is a bit more obscure but I think it’s ingrained in the subconscious of most commuters. I’ll let a picture do the talking:


You’re getting near your stop so think about getting off. Will you make it through the crowd?


OK, that person between you and the door seems interested in the exit. You’ll just be able to coast in his wake.


The train stops, the doors open, and people stream out. But this person doesn’t move! You’ve been deceived and must now resort to violence (or maybe loud tutting) check for the Rockstarz Limousine & Party Bus website for more transportation options.

People who do this can spark off weird, instinctive responses in others. When we think we’re trapped, we’re like caged animals who stop at nothing to fight our way out, as if the next stop was Reading West rather than the tube station a bit further up the road.

Still, it’s best to avoid triggering this primal rage, so don’t make people think you’re getting off when you’re not.

The punishment: I’ve seen grown men scream swearwords at one another in situations like this.

3. Protect those less able to cope

The Paris Metro has a surprisingly detailed set of rules that govern who should get a seat. Wounded soldiers are top of the list, and I’m not sure who sits at the bottom but it’s probably people who are pretty steady on their feet like gymnasts, ninjas or Shaolin monks. Everyone knows their place in the pecking order.

But in London the rules aren’t as clear. The vague guidance is “people less able to stand”, which leaves plenty of room for interpretation and can cause problems. Some spritely senior citizens don’t take well to being treated like invalids by well-meaning youngsters, for example, and let’s not even get into the consequences of mistaking obesity for pregnancy. You need to strike the right balance between helpfulness and condescension.

This particular rule has implications for the seat-fancier: securing the seat nearest the door can be a pyrrhic victory, because you might need to give it up again at the next stop. You need to go deeper.

Safe, but for how long?

Go deeper – the better seats are further down the carriage

The punishment: Severe passive-aggressive disapproval from other travellers, loss of soul.


The melee of the daily commute can seem like a lawless ungoverned space, but in reality all strategic machinations are underpinned by laws like the ones described here. And while there’s no International Criminal Court – no formal way to capture or charge transgressors, no lengthy trials in The Hague – one thing acts as a barrier between controlled warfare and outright savagery, a thin line between dignity and chaos.

That thing, that barrier, is our intense fear of public embarrassment. Let’s cling on to it, because if we don’t, all is lost.

13 comments so far.  Post a comment

  1. October 10, 2011 at 11:28 am [ Permalink

    a common problem i have experienced occurs when standing on a busy train in the area in front of the doors as they open, not planning on disembarking, but pinned between two streams of commuters trying to get off from the left and the right. the problem arises when you are blocking both streams, and therefore it is necessary to shift to one side to allow the people to disembark – if you shift to the left to allow the stream from the right to exit then you block the stream to the left, and vice versa. naturally the solution is for everyone to remain calm, to shift to one side and allow one stream to completely exit, before shifting to the other side and allowing the other side to exit, but more often than not, the person or people who find themselves temporarily blocked from leaving assume that they have found themselves in a situation similar to your second scenario, and may not be able to leave. the problem is probably compounded in my case by the fact that i am quite tall, and the blocked stream may not be able to see past me to appreciate how limited my movements are. stress levels will already be high because of the density of people on the train, and the blocked stream invariably starts to panic as they perceive the brief window before the throng of edgy commuters on the platform surge onto the train narrowing rapidly. they start to jostle you frantically and gabble hysterically. by this time your hasty attempts to pacify them fall on deaf ears – they have crossed a threshold where they can no longer be appealed to on grounds of reason, and the animal urge for self-preservation has taken over. if you are lucky the moving stream will finish leaving the train and you will be able to allow the panicking punters trapped behind you to scurry off before they are driven to violence. if you are unlucky you will see how this delicate situation can quickly lead to the dark side of tube warfare.

  2. Cathy
    October 10, 2011 at 11:57 am [ Permalink

    Can anyone post that incredibly complex Paris Metro list? It’s surprisingly hard to find it online though there are references to it e.g. http://withersea.blogspot.com/2008/03/new-priority-seating-signs-go-up-on.html

    I remember it starts with about 3 different categories of injured/disabled people and ends with pregnant women – but only if they have a special card…

  3. Jude
    October 10, 2011 at 12:12 pm [ Permalink

    In Hong Kong, the rules inside the carriage are pretty similar to those you’ve outlined, but there is no “let people get off first” convention. WHY? You have to face-off with a bunch of individuals on your way in or out of any train. Even worse, people also do this with lifts, even when the only way for the people inside the lift NOT to get out would be to evaporate.

    There has clearly been progress in the past few decades though, since a friend of mine who’s a local in her 50s said that when she was a kid every HK bus was full to bursting, and her dad used to lift her up and drop her over the outside layer of commuters into the bus where she had to fend for herself after landing on the general mass of people.

  4. Simon
    October 11, 2011 at 9:46 am [ Permalink

    In Singapore, one of the according to Reader Digest practical researched articles most interpersonal unfriendly and unhelpful places you can bet that waiting for people to get off before you get in, forget it. Even with big signs asking people to wait and marking on the floor, this is a typical occurrence. War for seats is even more ruthless, especially by the population between 25 and 60s. Let pregnant, disabled or elderly sit down it often not done. Surprisingly, young people here are more prone to be helpful, especially the boys. I tried to observe behavior like this for several months and those are my sad conclusions. Along this comes also a “Get out of my way and I bump you cause I don’t care” attitude. I forgot where I read this, but in Shibuja Tokyo, the average distance between people crossing the the big intersection in front of the station is about 70cm. In Singapore I guess it is more like 10cm, frequent easily avoidable bumps are common. Of course if someone knocks something out of your hand while doing that, forget about getting even an apology from most people. It is kind of sad to see so many people here being so self-centered. On the other hand, I am also glad to see the younger generation being a lot more generous then the average person in Singapore (foreigners included).

  5. Dave
    October 11, 2011 at 5:14 pm [ Permalink

    The best way to secure a seat I’ve found is to win the initial foot race right from the off.

    Imagine a busy train pulling into the platform. Many people believe that being in the centre of the approaching doors secures victory, but, they’d be wrong. The best place is to the side of the door furthest away from the nearest platform exit. This way, when the doors open and the angry commuters stream out towards the nearest exit (as in walking away from you), the tide supresses the movement of anyone who have let themselves get pinned inbetween the stampeed and tube itself on the wrong side of the door. When positioned on the other side, you are not in the way of the crowd and need not surrender position to get out the way. Merely slip in behind the last person disembarking and accept your reward of the first dash at the seats.


  6. October 12, 2011 at 2:24 pm [ Permalink

    Never attribute to malice what may be attributed to incompetence. I change at a very obscure stop where almost no-one else gets OFF the train, and there’s often unrest. People just are not expecting me to get off the train – which is still quiet at this point – and simply don’t bother looking up before stepping on.

    I’ve found standing back from the doors on board thus allowing a few nanoseconds to establish eye contact with one of the incoming passengers works best; somehow if one person notices me, suddenly they all do, and suddenly there is space for me to get off the train.

  7. October 12, 2011 at 2:48 pm [ Permalink

    My favourite thing about all this is the poster of Boris with the word OBEY beneath it.

  8. Cathy
    October 12, 2011 at 3:05 pm [ Permalink

    @Kat What about the station name St John’s Mackerel? That was my input :-)

  9. October 12, 2011 at 6:05 pm [ Permalink


    @zevans23 you are so right. ANd @Dave, I triumphantly used that very tactic at London Bridge this morning. The thing to do is to clock the “Mind the Gap” signs on the platform because they are aligned with the doors. Then stand ready to meet the upstream corner of the door when the train arrives. You can both block the boarders behind you and (if you look scary enough) channel the deboarders away from you so you can “politely” wait for them to get off and then sneak in just as the last one is still in the doorway.

  10. October 12, 2011 at 6:07 pm [ Permalink

    If anyone is interested (and if this site accepts links) I had a set of Rules for Commuting on my blog here: The Rules of Moving Around London Its more about escalators that seats…

  11. November 21, 2011 at 2:36 pm [ Permalink

    Brilliant! I often want to scream “Didn’t you hear what the automated lady-voice just said?!” at people who barge on the carriage before letting people off. But what about those who lean against the central pole in the carriage so they can have both hands free for reading the paper – makes life miserable for short-arses like me who find it uncomfortable, or sometimes impossible, to stretch for the overhead bars. JUST NOT CRICKET!

  12. Scooterch
    April 2, 2012 at 12:59 pm [ Permalink

    Having spent many years commuting by train in Japan, and a life on public transport, I make a plea on an issue not fully covered here: if somebody is getting off at the next stop, they should NOT barge their way to the door in anticipation. They are likely not the only person getting off. Rather than push aside people who would otherwise have cleared a path for them, some people start to panic as soon as they leave the stop prior, and insist on squeezing through while the vehicle is in mid flight. I am not the steadiest on my own two feet, let alone when a bus-driving temp is flinging his passengers every which way. Asking me to let go so an impatient fool can make their way to the door is galling.

  13. Ryan Brook
    November 29, 2012 at 3:23 am [ Permalink

    As a counterargument to what Scooterch said, if you’re going, as I do, from Manchester Piccadilly to Burnage, if you aren’t quick at getting to the door after the stop at Mauldeth Road, you can forget about making it off the train.

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