The Secret Life of Tube Escalators


Escalators. They fascinate me. The act of climbing one is both meditative and ugly. Several sounds jab at each other for prominence: the rubbery rattle of the handrail, the harsh hiss of the safety brushes, the baritone murmur of the shifting stairs. Superimposed on this deliciously hideous cacophony is the clunky, resentful pounding of commuters steps.

And the lighting. It’s always slightly off: harsh as a yellow highlighter pen, or near swallowing darkness.

Escalators have a habit of bringing out my weaknesses. If I stand on the right, I dither. Have I been lazy? Won’t it be quicker if I climb? And when I do climb the escalator, I am always paranoid that I’m not going fast enough for the person behind. Often, I look over my shoulder and there’s nobody there.

I decided to do some research on these brilliant, banal contraptions. Here are the most interesting things I found out, in no particular order:

Escalators are both damaging and indispensable

Their carbon emissions per person kilometre are 160% more than the trains themselves. But if escalators were replaced with stairs, one million less people would be able to use the tube each day.

The first escalator was introduced at Earls Court in 1911


Many Londoners were thrilled. People would travel down up and down the ‘moving staircases’ several times on their way to work. Going up the wrong escalator on purpose was also a popular pastime.

But some saw escalators as a quite unnatural, and insisted that getting used to them required ‘a robot mind’. Others were downright scared. “It is strange how many people are still unused to escalators and are nervous about getting on or off them,” wrote a journalist for the Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail in 1926. “Yet people, who would make no bones about crossing Parliament Square, shudder at the thought of an escalator.”

He goes on to boast: “One of these days when I want exercise, I shall run up and down the escalator at Tottenham Court Road for half-an-hour or so.” Some food for thought for those who jog through Central London, perhaps.

It didn’t take long for the vast majority of Londoners to become quite moany about the new moving staircase contraptions.

“The attendants who chant ‘Left foot first’ as though they were singing an anthem hardly ever have anything to do, and no one takes any notice of their croaking,” grumbled the London correspondent for the Birmingham Daily Post in 1914. “The usual complaint one hears is that the stairways don’t go fast enough! They rumble along at about one mile an hour.”

Liverpool Street, Paddington and Charing Cross were some of the earliest stations to have escalators, after Earls Court.

An escalator installed at Oxford Circus in 1914 became the longest stairway in London. “A monster affair the passage of which occupies over a minute,” as described by the Illustrated London News.

We still don’t know why the rule is to stand on the right and walk on the left

There’s no indication that the etiquette even existed when the first escalators were introduced. Instead, notices warned people not to ‘sit’ (yes, sit) on the stairs and to step off with their left foot or right foot, depending on whether the escalator veered off to the left or right at the bottom (see picture below) – as people would have to side-step on and off the earliest escalators.


In 1921, the Stentorphorne was introduced. This was a monstrously loud gramophone that would play a cranky sergeant-majorly voice on loop. It bellowed at passengers to ‘keep moving’ or ‘stand so that others who are in a hurry may pass’. This suggests that even a decade after the birth of the escalator, there was still no rule about which side to stand on. Also, the Stentorphone experiment was branded ‘a horror’ and such a flop that it was scrapped within a year.

There is no evidence of a ‘stand on the right’ rule until the Second World War, when advertisements such as the following were rolled out: “Here’s another bright suggestion, standing right avoids congestion”.

It could be that, with the London population swelling with refugees and soldiers stationed in the capital, the tube became a lot more overcrowded, prompting the new rule.

So why stand on the right rather than the left? It could be that it seemed more natural to tube bosses that those climbing the stairs should do so on the left because we drive on the left in Britain. It could also be that most people prefer to stand, and most people are right-handed so tube planners felt it would be more natural for people to reach out for the bannister on the right.

Basically, nobody knows.

The first accident on an escalator happened at Tottenham Court Road in 1926.

Fourteen people were knocked over and one man was injured after a girl at the top tottered backwards, causing people behind to all fall on each other ‘like a line of skittles’. The phenomenon was dubbed ‘unique in the history of accidents’.

The first death on a tube escalator was on the Bakerloo line at Paddington on 16 January 1937, following a rugby match.

A 56-year-old coal mine haulier from Port Talbot called David John Davies was on his way back from a game at Twickenham. The station master had ordered the escalator to be stopped because of congestion. Ticket collector Arthur Barnard said that he was later told to restart it. Unfortunately, people were on the escalator when he pulled the lever, causing people to start falling on each other; some tumbled onto Mr Davies, causing him to fall to his death.

The Queen used the tube escalator at Charing Cross when she was 13.


Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret had their first experience of a tube escalator as part of an outing around town in 1939. The young royals went through Charing Cross when changing lines to get from St James’s Park to Tottenham Court Road. “They had more thrills at the station where they alighted, for there were two more escalators to negotiate. On one of these they showed their high spirits by running up,” The Scotsman reported at the time.

In the early 20th century, people thought that the next big thing after escalators would be moving platforms transport passengers changing lines.


“Something like this is badly needed. At present at inter-change stations like Oxford Circus and Piccadilly Circus, one has to tramp long distances through a rabbit warren of corridors, battling on the way with terrific gusts of cold air, which the tube advertisements facetiously describe as ‘ozone’”, one commentator said. More than 100 years later, still no moving corridors alas.

Escalator steps are designed to last 20 years


Unfortunately, some only last three years because of ‘fatigue cracking’ when the step constantly travels around the escalator. Engineers believe that the uneven weight distribution – because most people travel on the right – is to blame

The Top speed of escalators is 145 feet per minute.

Trials show that if the speed is above 160 feet, people get tetchy and pause before getting on. This slows the whole process down and defeats the object.

The faded dots on escalator handrails are actually motion indicators


They give people an indication of the speed of the escalator, which is believed to improve safety when people step on and off the escalator.

Some escalators have funky Art Deco lamps


You may have clocked that some tube escalators have lamps with heads that jut upwards at a strange angle. This tradition of Art Deco uplighters goes back to the Twenties and Thirties, when these bronzen features were installed at several stations. The idea is that light bounces off the curved ceiling so that the shaft is bathed in soft, theatrical spotlighting. Unfortunately, the effect isn’t so bright, so industrial fluorescent strip  lighting has replaced most of them. St John’s Wood, built in 1939, still has its 58 original bronze uplighters, which resemble a phalanx of burnishing torches, though. You can also see Art Deco-inspired uplighting at stations including Tooting Broadway, Leicester Square, Colliers Wood, Turnpike Lane and Wimbledon.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s