TfL, it’s time to take a stand at Holborn station

I’m writing this at the end of several weeks of increasing annoyance about what’s currently happening at Holborn Station in the mornings.

Holborn is one of the busiest stations on the underground network. It’s also an older station, opened in 1906 and modernised (with escalators replacing lifts) in 1933. As such, it’s operating hugely over its intended capacity.

In the mornings it is crowded both with people exiting and with those changing between the Piccadilly and the Central Lines (it’s the only interchange between those lines). The layout of the passages mean that the flow of people changing trains cuts directly across the flow exiting the station, so it’s all a bit of a congested nightmare.

You might have heard earlier in the year that TfL had started an interesting experiment to try to improve matters. Normal tube etiquette is, of course, that one stands on the right and walks on the left of escalators. In general this is a good system which keeps everyone happy, but it does mean that the space on the escalators is used inefficiently: you can’t pack as many walking people on as you can standing people – and anyway not enough people are willing to walk up the escalators so as to fill up all the space (especially at a station like Holborn where the escalators are lo-o-ong). In most stations this doesn’t really matter, but in very busy stations like Holborn it leads to congestion and a crowed at the bottom of the escalators as people wait to get on them.

So, TfL decided to trial something new at Holborn: stand on both sides.

This meant forcing a big change in habit for a lot of people: it takes a lot for people to risk the awful embarrassment of ‘getting it wrong’, looking like an ignorant tourist and facing potential confrontation with their fellow commuters. So, TfL went to a lot of effort: there was new signage, there were painted feet on both sides of the escalator steps, there were announcements – and most obviously there was a projection of a woman at the foot of the escalator regularly reminding people what was going on.

As I understand it, part of the trial was about working out what are the most effective ways of communicating the different regime, so the messaging changed slightly as the weeks went on, but it was always clear.

And, to my pleasant surprise, it seemed to be working. After a few days of confusion, the critical mass of regular commuters understood what was expected of them, could see that it was getting them out of the station faster, and changed their behaviour. Everybody else then followed the lead of the ‘regulars’. And the crowds at the foot of the escalators disappeared so the hypothesis behind the trial appeared to be right.


But then, right in the middle of the trial period – disaster. The escalators at Holborn are clearly old and have been having regular mechanical problems on and off through the last few years. Midway through the trial, two (from memory) broke down in quick succession. Clearly someone high up then decided that enough was enough and that it was time to bite the bullet and do a full replacement job on all of them.

One escalator in the bank of three leading from the Piccadilly Line up to the intermediate concourse, and one in the bank of four leading from the intermediate concourse to the ticket hall were taken out of service in order to replace them. To manage the flows of people, the station was made exit-only during the morning rush hour, and it was made impossible to change from the Central to Piccadilly Line for the duration of the repairs. As I understand it, once they have finished replacing one escalator they’ll move on to another, with the work scheduled to go on to 2018.

Which is fine, but…what about the trial? Was it still running or had it been ended early because of the unexpected escalator replacement work? Were we still supposed to stand on both sides?

From the moment the escalator repairs started, confusion has reigned.

The projected woman disappeared immediately, but the painted footprints – gradually fading away – remained.

The announcements were now all about the escalator refurbishment. All mention of the ‘stand on both sides’ trial abruptly ceased, both in the station and on the TfL website.

On some days, there have been TfL staff shouting (unamplified, and rather ineffectually) at the foot of the escalator, explicitly calling for people to stand on both sides.

On other days they shout for people to ‘use both sides of the escalator’ – but that word use is ambiguous: it could be an encouragement to walk on the left; it could mean stand on both sides.

On still other days they don’t say anything at all.

And, moreover, there are no announcements over the PA system and no signage (save for the pre-existing ‘stand on the right’ signs).

It’s infuriating. The trial was (as far as I could see) beginning to show that if you give people clear instructions they will show willing and change their behaviour. It was also showing (again, as far I could see) that having people stand on both sides does indeed get more people up and out faster.

But now, I think what’s happened is that the trial has been suspended, the clever people who were running it are no longer involved in operations at Holborn, and all their good work on how to give clear messages to commuters has been ignored.

The thing is though I don’t really mind which option TfL wants us to settle on – walk on the left or stand on the left – just so long as they make it clear. At the moment we’re all just confused. On days when it seems that the staff are indeed asking us to stand on the left, I try to do that but because it’s not 100% clear it feels that I’m risking disapproval from any commuters around me who want to walk up.

Please TfL, just take a definite decision on what you want us commuters to do, then put up some signs, record some announcements and give your staff clear instructions and ask them to carry them out consistently every morning.

We just want to know what we’re supposed to do!





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