The Ups And Downs Of Train Travel - Do We Need Rules?


keepleftDashing down the escalator at Britomart the other night in a mad hurry, I realised that train travel is still a new thing for many Aucklanders who have not experienced busy subways overseas.

I was late and needed to catch a particular train.

Bad choice: I could have jumped down the stairs bungy-style but instead chose what seemed to be a reasonably empty escalator.

As I ran down I realised there was a rather large couple occupying the middle area. They were holding hands.

I asked politely if I could get through but they ignored me.

I asked again, still very politely but with some urgency in my voice, and the woman turned and looked at me but then looked straight ahead.

My train was one of those annoying ones - it was a train in front of another train that was going to used for a trip later so you had to move some distance past empty carriages going nowhere to get to the actual departing train.

I could hear the doors close as I approached, a toot and off it went without me.

I’m not beating up on the couple although puzzled why they were so staunch in not budging.

But it’s not the first time I have encountered bad escalator etiquette and it’s obviously a concept foreign to some commuters.


Old New York subway poster

The Britomart escalators clearly state the words ” keep left” - to let people pass you and skip down them.
Those words are on the actual steps and many people don’t see them because the escalators are crowded, feet are occupying where the words are and people look ahead not down.
This rule fits in with our motoring road code but is different from some other places which is why some people think they are doing the correct thing by keeping right.

Those who have lived in London often think they’re being so sophisticated because they know the rules. On the London tube, you stay to the right.

That’s awful in Auckland because you end up with ex-Londoners standing on the right and those following the Auckland markings being on the left which results in you not being able to navigate the escalator unless you are a competent All Black winger who knows how to get through an opposing team on the field.

Why is train etiquette important?

A Wiki guide to London puts it bluntly:

You may be suffering in a hell hole, sardine can of a tube carriage. But everyone else is too. Do you want to inflict any more discomfort on your fellow sufferers, than they are already enduring? What about them towards you?


I’m not big on rules. I prefer common sense suggestions that prompt better behaviour. The signs that started appearing plastered all over carriages earlier this year about standing clear of doors etc sounded rather draconian.

But without some sort of simple guidelines, crowd control gets chaotic.

Sometime back, there was a white line on the Queen St pavements and you followed the road behaviour of using the lefthand side if you were travelling up and right if you were going down.

remuera 438By the time the ACC build new footpaths for Queen St, they had gone all politically correct and there is no white line -  sometimes resulting in a line of people right across the footpath owning it as they travel up Queen St making it hard for people coming down to navigate a way through .

As our train services get busier and even more ridiculously crowded (I couldn’t board one train last week because there was no standing room left near the doors) , train authorities here should start a few polite written lessons based on best practices overseas.

One essential one that is starting to cause problems is the reluctance of those boarding to let those getting off leave first. To their credit, the Britomart announcer occasionally doesn’t suggest this.
So what are the best practices overseas?

  • Don’t hog the pole if you’re grasping it while standing. Auckland train carriages seem to provide very few places to hang on to if you’re standing without intruding into personal space of people such as clasping the end of their seat. The poles near the doors are among the most prized “hang on to” spots but some people lean against them with their whole body so that there is nowhere to put your hand around without grabbing their clothes as well!
  • Giving up your seat to someone who needs it has become a forgotten rule in an age when we are all suppose to be equal. A London guide suggests: “It is only polite to give up your seat on a crowded train to anyone who looks in greater need of it than yourself. Obviously you must take care, in doing so, not to detect any infirmity where none exists, thus leaving yourself open to accusations of sexism, ageism or one of the many other forms of condescension to which people are attuned to these days.” I’m appalled at schoolboys on the Western Line (Kowhai intermediate, St Peters College) who don’t give up their seats to adults who obviously aren’t managing trying to stand up in a crowded space and don’t understand the role of Maori wardens letting it happen when they stand by supposedly to ensure good school behaviour.
  • When standing, try to give people personal space. That’s becoming almost impossible with the state of Auckland peak hour trains now but heaven help us if we get to the problem on Japanese and South Korea trains of gropers.
  • It’s awful sitting down and finding someone’s bought lunch (Coke cans, paper and even train tickets) at your feet or on the seat. Take the litter with you.
  • Don’t take on massive SUV-style pushchairs and massive backpacks in peak hour traffic. Make other arrangements. There just isn’t room these days.
  • Keep your personal stereo personal. Some people have their iPods at broadcast levels so that you can hear them literally rows ahead. Those playing music off their phone speakers with no ear buds are ever ruder.
  • Don’t broadcast your personal life to the world. I can’t understand why some people want to shout down their mobile on the train and recount too much information. Recently a Swanson-bound woman who boarded at Newmarket spent the trip  on her mobile loudly describing very intimate bedroom details involving a recent one night stand and then rang someone else with the same information plus what the first person had thought of it.  She takes the cake for the worst I’ve overheard so far.
  • Don’t read over people’s shoulders. If someone is sending a text message or reading what looks like personal papers, that’s their business even if they are doing it in a public space.
  • Stand clear of the doors. The Maori Train wardens especially growl at people and I have been caught recently with having no other place to stand - but it is a dangerous practice.
  • Pay your fare. There’s an increasing practice of some people trying not to get noticed when the train manager comes through asking for “fares from Newmarket.” We need to make the service profitable so that more money is spent on rail and dodging the fare doesn’t help let alone the moral issue and making paying commuters angry.
  • Seats are for people, not bags. I’m amazed how many times I go to sit down where someone has placed their bag beside them and they give me a death stare as if how dare I force them to place their bag on the floor or their lap. Maybe they should get charged a full fare for their bag.
  • These are times of swine flu and goodness knows what other health problems are about. Yet some people sneeze cough and carry on without even using a hanky or covering their mouth. Bad form and a health hazard.yell
  • The Train Managers sometimes - but not enough - urge people standing  to move down the carriage . We’ve got used to it on buses but it still seems a foreign concept on trains. It’s annoying to struggle into a carriage which looks crowded with people standing near the doors only to find plenty of standing room if only people would move down.
  • We’re pretty trusting in this country. But do keep an eye on personal possessions. As trains get busier, they will become a focal point for the sort of pickpocket behaviour common on places like the Tube (where it’s notorious on escalators with wallets being stealthily taken out of back pockets of the person in front).
  • Words like “sorry” and “excuse me” are always welcome.

Did I miss anything? Disagree with anything? Suggestions?

Here are some interviews with New York train commuters about what bugs them the most:

PHOTO CREDIT for old subway poster. Taken from this site




  1. Dan2 says:

    Great list! Especially those about loud music, paying fares and bags on seats. That last one infuriates me!

    Only other one I’d add is “if you’re getting on the train, stand aside so people can get off first”

  2. Stephen O says:

    Fantastic list. That escalator story is hilarious. I know understand why some people smugly stand on the right with that “I know how this works” look. They are ex-Tube people! Funny and real. Made my day ,thanks Jon

  3. James says:

    Hong Kongers stand on the right of travelators/escalators too despite driving on the left (not many do admittedly). If one is not looking for signs or distracted by something else its very easy to stick to old habits. Especially with Britomart being the one and only place in NZ that escalator etiquette actually makes any difference.

  4. William M says:

    Another tale from my daily commute:

    This morning, we had a rather unwell elderly passenger who fainted after having to stand all the journey from Manurewa (the service had become packed as it turned from its usual limited stop to all stations). The TM on at the time was very good - Tawa was her name - she handled the situation very well, and was very friendly. What upset me was the usual suspects - Grammar-zone students blocking the exit doors, students not giving up their seats to adults. Quite unimpressed.

  5. Luke says:

    Having spent my whole life living in NZ, I’ve always assumed that the purpose of an escalator is just to stand on it much like a lift.

    If you are in a hurry, take the stairs.

    The first time I ever experienced a ‘keep to the left if standing’ rule on escalators was when visiting Sydney about a year ago.
    Everyone in Sydney seems to follow this. Incredible.

    They dont do this because of any law or rule, they just do because that is the habbit.

    In NZ this doesnt happen. This is not a bad thing. There is nothing wrong with the status quo. When/if it becomes a problem, people will start to behave differently. Maybe then a public campaign will be necesarily, but until that time, in NZ escalators are for standing on, stairs are for walking on.

  6. Jon C says:

    Interesting travellers tale Luke. Thanks for sharing it. overseas people seem more in tune with what to do in crowds. Americans are experts when it comes to queues.

  7. Sam F says:

    The Maori Wardens are ace. In my experience they’re pretty good in terms of asking kids sitting down if they could give up their chair for a standing adult - and occasionally in picking up fare evasion to help the guards out.


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