I first clocked TfL's new handrail obsession last September when this sign appeared at Liverpool Street station. It's still there, at the top of the main Central line escalator.
70% of customer injuries on escalators, here? That's quite a claim to make. What precisely was it about this Central line escalator at Liverpool Street, I wondered, which made it so appallingly dangerous?
Then I noticed the asterisk. Of course there's a caveat, I thought, but what?
There are 81 stations with escalators on the tube network. It didn't seem possible that Liverpool Street could be responsible for 70% of all customer injuries. Or was that not what they meant? There are 440 passenger escalators on the tube network. It didn't seem possible that one escalator at Liverpool Street could be responsible for 70% of all customer injuries. Or was that not what they meant? There are nine escalators at Liverpool Street tube station. It didn't seem possible that one of these could be responsible for 70% of all customer injuries. Or was that not what they meant? There are three banks of escalators at Liverpool Street tube station. It might conceivably be possible that one of these could be responsible for 70% of all customer injuries. Or was that not what they meant either? Indeed, what the hell did they mean?
Here's what the small print at the bottom said.
So, the statistics related only to the Circle and Hammersmith & City lines, data collected between April and August 2017, which narrowed it down a bit. Even so, there are 47 stations on the Circle and Hammersmith & City lines, so it still seemed peculiar that Liverpool Street should have such a massive share of the total. Except hang on a second, the Circle and Hammersmith & City lines are sub-surface, barely any distance below the ground, so there are hardly any escalators to be found. Sloane Square has two, and Westminster has some if you count escalators coming up from other lines, and maybe technically Baker Street and Kings Cross St Pancras and Victoria and West Ham, although it's stretching things to call these Circle and Hammersmith & City line escalators. So that didn't make any sense either.
I had to delve into the Fit For The Future Staffing Model, not a document most customers passing through Liverpool Street have to hand, to try to explain what might be going on. For management purposes, only 20 stations fall within the Circle and Hammersmith & City group, essentially "the Circle line from Hammersmith round to Tower Hill, with the exception of Baker Street and King's Cross St Pancras". And those exceptions mean only two stations in the Circle and Hammersmith & City group have any escalators at all, specifically Moorgate and Liverpool Street. All the worrisome poster really says, I think, is that 70% of this group's escalator injuries occur at Liverpool Street and the other 30% at Moorgate. It is an internal statistic writ large, entirely out of context, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Whether or not you followed any of that, know this. Individual station groups are now putting up bespoke health and safety warnings wherever they think best, following Local Safety Improvement Plans, and at some stations they're getting beyond ridiculous. I mean, seriously, who gave the go-ahead for this? (Andrea spotted this. Thanks Andrea!)
This is the kind of thing you might expect to see if you gave some 13 year-old schoolchildren a desktop publishing project. It is not what you expect to find on a world class railway.
I went back to Bank/Monument yesterday and was pleased to see that the yellow laminated Be Prepared, You Are Approaching An Escalator poster has been removed, but the ridiculous Hold Your Luggage remains on the spiral stairs. I walked down into Oxford Circus station from street level and passed at least five cheap-looking Hold The Handrail stickers on the stairs before I reached the ticket hall. At Euston I heard a message on the escalator urging me to step onto the escalator carefully, and hold my luggage, and position it on the step behind me, and hold the handrail, and step off the escalator carefully pulling my luggage behind me. This stuff is encroaching more and more.
It makes sense to target safety on escalators, because that's where 40% of accidents on the tube occur. It makes sense to target the stations where most accidents happen, rather than blast out unnecessary messages across the network. It makes sense to "influence customer behaviour through direct comms", rather than let passengers continue to injure themselves. But has it all got a bit over-the-top, and the nudges too bespoke, rather than a coordinated professional campaign to keep us safe?
To sample what's going on I paid a visit to the tube's three longest escalators. On each occasion I started outside the station and made my way down to platform level. Here's what I found.
3) Holborn(down from ticket hall, 23.4m) Before the top of the escalator: 1 large Hold The Handrail poster, 2 small yellow Hold The Handrail stickers, 1 small longstanding warning notice (Please stand on the right. Hold the handrail. Keep clear of the edges. Take extra care with children. Dogs must be carried. No Smoking) On the escalator: 4 Hold The Handrail posters, 4 'Toblerones' which used to say Please stand on the right, and now say that plus Please hold the Handrail against an orange background Just before the bottom of the escalator: nothing Were most people holding the handrail? No
2) Leicester Square(down to Piccadilly line, 24.6m) On the stairs down from street level: 1 DIY yellow laminated sign urging customers to Hold Your Luggage and Hold The Handrail Before the top of the escalator: 1 DIY yellow laminated sign urging customers When You Alight The Escalator Keep Moving Forward Do Not Stop! on the far wall (a bit small to easily read), 1 small longstanding warning notice (as above) On the escalator: 2 Hold The Handrail posters Just before the bottom of the escalator: 1 DIY yellow laminated sign urging customers Be Prepared You Are Approaching The End Of The Escalator Were most people holding the handrail? No
1) Angel(down from ticket hall, 27.4m) Before the top of the escalator: 1 small longstanding warning notice (as above) On the escalator: nothing Just before the bottom of the escalator: nothing Were most people holding the handrail? No
In short, it's very varied. Holborn is one of the five stations with the most escalator accidents, so its campaign feels the most coordinated. At Leicester Square the Mad Laminator has been busy plastering over-reactions everywhere, with a general feeling of "oh that'll have to do" in where they've been located. Meanwhile at Angel there's absolutely nothing, other than the generic warning notice that's been at the top of every escalator for years. When the longest escalator on the Underground has nothing, and Blackfriars has crayonista stickpeople warning about loose clothing, it does feel like something is out of control.
From what I observed, one of the main reasons people don't hold the handrail is because carrying a phone and interacting with it doesn't leave any hands spare. I apologise for mentioning this, because in some backroom somewhere someone may already be firing up the printer with posters saying Please Leave Your Screen Alone While You Hold The Handrail and Your Phone Is An Encumbrance You Must Put It Away. But if accident numbers are indeed going up, perhaps underground wifi is to blame, not escalators per se.
Is a step-change in TfL's performance targets really best enabled by filling our eyes and ears with nagging reminders of optimal behaviours? Or is there a case for a generic escalator safety campaign, rather than hundreds of nudges appearing willynilly across the network? Just because it's possible to smother the Underground with health and safety messages, doesn't mean we should.