After all, you have absolutely no idea who touched the handrail before you, and what they might have left behind.
You do not want to trip or fall on London's public transport network. It can hurt, you can break bones, and in a worst case scenario it can kill.
TfL publish data on passenger injuries on a quarterly basis.
During the last three months of 2019...
• a customer sadly died following a fall on the stairs to the Northern line platforms at Waterloo Underground station
• a customer fell on the stairs at Maryland Station and sustained a fractured ankle
• an intoxicated customer fell between a train and platform at Romford resulting in a head injury and loss of consciousness
• a customer slipped on a very wet metal grid at the bottom of the steps going up to the platform at East India station and suffered a fractured wrist
• a customer reported that a child had fallen on an escalator at Woolwich Arsenal station resulting in a broken wrist
They confirm that slips, trips and falls continue to be the biggest cause of all customer injuries on the tube, with 829 reported during that three month period. Of these, 25% resulted in the customer visiting hospital.
But these numbers are tiny compared to the number of journeys taken.
Statistics for the last three months of 2019 show that ...
» on the tube there were 3.2 injuries per million journeys
» on the buses there were 2.1 injuries per million journeys
» on the DLR/Overground/TfL Rail there were 1.4 injuries per million journeys
To put that into context, if you rode the tube ten times a day for 80 years, you'd expect to end up with one injury.
Also, some types of passenger are more at risk than others.
The common themes in customer accidental injuries on the Underground continue to be:
- Behaviour including rushing and horseplay
- Carrying heavy or large objects e.g. luggage, shopping bags
- Incidents involving older customers
If you're young, well-behaved and unencumbered, it's even less likely to happen to you.
TfL do take this into account when advising the public. Their latest poster campaign, which you may have seen, is all about taking extra care when under the influence of alcohol.
But it remains that case that most of the time when you hear a "hold the handrail" message, no accident was going to happen anyway.
Meanwhile it's flu season again, and the world is very much focused on minimising the transmission of colds, coughs and other viral diseases. Holding the handrail is hardly going to help.
The last person to have been holding the handrail before you might have coughed into their hand before stepping out, or picked up something off another surface elsewhere, or simply not have been particularly hygienic.
You could therefore argue that holding a handrail adds unnecessary risk as well as taking it away.
You may also be interested to know that TfL have released information on how often handrails and grabpoles are cleaned.
The DLR wins, with all handrails at all stations wiped twice daily, once before the morning peak and again between 13:00 and the beginning of the evening peak.
On the tube, "hand rails are regularly cleaned as part of station cleaning rotas outside of operating hours using cleaning chemicals with a sanitiser component." Train poles are spot cleaned nightly, and are included in the periodic heavy clean which takes place every 17-23 days. It's every 17 days on the Jubilee line and every 23 days on the Northern line, in case that affects your journey choices.
Buses aren't quite so rigidly regulated. Vehicles are swept clean at the end of each day or driver’s shift, at which point "the general cleanliness of the bus, including its handrails, is assessed and any concerns are addressed."
Of course contaminated surfaces aren't the only way diseases are potentially spread. Respiratory droplets are a far more likely means of transmission, so the minutes you spend squashed inside a metal container with dozens of potential sneezers are considerably riskier.
TfL reckon the "hand rail" risk is no greater than in other public environments where large numbers of people mingle such as shopping centres and airports, and thus that following normal recommendations on disease transmission is safety enough. Coughing into a handkerchief, washing hands before eating, covering wounds on the hand, that kind of thing.
If contaminated handrails really were a significant contributory factor to spreading disease, most Londoners would be ill for most of the time. Instead the human immune system is generally a resilient thing, and a few icky fingerprints on a pole or rail are very unlikely to compromise our health.
So you probably don't need to hold the handrail, but it might be wise if you did.