9 Tube Mysteries

By BethPH Last edited 17 months ago
9 Tube Mysteries

The tube is a source of many things; fascination, urban legend and unanswered questions. We've been scratching our heads over underground oddnesses for so long that we've worn our nails right down. So we decided to write this.

How long is a tube minute? Photo: Dave Gorman.

1. Who was Inspector Sands?

Anyone with even a passing familiarity with the tube and Google will know that a call over the tannoy for 'Inspector Sands' means a fire alert in the station. The fount of all tube knowledge, Going Underground, says that the name originated from a theatre evacuation code. But was the Inspector ever a real person... and how did the name make the jump from theatre to underground? Whoever he/she was — we hope they looked like this.

2. How long is a tube minute?

You're waiting on the platform. You glance up at the board and it says there's one minute until your next train. You go back to your book but when you look again the board still says one minute. Has TfL discovered a glitch in the space/time continuum and are they fearlessly exploiting it to disguise delays? Is there a cunning bit of gadgetry that keeps the sign at one minute until the train reaches a certain point in the tunnel? Inquiring minds need to know. The same goes for the trains marked 'Special'.

East Finchley station, where Jerry Springer may or may not have been born. Photo: Tony Day.

3. Was Jerry Springer really born on a tube platform?

According to the man himself, he was born in Highgate tube station during the second world war. Yet TfL says there have only been three recorded births on the underground; one in 1924, then two more in 2008 and 2009. We bet no-one offered them a seat either. So, since the redoubtable Mr Springer is neither 87 nor under five that qualifies as a mystery for us. Maybe he was born above ground at the station? Hmm...

4. Does each line really have its own sub-species of mosquito?

A mozzie genetically different from those above ground was discovered some years ago in the tunnels. While not quite a separate species, the subterranean form is well on its way. People sheltering in stations during the second world war found themselves being used as a food source for the little biters. Researchers from Queen Mary and Westfield College also found small genetic differences between mosquitoes living on different tracks, a phenomenon "attributed to draughts created by trains dispersing the insects along, but not between, tube lines". It would be ace if each breed matched the colour of the line it lived on, but that's probably unlikely.

Photo: Matt Brown.

5. What are the greatest hazards to tube workers?

We'd like to think it’s something interesting like subterranean monsters à la Creep, abandoned crocodiles or Croup & Vandemar. The truth is more prosaic. Anyone who works on the network must pass a written exam to show they've fully understood the hazards. These include obvious dangers such as live rails, but also Weil's disease from rat urine, and discarded needles (sometimes left maliciously). In reality, the chief hazard is probably aggressive customers.

6. What is 'Private Rod'?

Going Underground once tried to find out the meaning of this enigmatic sign. For the uninitiated, Embankment station has a door marked 'Private Rod', the purpose for which apparently even LU staff don't know. A tube geek of our acquaintance suggests that if there is a brick wall behind the door as suggested by some LU staff that it could cover an old tunnel which is even more intriguing. Otherwise, perhaps Private Rod reports to Inspector Sands?

Well, The Kooks are a bit of a joke. Photo: chutney bannister.

7. How much fluff do fluffers collect each evening?

Each night, the tube tunnels are cleaned of 'fluff', the various dust and detritus that accumulates from the bodies of millions of daily customers. Those responsible for the clean up are called 'fluffers'. London Transport Museum's website shows a photograph of a group of fluffers from 1955 using brushes to sweep up the fluff. According to Ian Visits, a kind of industrial vacuum cleaner is now used. Information about actual quantities seems to be thin on the ground (unlike, we suppose the actual fluff).

8. Has anyone ever witnessed people putting amusing stickers on tube maps?

These things pop up every once in a while. The thing is, no-one ever seems to see them do it. Are the culprits especially gifted at sleight-of-hand? Or do they just wait until the train is empty before deploying their stickers? The same goes for the Brooke Shields alphabet graffitist who created a minor mystery sensation, then seemed to disappear overnight.

Don't step on the live rail, little fella. Photo: Ann Wuyts.

9. What happens if you step on the live rail?

The short answer would be a swift death by electrocution. A slightly less short answer would be a swift death by electrocution if you complete the circuit by touching the ground or the track rail. Being slightly squeamish, we didn't delve too far into the actual effects on one's body of undertaking such a foolhardy activity and thankfully, that is still a mystery to us. Answers on a postcard, please.

Last Updated 08 December 2016


I can confirm #10 is correct - based on being told by LU's "sticker hater in chief", Mike Ashworth on a tour of a tube station once.


Those numbers.  There are similar intriguing numbers on bridges and lampposts.  Rather boringly I think they are for maintenance.  "Change the bulb on No. 5248" is easier than "change the bulb on the second one after the junction but before the pub."


My understanding of the "tube minute" is that it is actually a measure of _distance_ rather than time. So a train that is one minute away would arrive in one minute if running normally, but would be perpetually one minute away if not moving.


Yep, just to confirm what the LondonRemembers said - those numbers aren't just for the emergency services, they're for everyone. If you've got a station with 35 rooms in it, you need some way of uniquely referring to each room. The architects and builders need it, and then the station staff need it to run the station.

As for question 9, wearing rubber-soled brother creepers you may well be just fine!

Nicolas Chinardet

Thanks to Twitter and jonmhill who apparently completed station training and was told by "one of our station staff trainers", ROD (in number 6) means: Risk of Death.


I'd like to know what's kept in this box.

Annie Mole

On 2 - "Special" Tube trains feature pretty heavily in Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere where people in the parallel London "London Below" use them as normal trains.  Still no idea what makes them Special are on our London though. 

Alex Plim

This is a fascinating article!


That box is awesome.

rocio carvajal

In my experience a tube minute can last between 2 to 8 minutes (surface time).


I always presumed that Inspector Sands referred to the sand that was used to put fires out.

Mark Nettlingham

I've always wondered what the sliders on the platform edge are for (might just be overground platforms though). Also, what the pressure gauges are for below some tube seats...


I also heard that the code name Sands originated from the sand buckets that were used to put out fires. Wikipedia says the same. The code was used so as not to cause panic amongst public. I have been both at London Bridge and Waterloo (I think it was) when they put this message over the tannoy - when you know what it means it makes you nervous! They were just tests, but still ... 


When, years ago, I worked in gift shop at Shakespeare's Globe, I was told that the Inspector Sands thing comes from the play that was running when the original Globe burnt down, which had a character called Lord Sands in it. This might have been staffroom talk - I'd love to know if it's true.


In view of the huge number of people who sheltered in Tube stations during the War, it would be surprising if no babies were born there from 1939-1945 - including possibly Mr Springer. I suspect that births during 'shelter time' just weren't recorded. 


It depends which rail you step on. The running rails won't kill you; and the negative juice rail (the middle one) mightn't. Try to avoid treading on the positive juice rail, though. It's usually the one furthest from the platform, conveniently.

dianne tanner

Stickers on the Central Line!


These are BRILLIANT.

Mystery #11: Are those blue stars on just SOME Victoria line trains, ALL Victoria Line trains, or do I just happen to get the exact same Victoria line train every morning?

G Bowtell

I would have thought it more likely that PRIVATE ROD is actually a sign indicating that the room is Private as it is the location of the Running Operations Desk.  Risk of Death is possible, but I think LUL likes its Health and Safety notices to be clearer.

Jungle Expat

In answer to number 9.... the "live" rails carry a current of +420V DC (centre rail) and -210V DC (outside rail - which is almost always moved to the opposite side from the platform when in a station), thus giving you a potential difference of 630 volts, which is the posted running voltage of tube trains.

If you were to step on either rail and earth yourself out with something, a few interesting (depending on your point of view) things would happen. You would more than likely stick to it (unlike an AC socket, such as you have in your home, which would probably fling you across the room) and thus be receiving quite a lengthy shock. The voltage / current in itself would not kill you directly; rather its effects would: your bodily fluids would separate (9 parts water, 1 part blood, and the blood would "float" on top, giving you an extreme headache, bright red face and imminent unconsciousness (if you hadn't gone that way already)); said fluids would then boil, pretty much, stewing you gently from the inside and to top it all off, you would be neatly paralysed, including those useful muscles that keep you breathing, so if you haven't taken your last breath just yet, you will shortly, since you will be suffocating.

Cheerful stuff, isn't it?


Number 9, a swift death is not guaranteed but might happen.


Number 1, I worked on the Underground for 20 years & never came across the expression "Inspector Sands", we had different ways of dealing with it, we called it "Smouldering" even if it was 6 feet high.
There used to be no PA or fire alarms, most of that was fitted after the King's Cross fire.
We had fire buckets of sand & water on stations, the trains had extinguishers but don't now, whereas the stations now do.


Just finished a book - London Under by Peter Ackroyd - which said that the Inspector Sands code is used when someone throws themselves on the track in front of a train... Is this wrong then?


Just pointing out that when reading about the fluffers, I automatically thought of the other occupation that is called a fluffer. Google at your own peril - probably not safe for work!

(and this wasn't found out through experience - I have Sleep Talkin' Man's blog to thank for educating me on what a fluffer was...)


"Has anyone ever witnessed people putting amusing stickers on tube maps?"
Not the map but yes I've seen someone putting up fake stickers on the train. The man got on at Morden and systematically went through the entire train. Being half asleep I didn't realise they were fake until later but by then I was in the tunnel and it was too late to call BTP.


1) The Inspector Sands message is used when there is an emergency evacuation. All staff would be aware of this, if the announcement was simply along the lines of  "Evacuate, the station is on fire, etc,.." there would be a blind panic and possible crushes in the foot tunnels and exits.  
9) Simply stepping on any DC live rail (whether the negative or the positive) in the wet or dry with rubber soled footwear, as long as the sole is not cracked or damaged and the inside of your shoe is not wet, shoudn't cause you any problems. I work on live tracks and have seen others casually step on live rails all the time with no consequences.  

Ross Corben

The LUL minute is nothing compared to National Rail when you can be standing on a platform under an 'Arrived' message and there's nowt there; maybe the new trains are ghost trains.


Why would anyone "shelter" at East Finchley" it is a Northern Line station above ground. Not very effective in an air raid i suspect.


"Not very effective in an air raid..."  But a lot better than staying out in the open where you're at risk from shrapnel etc.


Clearly #6 and #1 are linked - Private Rod is Inspector Sands' ex-military sidekick, a-la Watson in BBC's Sherlock. Elementary...


the answer to no.5 is boris johnson

Tom Skinner

I looked into it once and the most likely explanation for Private ROD was Private Right Of Drainage, which means behind that door is access to a private sewer, not part of the main London sewer network.

John McGill

I suspect a "private rod" is a passageway that quickly connects one platform to another for emergencies.

cathy peake

Private ROD is relief on duty. IE toilet.