Why Are There Buttons On Tube Train Doors?

We’ve all seen the hapless Tube newbies (“Tubies”, as they shall henceforth be called) hammering away at the ‘Open’ button on a train, blissfully unaware that the doors will open when the driver bloody well wants them to, and no sooner.

But why do so many Tube lines have these redundant buttons?

Ride on the Northern, Jubilee or Central line, and you’ll see the buttons beside every door. On some lines, they even light up when the train pulls into a station, inviting the busy passenger to press away in futile rage. But on every Underground train, the doors are operated by the driver. Yet the existence of the buttons suggests that, at some point, passengers were expected to open the doors themselves. Why aren’t we trusted to do so any more?

The reason is speed of entry and exit. In the 1990s Tube bosses realised that dwell time at stations would be reduced if the doors were opened by the driver, rather than waiting for passengers to press the button. The problem was more acute on the Central line, which is unique on the Underground in having both an ‘open’ and ‘close’ button. There were stories of malicious ne’er-do-wells closing the doors on people, and an incident at Notting Hill Gate in which a young boy was injured in a door closed by another passenger. These issues, plus the desire to have a standardised system across the entire network, led to the decline of the passenger-operated doors in the late 1990s.

The D78 stock District line trains used to have buttons, and when the trains were introduced the idea was for the doors to be manually operated by passengers at every station. But the lack of ventilation meant that in summer trains were getting unreasonably hot, so in the warmer months the driver would operate the doors. This arrangement lasted until the late 1990s, when the seasonal switch back to passenger operation simply never happened. The buttons inside the carriages were removed during a mid-2000s refurb (the buttons on the outside of the train are covered up by a panel).

Nowadays, while the DLR and Overground trains have buttons, few Underground lines do. But things are changing: the S-series stock, currently serving the Metropolitan and Hammersmith & City but scheduled to cover the District and Circle lines too by 2015, are all fitted with door buttons. While the driver normally controls the doors, when the trains sit for extended periods at a station the practice is to close the door but allow passengers to open it by pressing the button, thus keeping the cool / warm air inside the train.

For an in-depth look at the history of buttons on the Underground, read this exhaustive document (PDF).

So that’s the real story behind the buttons. For the rest of us, though, they’ll continue to be a handy way of identifying tourists and newcomers to the city.

See also:

Top 10 Tube mysteries

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  • http://www.patrickinlondon.com/ Patrick in London

    Interesting read, I’ve always wondered why that was.
    http://www.patrickinlondon.com

  • http://twitter.com/sparticus Mark Walley

    I think you get it right in the first line. The reason there are buttons on tube train doors is to let Londoners know who’s not from round here.

  • Al

    When I first worked in London I used to commute in on the Central Line from Debden to central London. I remember when you used to be able to open and close the doors manually. On the above ground section during winter both buttons were very useful.

  • Nate

    There’s another factor at play – peace of mind. People don’t like getting in a confined space where they don’t feel they control their egress. For another example, the lifts to the trains in Heathrow Terminal 5 have buttons that don’t do anything either, as they just work on a loop: people getting off a train get to go to departures first, and people in arrivals go straight to the trains. People in departures get on aeroplanes instead!

  • sheloveslondon

    I actually have to restrain myself from saying “THEY DON’T WORK” whenever I see someone pressing the buttons. Not always successfully.

  • http://twitter.com/ianwylie Ian Wylie

    Remember them causing quite a stir when they were first introduced in the new District Line stock, complete with shiny wooden floors, that replaced the old tin can rattlers. Was about to get off a Central Line tube at Chancery Lane a few weeks ago and out of the corner of my eye saw someone half behind me pressing away at a button. Couldn’t resist the London commuter urge to say (politely), “There’s no need. They open automatically.” Only to discover it was a little lad on possibly one of his first tube adventures. Felt terrible!

  • Sniffy

    I love the trains on Marylebone platform. They have doors with open/close buttons. I always use them for amusement to watch people run along the platform if they think their train is departing

  • Tanielle Lobo

    Strange fact that I am sure many Londoners have pondered over, surely I have. When I got back from Paris, after using the Paris Metro, I found myself pressing them, even though I have lived in London for over 9 years!

  • Pendanteorinsti

    The doors automatically open regardless of time of day and station – it should only be rush hour or when underground when they automatically open – when above ground when its cold its torture when they let in a rush of freezing air. This is an example of a suboptimal mechanisation – its good to make all doors open automatically but not in all contexts – be smarter god damn it!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-Marin/1839662282 John Marin

    If the use of buttons was employed in the New York subway system it would be sheer panic and madness. However London does have the avantage of having one that meets standards of civilized appearance and decor.

  • PeterTheta

    I found myself on S-series stock the other day – very nice! I’m guessing the schadenfreude of standing outside a badly designed button situation is misplaced frustration at being subject to a London that doesn’t entirely work ;-)

  • http://twitter.com/johnnyfoxlondon JohnnyFox

    What bemuses me is why they don’t operate the same system on the DLR, at least at ‘terminal’ stations like Bank when everyone has to get off anyhow.

    • http://www.facebook.com/jon.millwood Jon Millwood

      I agree it would be better at Bank but at other stations I wish the DLR had close buttons as well as open buttons.This would help stop the cold air coming in if they have to sit at a platform for an extended time, particularly at all of the above ground terminating stations!

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  • timbo

    Oh oh oh it’s time to repost a link to the concept of Placebo Buttons. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Placebo_button

  • lot

    Or just people who regularly travel on the DLR/overground and then feel like a numpty after 15 years living in London