Friday, April 27, 2012


I've been a London commuter for about four years now. Every day I get on a train from Ladywell or Honor Oak. I get off at London Bridge and walk down the long passageway from the platforms. I then weave my way through the milling crowd in the connecting passageways and go down the short escalator to the ticket barriers. I beep through, (usually on the right-hand-side barriers, as they're less crowded) and duck through the tourists in the underground station concourse. I beep through another set of ticket barriers and go down the long escalators to the northern line. I then cut right and walk down the tunnel that leads to the far end of the platforms (the exits at Angel are at the end of the platform). I get off at Angel and go up the short escalator, then round the corner to the long escalator (longest in Europe, fact fans) though the barriers and up the street to my office. In the evening I do the same thing backwards (backwards as in reverse order, not literally backwards, that'd be unsafe). I estimate I've made this journey (there and back) about a thousand times now.

On the days when one of the escalators in this sequence was out of action (which is quite often on the London Underground) I'd be faced with a choice between a crowded escalator that I would have to stand still on, and sometimes queue to get onto, or the broken one.

After a few years I noticed something really strange was happening to my body when I got on one of these stationary escalators. I found that as a result of this constant repetition, my inner ear  has developed an automatic reaction to escalators. It compensates for the slight acceleration and deceleration experienced when getting on an off, keeping my sense of balance perfectly even at all times. I only notice this when I get on an escalator that isn't moving: my inner ear does its usual thing, but there's no acceleration to compensate for, so instead I just feel my sense of what is 'up' tilt slightly forwards. On a few occasions this has nearly sent my crashing face first into the steps in front of me. The reverse happens when I get off.

I've learned to expect this now, so I don't topple over, but I can't seem to stop it. It means that if I get on a stationary escalator (something that I now avoid doing if I can possibly do so) then I get off feeling dizzy and slightly sick.

I was interested, therefore, to read in this fascinating article that this is not an unusual or undocumented condition. It's known as the Broken Escalator Phenomenon and has been studied by people at Imperial College (train to Charing Cross, walk down to Embankment, get the District over to South Kensington).