Escalator safety for older people

As part of a project I’m doing with Great Western Railway on developing an age friendly railway, one key issue has emerged that’s rather intrigued me. At Reading station we had a look at the escalators. There is a particular issue, not just at stations, but with escalators in general, and safety, especially around older people using them and with people carrying bulky or heavy items on them, like luggage. You can see at Reading station that the station staff would like you to use the lift if you’re carrying luggage (and pushchairs and other similar items) and have used a variety of visual methods to try and encourage behaviour change – large yellow motif on the floor with arrows pointing you to the lifts is the most prominent and noticeable, but also signs and posters throughout the station.


This is also the case at Paddington, where physical barriers have been put in place to make the access to the escalator narrow to discourage anyone carrying anything from physically getting through. However, discouraging people from using escalators with luggage is easier said than done. If we want to change this, the following must be considered when making changing behaviour on escalators:

– Norms. Carrying luggage on escalators is seen as normal practice almost everywhere in the world. Lifts (where there are stairs and escalator alternatives) are often viewed as being for less mobile people, so people deliberately eschew them to allow them to be used by people viewed of as in more need than themselves.

– Members of staff. One of the most powerful influences would be members of staff present at the escalators to reinforce the message. This would, of course, be labour intensive, but does not necessarily have to happen all the time, maybe at key locations and times over a six month period or so. In addition, other members of staff must mention it to customers when interacting on other issues, so at information points, at barriers or when asked for information, etc. And, look at this fascinating report into escalator safety from Transport for London, the person doesn’t have to be real – it appears some success can be had using a hologram member of staff to change behaviour.

– Repeating and reinforcing the message. The message must be repeated throughout the station using different modes and mediums. Visual messages need to be repeated at different heights and in different places. At the moment at Reading station, the signage appears in some places and then not in others, for example there are more accidents going up the escalator, so more signage is made around the entrance to up escalators. However, without repeating this for those going down, is likely to reduce the salience of the message, especially people tend to believe going down is more dangerous. (I ran a highly unscientific twitter poll and found, like I had originally thought, people tended to believe people would have more accidents travelling down the escalator, but this isn’t the case).


Regular automated announcements could also help. Who of the regular British rail passengers can’t be help have “see it! Say it! Sorted” stuck I continuous loop in their head after travelling for more than 5 seconds on our networks these days?  Having a slogan helps with continuity of the message. Reading station uses “Ride Me Safe” slogan on a poster and something like this should appear on each message and media throughout the station or even the whole rail network.


In repeating and reinforcing the message, all escalators must contain the same messages, at the top, during and at the end of the ride. It is also difficult to reinforce the message when other escalators in other stations across the network do not have such campaigns running on them.

– Social pressure. Making others aware of non-use of luggage on escalators, so that it becomes disapproved of to use it. Making it “all our responsibility” would help.

– Social comparisons.  Having signs such as “n people with luggage fell on this escalator in the last year” could deter users by revealing higher numbers than they believe.

– Shock pictures or videos. These tend to be of less use than people imagine they will be. People are great at blocking out horrific images and “othering” them – people don’t believe it would happen to them. Also, people become immune to such messages pretty quick if they’re not changed or challenged. Network rail released this footage of people falling up the escalators which does a good job of making people aware of a danger they didn’t know what present, but it is unknown how far this changes behaviour and if it does change it for the better how sustained such changes are. It can be effective as part of an overall strategy with other media, however.

– As accidents are pretty irregular, we also don’t get reinforced from bad behaviour. So, in times of hurry or in times of absent mindedness when we do flout the rules and carry luggage up the escalator and nothing happens, we might do that again.

– Alternative more attractive. The lifts are also seen as being slow and although clean, are dark and uninviting places. These could be made more attractive, perhaps with visual screens, music and better lighting.

– General better escalator etiquette would improve safety for all, with or without luggage, and should be encouraged alongside campaigns to reduce luggage. See again the TfL report for more information


General information on encouraging safe escalator use for older people is alright – see for example this, but how far it makes a change to behaviour, I’d argue is pretty low.

There isn’t much research on escalators, other than the TfL report. There’s this on older people and escalator safety education but much more room for more – I feel the need for a research project and a paper on this is needed.


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