Tube or Petri Dish?

If you’ve ever wondered just how dirty the London Underground is, then look no further. This article runs through research conducted by Staveley Head, a taxi insurer, and the London Metropolitan University, exposing the true state of the tube. Apologies in advance if this puts you off setting foot near a tube station ever again. 

If you’re anything like me you may find yourself deciding whether attempting to balance and potentially falling on the family of four behind you, or rather holding onto what I can only imagine is a germ-infested pole, is the better idea. This research is a pat on the back – telling me that my now well-honed balancing skills were not practised in vain; the London Underground – seats, walls and handrails – is in fact filthy. New research found the Underground to be the dirtiest of all the modes of public transport, with seats on seven tube lines never being washed (the District, Jubilee, Northern, Circle, Piccadilly, Metropolitan and Hammersmith & City lines – in case you were wondering which to avoid!)

121 types of bacteria and moulds- 9 of which are a threat to human health – including traces of Staphylococcus Aureus, E. coli, Klebsiella Pneumoniae (a deadly superbug) and not to mention faecal bacteria - were found among the 80 swabs taken across all tube lines. Gross.

The report places each line on a spectrum, finding the Victoria Line to be the dirtiest; breeding at least 22 living bacterium, including 4 of the deadliest.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, which line’s the dirtiest of them all?


With 1.34 billion people using the London Underground a year, and hundreds of hands a day clasping the poles after a long day of touching who knows what, it’s bound to get dirty very quickly. But, does this mean that it shouldn’t be cleaned, as it’s expected to just get dirty again? If anything, I’d say that that would be even more of a reason to give it a regular scrub. Seats are given a basic wipe down and rubbish is collected at the end of each night for every carriage in use. The Bakerloo, Victoria and Central lines are also given a wash every six months to a year. But that’s as close to clean as they’ll ever be, and that’s far from what clean actually means (clearly, this wash isn’t enough, because somehow the Victoria Line is still the dirtiest.)

Here’s a list of the tube lines from the dirtiest to the cleanest, with the number of different bacterium found on each:

Victoria – 22

Circle – 20

Piccadilly – 20

Jubilee – 18

Northern – 18

District – 17

Waterloo and City – 16

Central – 16

Hammersmith and City – 14

Bakerloo– 13

Metropolitan– 11

Not to sound too dramatic but, Klebsiella Pneumoniae, the superbug found on the Victoria Line, recently killed a US woman as it was resistant to 26 antibiotics and could not be treated. In 2014 the same superbug affected 1,200 people in the UK, killing 16 and causing 62 people to suffer from blood poisoning. I’ll admit, that was a little dramatic as I doubt any of them picked up the superbug from their morning commute; it’s usually found transmitted in hospitals between sick patients with weakened immune systems and doesn’t usually affect healthy individuals.

It’s still a bit surprising though, that the tube has become a Petri dish for something as deadly as this to develop. Even if it’s not actually that harmful to the average commuter, it’s always good to be aware and maintain good personal hygiene, which would therefore make the tube a less germ-ridden place for Londoners who spend a good proportion of their daily life on it.

The study also found that although buses did have bacteria present, they are by far the cleanest and “healthiest” way to travel. But honestly, as grossed out as I am by what I’ve just learnt about the tube, I’m not planning to make my one hour commute to university into two hours by using the bus to trek across the city. But it serves as a reminder – though it might sound obvious – to always keep hand sanitizer with you and to wash your hands regularly. Who knows what bacteria you’re picking up and placing down every time you touch something that other people have, and will, touch too?

As unpleasant as this all sounds, it’s nothing to worry about or be overly conscious of; after all, bacteria can be found everywhere and they are just as much a part of life as you and I are. But at the same time, we can all help ourselves – and each other – by preventing the spread of unhealthy bacteria by washing our hands regularly –  particularly after being out and about, touching communal things, including handrails on public transport.

Check out the Staveley Head launch interactive where you can explore public transport under UV here:

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