Glacier surges tend to be initiated in relatively small regions, then propagate down-glacier, up-glacier and/or across-glacier. The processes controlling patterns and rates of surge propagation, however, are incompletely understood. In this paper, we focus on patterns of surge propagation in two confluent glaciers in Svalbard, and examine possible causes. One of these glaciers, Bakaninbreen, surged in 1985–95. The surge propagated ∽7 km down-glacier, but did not cross the medial moraine onto the other glacier, Paulabreen. When Paulabreen surged between 2003 and 2005, the surge wave travelled several km down-glacier, but its lateral boundary stayed very close to the medial moraine. The confluent glaciers formerly extended into a fjord, and bathymetric mapping and historical observations show that an active subglacial conduit has existed between Bakaninbreen and Paulabreen since at least the early 20th century. The existence of a persistent subglacial conduit below the medial moraine was confirmed when we entered and mapped a Nye channel at the confluence of Bakaninbreen and Paulabreen. We argue that the conduit acts as a barrier to surge propagation. If pressurized water below one branch of the glacier system reaches the conduit, water can be readily evacuated, preventing its propagation into the other branch.