In The News

Safety in numbers?

Many of us have had an alarming experience on a train, maybe worse. Would Women Only carriages solve the problem? Helen Walmsley-Johnson took a look.

busy train station in LondonPoor Jeremy Corbyn. Everyone loves him and then he floats what appears to be a perfectly logical idea and is shot down in flames on every social media outlet, blog and website in the country. You’d think he’d suggested bringing back the crinoline and depriving women of the vote. And it had all been going so well…

The suggestion, and it was only a suggestion, that Women Only train carriages could be a helpful thing because after all Women Only carriages operate quite successfully elsewhere, was offered with good intention and I don’t see anything wrong with that. I’d rather hear some ideas than no ideas and OK, it might be a daft idea, but there again it might not and can’t we at least look at it and perhaps have a sensible discussion?

After all, he did add something along the lines of, “if the idea is welcomed by women” and those seven words (which seem to have been omitted from almost every piece I’ve read) cool the whole thing down considerably, don’t they? And nor do I think, as some have suggested, that this is a cynical play by the Corbyn camp to appease the female electorate before what looks like a barnstorming victory in the upcoming Labour party vote which could, in turn, see a 100% male leadership.

It’s that thing again though isn’t it? That thing where a certain type of man grumbles that he really doesn’t understand women and ‘bloody feminists’, and on this occasion we’re really not helping because we are, in fact, being offered a choice.

It’s pretty much impossible to unpick the tangles of misconception and wrong thinking that surround these kinds of issues but listening to the outraged shouts of protest from Yvette Cooper (who I like very much as a politician) and Liz Kendall (who I’ve decided I don’t) and Nicky Morgan (well, she would say that wouldn’t she?) about ‘going backwards’, I have to wonder whether any of them has ever got off a tube train at Bank with a semen stain down the back of their coat at 8.15 in the morning, as happened to a colleague of mine a couple of years ago. I wonder if they might give a more measured response if they had.

“So I would say to the nice gentleman on the BBC news who said that if a woman is in trouble then men would intervene, where were you when the man sitting opposite me on the busy 11pm out of London Bridge wriggled his cock out?”

When I first heard what Corbyn proposed I’d just finished watching The Busiest Railway in the World about the Indian rail network and admit that I nodded approvingly at the special Women Only and Cancer Sufferers carriages on the massively overcrowded trains rolling into Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST). But then that station is in Mumbai, the one in India, a country with an appalling record of violence and attacks against women; a country where gang rapes, stalking and acid attacks were not recorded as crimes against women until the law was amended in 2013, which in turn makes the almost 25,000 rapes reported to Indian police in 2012 an inaccurate representation of the true scale of gender violence in the country. But they also operate Women Only carriages in Japan, a country famous for politeness. Oh, it’s a tricky one…

We all have stories though, don’t we? I began to have trouble with crowded trains after boarding one at Market Harborough station on my way back from visiting grandchildren and finding my booked seat and, in fact, the whole train, had been taken over by shit-faced football supporters. When a female guard passed through I asked if there was somewhere quieter I could sit and she advised me to leave the train at the next station and wait for another. It was December, dark, raining, the other train was 40 minutes behind, and she couldn’t guarantee that it wouldn’t be full of ranting lunatics either, so I stayed put.

Unfortunately, I’d drawn attention to myself and because I didn’t speak like a 1950s docker I became the focus for every kind of verbal abuse for the next hour and 15 minutes until we arrived at St Pancras, train comprehensively trashed. I was told there were five police on board but I’d have to take their word for it because I didn’t clap eyes on a single one and the train staff effectively abandoned us.

I wish I’d had the guts to do what Lisa Robinson did in 2010 when she was on the receiving end of similar abuse and stood in front of the train at Ystrad Mynach until it was sorted out. I didn’t though. I plugged in my iPod, turned it up really loud and hid miserably in the corner until it was over. Only it isn’t over because now I won’t get onto a crowded train. They frighten me.

Photo by Fiona Apps via Wikimedia Commons.

Photo by Fiona Apps via Wikimedia Commons.

So I would say to the nice gentleman on the BBC news who said that if a woman is in trouble then men would intervene, where were you when all that was going on and what would you have done? And where were you when the man sitting opposite me on the busy 11pm out of London Bridge wriggled his cock out?

In 2014 there were 1,400 sex attacks on public transport reported to the police in London, a 25 per cent increase which is most likely down to the Project Guardian initiative being launched in 2013, because before that around 90% of such incidents went unreported. (How do they know, if they were unreported?)

And what of the misogynist abuse and random violence with no apparent sexual motive? It’s no fun having someone yelling that you’re a cunt in front of a couple of hundred people on a lunchtime train simply because you looked at him ‘funny’.

Nor is any of this kind of behaviour restricted to women in the younger age groups and as is so often the case (on my favourite soapbox) statistics for the abuse offered to women, say, over 50 seem not to exist. And what of the men who suffer abuse; don’t they have a right to a safe place too?

Perhaps this is what I think: that it would be lovely to have a safe carriage and that it should be available to anyone who needs it but how on earth would you implement such a thing? For heaven’s sake, we can’t even observe the rules around so-called Quiet Carriages. Impossible to police and prohibitively expensive, even I can see it’s a non-starter.

So we come back to what lies at the root of it – that there are insufficient staff/police/boy scouts/whatever to make sure we behave like grown-ups when we’re allowed out of the house/had a skinful/bad day/the boss has been horrible to us. And that’s not likely to change is it, given that everything is being cut to within a gnat’s whisker of collapse. So perhaps the responsibility lies with us, as it always does ultimately, and I suspect we’re stuck with it.

@TheVintageYear

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Written by Helen Walmsley-Johnson

Helen Walmsley-Johnson is a journalist and author who writes as the Invisible Woman. She has a weekly style column for older women which she writes for the Guardian. Her first book, The Invisible Woman: Taking on the Vintage Years, is out now. @TheVintageYear