Railway Horror

June 10th, 2004

I travel by train at least twice a week, often late at night. I count myself lucky that my mobile phone has been stolen only once – by a man so drunk that he was sick all over it as soon as he snatched it.

I have been physically threatened twice, and on each occasion I knocked loudly on the driver’s door and demanded help. The help was not forthcoming, but even yobs realise that trains have drivers, and they didn’t stay to find out what might happen.

I make a point of travelling in the front carriage late at night because when there is no guard, which is most of the time, at least the driver might respond to my blood curdling screams.

The front carriage is First Class. This has a curious effect on passengers without tickets, who make a point of joining me, as long as it is after ten o’clock at night, which seems to be the national curfew hour for railway employees. Sometimes my travelling companions are just kids having a laugh, but at other times they are very drunk and pretty scary.

The only reason I insist on travelling First Class Zoo on the way home is precisely because it is the only place I can be sure of being near to a railway official. In Standard Class I would have to rely on other passengers for help, and Britain is no longer a nation of Good Samaritans.

So I travel, more in hope than certainty, with my expensive ticket that no one else bothers to buy, because we all know that there are no guards on late trains. Occasionally a Revenue Inspector gets on, throws out the other members of the First Class Zoo, wishes me a pleasant journey and disappears at the next station. As soon as he gets off, and he always gets off because he is not a Guard, the Zoo population returns, their numbers strengthened, their beers cans out, and if it is really bad, I take my First Class ticket and stand in the corridor.

So when I hear this week that crime on the railways has risen by 30% in the last seven years, and that sexual assaults on women have risen by around 50%, I am not surprised. No frequent traveller will be surprised.

When I hear that passenger safety is the main concern of those who run the trains, I am very surprised indeed. Revenue is the main concern of the railways. My own impression is that passenger safety is the responsibility of the passenger.

It is a fact that there are too few guards on trains. The introduction of electronic ticket barriers was designed to make sure that passengers buy tickets when there are no guards to check them. Barriers do not help passengers; they make our journey more stressful as we struggle to leave enough time to queue for a ticket, and they are flashpoints of anger. I regularly see someone knocked aside as a commuter barges through to catch his train. He wants to get home – who can blame him, and he suffers enough misery on his overcrowded dirty train as it is. How much better it would be if we could all jump on, expecting to see a guard, and perhaps paying a surcharge if we do not have a ticket. This system works for the Heathrow Express, why can’t it work on the rest of our trains?

At night, with no staff around, gangs just jump the barriers. Result? Hoards of yobs with no tickets and passengers with no help. A friendly guard once told me it was not ‘cost-effective’ for trains and stations to be staffed at night.

I find the late-night station and the late night train an oppressive and sinister experience. Women are particularly vulnerable on trains at night. I watch every station-stop, in case there is someone dodgy getting on. I would not dream of sleeping, or going to the loo and leaving any of my luggage. I note how certain men register women who are travelling alone. I often find that such men will come and sit nearby. I ignore them and it is usually fine, but quite apart from any physical threat, I don’t want to have to chat to some bloke who wants female sympathy. On the other hand, I don’t want to get beaten up for the ‘crime’ of ignoring him, which is what happened to a friend of mine on her way home from Manchester.

The only solution to the problem is to start staffing trains again. We need human beings not CCTV cameras. We need trained guards, for the full length of the journey, not Revenue Inspectors who hop on off after issuing a few Penalty Fares.

If every train had a guard, crime rates would fall, passengers would be comfortable, and the costs of vandalism would be much reduced. Women could relax – a rare luxury if you are travelling alone.

I hear that Women Only carriages are being touted as safe zones for women. We are not told how these would be policed, though we have been told that more police officers are to be deployed on railway routes.

But is passenger safety really a matter for the police? Surely Government could require the train companies to staff its trains instead of subsidising them even further through taxpayer policing?

I am uncomfortable with Women Only segregation, and I fear that such carriages would be seen as easy game for gangs looking for trouble, And what happens when a woman has to make her way to the loo? Train loos are what most of us dread; men can’t aim straight, and cleaning rarely happens. Late at night, train loos become vomitoriums and jack-off joints. A real improvement for us girls would be our own bathroom – and at least we could lock ourselves in when the going gets rough. Meantime I suppose we Separatist travellers will just have to keep our legs crossed – the usual advice for women travelling alone.