Women-only train carriages insult us all

26 February 2022

9:00 AM

26 February 2022

9:00 AM

Sooner or later, somewhere in the UK, we’ll have trains with women-only coaches. It’s an idea which keeps rolling around, and though the train people complain — it’s unworkable, unenforceable — it makes no odds. It’s too seductive an idea for a progressive politician. Jeremy Corbyn was tempted by it back in 2015, and now the Scottish transport secretary, one Jenny Gilruth, is considering it. She often feels unsafe on trains, she says, because they’re ‘full of drunk men’, especially the train to Fife, which is her constituency. ‘I just want our railways to be safe places for women to travel.’

I’ve nothing against ladies’ coaches in principle. In my mind’s eye they look appealing. I imagine them with muted marbling and scent diffusers, full of women with the sort of graded hair effect I’ve recently discovered is called balayage. What’s alarming isn’t the thought of carriages without men, per se, but the assumptions on which the whole argument rests.

Neither Gilruth nor the opponents of coaches for women seem to have any doubt that a gaggle of northern men, a few tinnies down, is a danger to women — almost by definition. Reading the arguments for and against over the years, in this newspaper and that, it’s as if female politicians and commentators simply assume that the human male becomes less evolved the further north you travel, like the classic Darwinian diagram of the stages of man, but ranged along a different axis, north to south.

No one in this great train debate ever looks at the actual stats, the number of arrests or complaints. No one questions the guilt of the unevolved lager-loving man. The only argument ever offered in opposition to women-only coaches is that to have them would be a capitulation to dangerous macho culture. Women shouldn’t have to worry, they say. Men should simply learn to behave, and they will. Come the enlightened future, when the vomitous LNER Azuma corners too fast and flings a lady into the lap of a half-cut football fan, he won’t laugh or leer, he’ll simply smile blandly and avert his eyes.

I never thought for a second I’d write a defence of pissed blokes on trains, but I honestly don’t think that they make women significantly unsafe in any normal sense of the word. I grew up travelling on the north-east line, the Intercity 125, back and forth from London King’s Cross to Northumberland, and even on non-match days the boozed-up men were a given. As child I’d goggle at the sea of empty cans; as a teen I’d glower and blush and try to slide by unnoticed. I’ve felt uncomfortable, but never unsafe.

Gilruth talks earnestly about the ‘systemic problem’ of women being scared to use public transport because of ‘men’s behaviour’. Women certainly are scared of assault and rape, especially after the murder of Sarah Everard. But I just don’t think a genuine sex pest hangs about in shouty groups near the buffet car sinking Newkie Brown. He lurks in parks and alleys, or if he’s on public transport he’s on the Tube, in a commuter crush. It’s a rare woman who hasn’t had some creep rub up against her on a crowded Tube or bus. The reason that they have women-only carriages in India and Japan is because their train compartments are dense with standing people, pressed together. It’s not remotely like the ScotRail train to Fife.

And if an actual sexual assault were to happen on the train to Fife, I reckon there’d be police waiting for the perp in Dunfermline Town. If it happened on the King’s Cross train to Edinburgh, my bet is it’d be a bunch of lads who’d rout the pervert out. Unless of course he’d slipped unnoticed to a women-only coach, quite out of sight of any of the unpalatable male saviour types who might come to a lady’s aid.

ScotRail has already said that it hasn’t the resources to staff any special single-sex coach. I wonder if anyone’s considered that on less busy routes, a near-empty carriage with a couple of anxious ladies in it might be an exciting prospect for a real offender?

Much as I enjoy the idea of the lady carriage, I’m afraid it doesn’t much make sense. Even if drunk men make you uncomfortable, that’s not reason enough. There are a great many uncomfortable things about any busy train. Discomfort is part of the deal. Pre-Covid, the seats were often double-booked. It’s definitely more uncomfortable spending three hours perched in the luggage rack than it is to be heckled by a Magpies fan. And what about the non-macho men? Isn’t it just as uncomfortable for a nervous, bookish type of boy to sit it out sweating in a coach full of thugs as it would be for any woman? The bookish boy is also infinitely more likely to be assaulted. Do nerds need their own coach too?

A train is inevitably an uneasy mix of very different people, and I’m not even sure, come to think of it, that it’s the louts who make me most uneasy. On my train north last week I sat across the aisle from a businessman called Steve who conducted a 30-minute meeting with a colleague on his iPhone’s loudspeaker. Why, Steve, why? Was it too much to hold the phone to your ear? Because I’m middle-aged now, I found myself grumbling in a low voice, glaring and shaking my head in disbelief. I bet Steve would prefer any number of lairy blokes to one pale and muttering nag.

And then there’s the hens. I don’t expect anyone who fantasises about women-only coaches has factored in the hen-night girls. They’ll flock to the pink coach, trailing devil tails, feather boas and gin. Is a two-table gaggle of screaming ladies in French maid outfits more or less uncomfortable than a bunch of lads off to the game? I’d say they’re pretty evenly matched.

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