Women-only carriages on trains: Proposal shows the need to get tough on extreme anti-social behaviour – Alastair Stewart

Scotland's new transport minister Jenny Gilruth has announced a consultation on women-only train carriages as part of new safety measures.

The Scottish government is consulting on the idea of women-only carriages (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
The Scottish government is consulting on the idea of women-only carriages (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

The move is part of the Scottish government's decision to nationalise the railways from April.

One of the most striking things about the suggestion is that it assumes men's absence is the solution.

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Anyone who has been on a train or bus will inevitably tell you about some experience with drunks, boorish behaviour, foul smells, awful language and an altogether uncomfortable experience.

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Scrolling through the social media comments about the Scottish government's announcement suggests two things. Women are split on why they need to be segregated. Also, men judge the decision as a sideways move that does nothing to clean up behaviour on public transport.

And yet it would be insane to talk down plans to have all-female carriages. I can listen to stories told to me by female friends, colleagues and family, but I cannot possibly understand the female experience.

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Anecdotal evidence is as valid as hard statistical data. Stories are more likely to capture the truth because they touch on shared experiences.

I do not know the terror of unwanted advances, feeling isolated and looking at someone staring at you for the last 15 minutes of a train ride in pitch black winter.

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But we also have a more prominent problem in this logic. Because everything is so politicised now, there is a casual clampdown on commenting on issues not directly related to our world experience.

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Readers' Letters: Women-only train carriages not way forward
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The term ‘armchair philosophers' is bandied around with far too much ease. Suggesting no one has a right to comment on anything not directly related to their experience is remarkably dangerous and a sad state of society.

And women-only carriages are a case in point. While it affects women, it is a capitulation to all our fears. How many men have worried when their friends, sisters, daughters, and mothers have travelled alone?

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Segregated carriages are a damning indictment of the casual lewdness, the cruelty, the assaults, and the harassment women face. But creating them does not answer the serious question of who is in the other carriages and who will get off at the same platform.

My reaction is always uneasy when my wife tells me she travels alone for work on any public transport. A niggling suspicion stays with me all the day, more so and mainly at night.

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In her statement to the Scottish Parliament, the transport minister said there was a "systemic problem" of women feeling too scared to travel on public transport "because of men's behaviour".

The lesser-discussed element is that my wife worries just as much about me. Her concerns are muggings and violence when I say I am travelling late and on public transport. Neither of us is sitting obsessing, but it is the fear that begs the question of whether Scotland has a grip on its uglier elements.

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Who can blame her? A late-night train on the Glasgow-Edinburgh line is a sorry business. Pre-Covid, the carriages were usually packed with drunken louts, stinking the place out with takeaway food and hurling abuse at anyone who passed a look (if they could register it in their stupor).

Lothian Buses is a premier service reduced to an uncomfortable din at night: never mind not wearing masks, it is the same drunks and foul language and shouting. You can only look at a driver with sympathy if you get on and find that.

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For three months, a family member was in the hospital, necessitating daily black cab journeys. The conversations became thematic by the end: the number of passengers who damage their cabs, are rude, fare skip or become violent was obscenely prevalent.

There is often an onus to say when, where, and when these incidents all transpire. Well, no, there is not. It's a distillation of years worth of lived experiences and patterns that emerge too frequently.

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No one can reasonably expect public behaviour to be perfect. But sexual segregation is one part of an uglier question: do people of all ages feel more or less safe in recent years?

Given the answer to a rampant disease has been curfews, restrictions, fines, is there not more that needs to be done to tackle extreme anti-social behaviour? Given the gravity of the suggestion for segregated carriages, really nothing should be off the table anyway.

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“Tough on crime” needs to ditch its lesser partner “the causes of”. It has become a hopeless, toothless cliché amongst a sea of broader government policies seen as pandering to criminals: voting rights for prisoners, free mobile phones in prisons, and a more "person-centred" approach.

The inconsistency would be laughable if it were not such a damning indictment that fear prevails. It is altogether more astonishing when one considers that people feel as scared on trains as they do wandering the streets in the middle of the night.

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Crime statistics can be made to work for whoever is deploying them. What matters most is the palpable sense of dread that many feel when travelling alone, when they are out alone, and even when they are at home, alone.

Opening the discussion on women-only carriages is brave, and the transport minister's entire speech is a worthwhile read. She speaks from the heart, and it is refreshing to hear.

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Like most debates in contemporary Scotland, it will inevitably end up as a smear campaign fought in 280 characters. Whatever the arguments and the stats, it boils down to one question: do you feel safe for the women in your life, and do they feel safe for you?

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