This is why we’re debating women-only train carriages again

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Moya Crockett
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In the summer of 2015, a furore erupted when then-Labour leadership candidate Jeremy Corbyn suggested tackling sexual harassment and assault on trains by introducing women-only carriages.

Now, the debate has reared its head once more – thanks to the input of another Labour politician.

Chris Williamson, the Labour party’s shadow fire minister, said that female-only carriages were an “idea worth exploring” to reduce sexual offences and create “safe spaces”.

Speaking to PoliticsHome, Williamson pointed to British Transport Police figures showing that 1,448 sexual offences on trains were reported in 2016-17, compared with 650 incidents in 2012-13.

“It would be worth consulting about it,” said the MP for Derby North. “It was pooh-poohed [when Jeremy Corbyn suggested it], but these statistics seem to indicate there is some merit in examining that.”

Williamson added that better security and more guards on trains were needed to tackle the problem, but said that women-only carriages “would be a way of combating these attacks, which have seen a very worrying increase in the past few years.

“I’m not saying it has to happen, but it may create a safe space. It would be a matter of personal choice whether someone wanted to make use of it.”

By floating the idea of a consultation on women-only carriages, without directly pushing for it as a concrete policy, Williamson was echoing a suggestion previously made by the Labour leader.

Corbyn said in 2015 that he “would consult with women and open it up to hear their views on whether women-only carriages would be welcome”, but dropped the idea after criticism that it would put the onus on women not to be assaulted.

The policy had previously been suggested by Conservative MP Claire Perry, then rail minister under David Cameron, although she never pursued it.

This time around, Williamson has come in for similar disapproval. Jess Phillips, Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley, said on Twitter that the policy was an “absolutely terrible idea”.

She added: “Also men should be incredibly annoyed by suggestion they can’t control themselves. Sexual violence isn’t about urges, it’s about power.”

Stylist contributor Laura Bates, who collates women’s experiences of public harassment and assault on the Everyday Sexism Project, told the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire show that she would “never suggest segregation is the answer”.

“It has to be about sending a clear message that this issue, which is already so normalised in our society, can be further normalised by the idea that women should simply go somewhere else,” she said.

Lord Adonis, Labour’s former transport secretary, told BBC Radio 5 Live that women would find the initiative “grossly insulting”, and criticised “the idea that they would be herded into separate carriages when the point at issue is a very tiny number of men who don’t behave properly”.

Women-only train carriages exist in countries including Japan, Brazil and Mexico, and the UK had some gender-segregated carriages until they were phased out in 1977.

A 2014 poll from YouGov and the Thompson Reuters foundation found that 45% of surveyed women in London would feel safer on segregated transport.

However, a report in the same year by Middlesex University, the Department of Transport and the British Transport Police recommended that women-only carriages not be reintroduced. This would, said the report, be a “retrograde step” that “could be thought of as insulting, patronising and shaming to both men and women”.

Images: iStock / Rex Features