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TUC WOMEN’S CONFERENCE 2021 Staff are key to making public transport safe and secure for women and girls

The presence of transport staff deters perpetrators and provides a point of contact and safety for passengers – meaning workers should not be seen as just another cost to be driven down, writes RMT president MICHELLE RODGERS

THIS week, the TUC Women’s Conference will be considering a motion from the RMT which highlights the vital role that staff play in making public transport safe and secure for women and girls and seeks to fight cuts to jobs and services on the public transport network. 

Sadly, sexual assault and harassment of women and girls on the public transport network remains a significant problem. 

British Transport Police (BTP) figures show that reported sexual offences on trains more than doubled between 2012-13 and 2016-17 and the majority of incidents were against females aged 13 and above. 

Reported sexual offences on London Underground increased by nearly 50 per cent between 2015-16 and 2018-19. 

There have been efforts from BTP and the transport industry to encourage reporting of sexual offences on public transport, but it remains the case that the majority of incidents remain unreported and therefore official figures are likely to underestimate the extent of the problem.  

RMT believes that presence of staff is key to ensuring women and girls’ safety and security when travelling on the public transport network. 

The presence of staff deters perpetrators and provides a point of contact and safety for passengers. 

For instance, a survey of RMT guard members in 2018 found that a massive 50 per cent had prevented at least one sexual assault in the course of their work. 

Despite this, transport operators and the government too often see staff as an expense to be cut in the pursuit of “efficiencies.” 

Across the rail network, there have been pushes from industry and government to remove the guard from the train and de-staff stations. 

Across the UK, just 11 per cent of rail stations are fully staffed and around 45 per cent are totally unstaffed. 

Yet evidence shows time and time again that passengers value the presence of staff on public transport, and even more so in the Covid-19 era. 

Passenger research published by the watchdog Transport Focus in October of last year found that “staff play a central role to helping passengers feel safe and secure on the train” and there was a “strong sense that the ideal response to the pandemic would be to see more staff on trains and at the station, rather than less.” 

RMT believes it is crystal clear that we need a complete reversal of current government and industry policy that sees staff as just another cost to be driven down.

RMT is also concerned that women and girls are disproportionately affected by the massive decline experienced in the bus industry outside London, since it was deregulated by the Tories in the 1980s. 

Local bus services play a vital role in preventing isolation and keeping communities connected, yet since 2010, over 3,000 services in England have been withdrawn or altered. 

RMT believes that the commercial bus operators, driven by their desire to maximise profits, will respond to the Covid-19 pandemic by making further cuts to services, with no regard for the impact on those who rely on these vital services.

A National Audit Office report published last September highlighted that women and girls are one of the groups most likely to use bus services, and therefore they stand to be particularly affected by cuts to services which make it more difficult to access employment, healthcare, education and job opportunities. 

This cannot be allowed to happen. The government’s long-awaited National Bus Strategy must reverse the ideologically driven policy which prevents local authorities setting up publicly owned municipal bus companies, and it must give all local authorities sufficient ring-fenced national funding to provide the bus services their communities require.

Throughout the pandemic, front-line transport workers have kept services running for other key workers and essential travellers. 

They have been hailed as “heroes” by government ministers and transport operators. 

Yet, like other front-line workers, they are now subject to a two-year pay freeze and are under threat by cuts to services and “efficiency” drives. 

RMT believes this is completely the wrong response to the pandemic and will make our public transport networks less safe, secure and accessible for passengers. 

That’s why RMT wants to work with affiliates and the TUC to campaign against cuts to public transport jobs and services, and for a “New Deal” for public transport, which places public transport workers at the heart of a safe, secure and accessible transport network in public ownership. 

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