Women in transport

One of the little considered aspects of public transport provision is gender. It is conventional wisdom within the industry that most bus riders during the day are women of a certain age but little is done specifically to accommodate them.

The report by the Equal Opportunities Commission into gender equality on public transport raises a lot of fundamental questions about the planning of routes and services. Indeed, they are often designed solely around the needs of people going to work in the morning and returning in the evening and the fact that there is a service at all for shoppers is often just a lucky happenstance as little attention is paid to their precise needs.

The EOC highlights the fact that there is to be an Equality Bill next year that will require public bodies to take into account gender differences when providing transport. Providers, therefore, should begin taking this into account already. But in the deregulated fragmented world of public transport in the UK today, that will not be easy. There is already a Public Transport Gender checklist produced by the Department of Transport, but how many people know of it, let alone follow its guidelines?

At times, too, the EOC report comes across as a bit of whinge. It suggests, for example, that much of the reason hospital appointments are missed is because women can’t get to there through lack of public transport which seems a bit far-fetched to me.

Moreover, there is a good reason for services being organised around commuting to work: that is when they are most needed and, indeed, such services are a boon for the women who comprise over 40 per cent of the workforce. Public transport is the public is there to use it. That is not always the case in this age of high car ownership.

Nevertheless, the report highlights an aspect of transport provision to which the industry must pay heed – that men and women often have different needs. Much more could be done, for example, to make services appear safer at night, something that would make women much more likely to use them and providing services to shopping centres.

Perhaps, the lack of attention paid to women’s needs is a by-product of the maleness of the transport sector. Transport infrastructure like trains and buses are still seen as boys’ toys and you only have to go to one of the many awards ceremonies in the industry to enter a world in which women – and indeed black people – are a rarity. It frequently feels like a time warp back to the days when men retired after dinner leaving the ladies to chatter.

The tradition of discrimination against women in the rail industry is not exactly new and is brilliantly highlighted in Railwaywomen , a book published earlier this month. Written by Helena Wojtczak who was the first female guard under British Rail, it is a fascinating and detailed account of just what obstacles women faced in obtaining jobs in the industry and, when they did so, getting the recognition their efforts deserved. For example, as early as 1926 the majority of crossing keepers were women but they were paid much less than their male counterparts. And when women acted heroically on the railway, such as the tale of the porter Violet Wisdom who helped victims of a bombing at Bramley in Surrey, the official account of the incident only mentioned the surviving fireman ‘acting unaided’ leaving out Miss Wisdom entirely!

The message underlying almost every page of the book is the invisibility of women, something that is the core message of the EOC’s report too. Fortunately, this is changing. Three of the 25 train operating companies are headed by women – Heidi Mottram at Northern, Mary Dickson at Scotrail and Alison Forster at First Great Western – and the Scottish Railtrack zone was also headed by a woman.

The interesting question is whether, helped by legislation like the Equality Bill, will this influx of women managers into the public transport industry – although one may ask where are the bus equivalents of this famous three – make a difference to the provision of services? Or will these pioneers, like Mrs Thatcher, ignore the special needs of their own sex, having reached the top in a man’s world.

Railwaywomen can be obtained from The Hastings Press, www.hastingspress.co.uk

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