Published in Solidarity 610, 20 October 2021.
The Night Tube in London will resume on two lines from 27 November, in a move promoted as ensuring safety for women. However, the reality is more complex, and women’s safety requires increased Night Tube staffing.
Around 150,000 people signed an online petition for Night Tube to resume, calling it “the best transport option to ensure millions of women across London can get home safely in the evenings and at night this coming winter”. There is certainly a strong case for this assertion, and it is understandable that women will feel safer travelling on the Tube rather than on night buses, waiting for taxis or walking. However, Night Tube is not the haven for women’s safety that some want to believe. I worked on Night Tube before its lockdown suspension (though obviously I am not writing this on behalf of the company!). Most nights, I dealt with at least one incident of a woman passenger being harassed, followed, intimidated or even assaulted. Workers faced similar, with every female respondent to an RMT survey of Night Tube staff stating that they had been sexually harassed or assaulted on duty at least once.
The petition describes Night Tube as “a well-lit and well-connected Tube network, with platform CCTV and appropriately trained security staff”. Or perhaps it means that is its ideal Night Tube. For sure, lighting and CCTV are important, but they do not stop women being attacked. The presence of staff — London Underground staff rather than “security staff” — is even more important. But not every Night Tube station has enough staff to ensure safety, and London Underground is currently in dispute with one of its drivers’ unions about how Night Tube will be staffed. The petition rightly argues that more fundamental changes are required to cut the roots of violence against women, including “inducing cultural and behavioural change through education, policy and practice. Including reform to key public institutions such as the Met, private institutions such as Uber, greater investment in support services for women and the prioritization of a national strategy” (American spellings from the petition). And it is right to demand safe public transport at night. But for Night Tube to be that safe public transport, it needs improved staffing.
Finally, please note that women do not use Night Tube just to get home. Many use it to get to early-morning jobs, in health, social care, cleaning, hospitality and other sectors where low-paid, gendered work predominates. They too deserve to be safe.