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Inside the fight to make the commute safe for women | #childpredator | #kidsaftey | #childsaftey | #hacking | #aihp


[Content warning: Sexual assault]

It starts like every other journey. A busy train carriage, a back-and-forth with friends in the group chat. Eyes occasionally glancing out the window as the edges of the city begin to fade. Someone sits in the seat next to yours; you shuffle towards the window to make room. It’s 7.30pm and your fellow passengers are also immersed in screens, switched off from their surroundings. The person next to you pulls out the tray table from the seat in front and places a book upon it. Instead of picking it up to read, he nods off while absent-mindedly fiddling with the straps of his bag that hang down between you. How awkward, you think to yourself, as his fingers inadvertently graze your knee.

But then, the stroking continues. You begin to wonder just how inadvertent it is as the stranger starts to move in a way that feels altogether more deliberate. Is he really asleep? You glance around the carriage, edge closer to the window. His movements are explicit now, his whole hand cups your thigh.

You text your friends. Make a joke of it. Because surely this isn’t what you think it is. Is it?

Several minutes crawl by. His hand is moving higher and higher up your thigh. You record a video of what’s happening, share it with the group. The rattle of the train around you feels louder and louder and as your friends send frantic messages of advice you begin to panic. There are still 30 minutes left of your journey.

In a municipal building in Birmingham, some 90 miles away, a steady stream of text messages come through to screens in a control room. An abandoned suitcase, someone begging on a train, a person taken ill…

“I have no idea where to report this, but some guy is touching me on the train.”

It’s 7.37pm on Monday 28 August 2023 and Jen, a 21-year-old student is being sexually assaulted on a train between Cambridge and London.

Two minutes pass as officers in the British Transport Police’s (BTP) First Contact Centre triage Jen’s message and the other reports coming into their text service, 61016. An officer replies to Jen asking for a description of the offender. Meanwhile, he alerts the control room next door. The response kicks into gear.

A few more excruciating minutes pass before Jen musters the courage to stand up and walk down the train. She continues texting the officers, providing snippets of information that later prove vital: which carriage her attacker is in – “the back of the train next to first class” – and what he is wearing – “dark trousers.”

Officers are dispatched down in London, and as Jen’s train pulls into King’s Cross, police are waiting to meet it. Jen points out the man who assaulted her.

At 8.07pm, 32 minutes after Jen texted police, the man is arrested on the platform.

A survey conducted by the BTP released late last year revealed that over a third of women have been the victim of sexual harassment or sexual offences while travelling by train or tube. Meanwhile, official report data spanning August 2021 and September 2023, shows BTP recorded 5,946 sexual offences on trains, trams and tubes across its network (“not buses, we don’t do buses – that’s for local police” – an officer later tells me) and 3,450 incidents of sexual harassment during the same period. While it’s almost impossible to know the full picture, due to a number of factors from a slow uptake in recording the correct data, to lower passenger numbers during the pandemic – reports of sexual harassment on public transport increased from an average of 7 a week to 19 a week – a 173.6% hike. The peak time for this behaviour? Rush hour, with victims being largely female and perpetrators predominantly male.

This sharp rise in reports doesn’t necessarily mean an increase in offences. BTP believes that these numbers come down to amplified awareness and a growing intolerance of sexual harassment and assault as well as a boost in consciousness of their 61016 number – the one Jen texted. You probably recognise it as the “See it. Say it. Sorted” number though, far from just a method to report suspicious baggage, it is a direct line to transport police.

Over a third of women have been the victim of sexual harassment or offences while travelling by train or tube

Jen texting that number resulted in her becoming the final piece in a puzzle that enabled a serial offender to be identified, arrested and eventually convicted and sentenced to four years and three months in prison for his crimes against women. Cosmopolitan UK cannot name him due to ongoing legal proceedings relating to further reports, but the man who assaulted Jen had also attacked four other women on that same line. Each of the women were in their twenties or late teens, each sitting by a window, unable to escape. One managed to snap a picture of him before she left the train after the assault. Another, just 18-years-old at the time, experienced a horrific and prolonged attack in which he digitally penetrated her over a period of 40 minutes while she sat terrified. Another woman saw him being arrested at King’s Cross on 28 August last year as he got off Jen’s train and told police what had happened to her. Together, their combined stories painted a picture of a repeat offender targeting lone women, operating in plain sight.


DC Mark Luker, the investigating officer in the case, explains that “When you get one report, it’s a standalone. But suddenly, when you get more, and you start to piece it together, you realise it’s part of a bigger picture. All four victims in this case gave very detailed accounts and we were able to string all four offences together and identify [the perpetrator] as a result.” But, while there’s certainly a renewed focus on keeping us all safe on our journeys, what actually happens when you text 61016? And, considering how much distrust surrounds the police at the moment, how can those texting that number know that their cases will be taken seriously, and dealt with in a way that doesn’t cause further trauma?

The final piece of the puzzle

The room is quiet aside from the determined tapping of keyboards. Around 11 officers sit at desks divided by Perspex screens, each wearing headsets and focusing on multiple computer screens, monitoring live reports coming in; 20 more are working remotely. The occasional command cuts through the silence, acronyms and numbers referring to various scenarios and required responses. It’s a Tuesday in January and I’m in the First Contact Centre – the same call centre where Jen’s report came in. Over the space of two hours, accounts come in of threatening behaviour, a trespasser on the rails, a missing person and a woman who has witnessed a schoolgirl being sexually assaulted on the Victoria line. It’s a pretty standard day for the teams. Officers assess the information coming in, then pass it over to the Control Room next door, where a flurry of activity follows as officers race to respond. How serious is this? What needs to be done next? “While all that’s going on, we’re continuing to communicate with that member of the public, updating them via text on what’s happening,” one of the managers explains.

A flurry of activity follows as officers race to respond. How serious is it? What needs to be done?

I’ve come here to shadow the officers at work, ahead of the launch of BTP’s new public awareness campaign, Your Piece of the Puzzle. It seeks to encourage victims of and witnesses to sexual assault and harassment on public transport to report. They’ve invited me to spend a morning at their Birmingham HQ, one of several locations nationwide where officers respond to reports in real time. This is just one cog in a national machine that spans several other centres just like this, as well as officers on the ground based in stations and detectives working on cases.

It’s an incredibly busy channel. 61016 is monitored 24/7 and receives roughly 20,000 text messages a month (compared with the 10,000 phone calls the BTP receives). “A text message takes around two to three minutes to respond to, including recording it and reviewing the information, compared to a call which is about 10 minutes,” the manager explains. Of course, a text also enables a victim or witness to communicate with police quietly and without being noticed.

For Jen, this service proved vital. “I’d searched online what to do. I was faffing around, I didn’t want to download an app, I just wanted to contact someone,” she tells me. Jen, now 22, admits that she didn’t realise the 61016 number was the correct route to take, “I thought it was just for terrorism or something. That’s why when I messaged them, I said I don’t know where to report this.” Jen has chosen to waive her right to anonymity as a victim of sexual assault to support the campaign, in the hope that her story will help other women come forward. “It’s relatable having a young person go through this. I know I’d pay attention to someone’s story if they were my age or younger than me,” she says.

While reporting crimes is essential in order to tackle them, the Your Piece of the Puzzle campaign comes at a time when women’s trust in police is at an all-time low. In 2021, 33-year-old Sarah Everard was murdered by serving Met officer Wayne Couzens; in 2023, serial rapist and Met officer David Carrick was sentenced; and again in 2023, the damning 363-page Casey Review found the Metropolitan Police to be institutionally racist, sexist and homophobic. There’s a lot of work to be done across all forces to regain faith in the system. Meanwhile, according to a recent YouGov survey published by Refuge of 1,051 women in England and Wales, 39% said they had little or no trust in police to handle the issue of violence against women and girls.

preview for Sexual assault on British Transport

As a result, deputy director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW) Deniz Uğur is hesitant to celebrate the campaign. “Women don’t always report this violence to the police for many different reasons including poor police responses and a lack of justice due to the way violence against women is normalised and often trivialised in society. It should not be up to women and girls to solve the issue of male violence by encouraging us to report, particularly as reporting to the police can often cause further harm to the victim,” she says, emphasising that resources should be directed into “targeting perpetrators and bystanders”, which can help to “shift harmful attitudes and tackle the root causes of this violence”.

A hostile environment

A hand on your thigh. A body pressing up against you. The uncomfortable, unflinching stare of a stranger. There’s certain behaviour that many of us have, sadly, endured as part of life as a woman. Campaigns from Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism Project to Soma Sara’s Everyone’s Invited have sought to shine a light on how widespread these offences are and how we have, for so long, brushed them off and wondered whether there’s any point in reporting them. But, in order for offenders to be caught, the police need to regain our trust.

Temporary assistant chief constable at BTP, Paul Furnell is hoping to change this by “making the rail infrastructure an environment hostile to sexual offenders”. Recent conversations around the nature of sexual offences and victim blaming have, thankfully, opened our eyes to the reality that the trope of the stranger in the dark alley and the lone, drunk, scantily clad woman is a distraction – and Furnell is awake to this. “Women don’t need to change their behaviour, it’s men and boys that need to change theirs,” he says. What he does ask of women is that they “change their thresholds”.

By this, Furnell means that women may have become hardened to certain behaviours – “and that might be because of law enforcement history, it might be about being believed or victims doubting themselves or feeling that what happened was minor and not worth reporting”, he says. “With this campaign, we want to highlight that this couldn’t be further from the truth. So, I do ask that you report anything that happens to you or that you see. And the earlier the information is shared with us, the better.” Speaking to him, and keeping EVAW’s point in mind (as well as the daily experiences of women), it’s hard not to think that the onus does, once again, fall to women to do the heavy lifting when we know that a much wider issue is at play here – a society-wide tolerance of misogyny that has enabled such brazen behaviour – like an assault on a packed train – to be conceivable in the mind of an offender. And yet, without reports, as Furnell says, there can be no arrests.

If a sexual assault can take place in broad daylight, in front of bystanders, how can women be safe?

In December last year, the story of a sex offender who raped an unconscious 20-year-old woman on the Piccadilly Line at 7.45am horrified Londoners. Police described him as “depraved”. The offender, Ryan Johnston, 37, has been jailed for nine years. I ask Furnell if women can feel safe on public transport. “Very safe,” he assures me. But I’m not so certain. While BTP and rail operators are increasingly working together since signing a “declaration of collaboration” in 2024, a number of logistical problems remain. These include a lack of guards on trains (a key pressure point for many recent rail strikes), a lack of CCTV and patchy phone signal across networks. What appalled so many people about the Piccadilly line case was not merely the heinous nature of the crime, but the fact that it took place in front of so many other commuters. And though one of those commuters came forward to testify in court – a Frenchman who had been travelling with his 11-year-old son at the time – others did nothing to intervene. If a sexual assault can take place in broad daylight, in front of bystanders, how, exactly, can anyone claim that women are safe?

BTP’s recent survey also showed that 51% of sexual offence victims say that other passengers tried to help them, meanwhile just one in five who have witnessed harassment reported it. So, what should someone who is witnessing an assault do? Graham Goulden is a former chief inspector with Police Scotland. Now, he offers bystander training and violence prevention programmes in the public and private sectors. I ask him about the Piccadilly line incident. “The responses to that were very simplistic,” he says. “How could you stand by? How could you not do something?’ But if we want people to move from the passive to the active, we need to one understand why they’re not acting, and to help them give them the tools and the confidence to do it.” He says that, “in very clear situations where harm is obviously taking place, people do speak up. We saw that in the London Bridge terror attack. But any form of ambiguity – ‘Could this be a couple? Am I really seeing this?’ – people tend to shy away.”

women travelling on train alone with police waitingpinterest

British Transport Police hope to encourage witnesses and victims of sexual assault and harassment to come forward

In the victim personal statements from Jen and two of the other women assaulted by the offender on the Cambridge to London line, the women said what had happened to them left them feeling “frozen,” and “alone”, with one saying that following the arrest, she felt “vindicated I hadn’t been making it up in my head.” Some of the women reported the incidents immediately, while others took longer to build up the courage to come forward. And while reporting is hugely important to enable perpetrators of crimes to be brought to justice, it all too often isn’t something victims and survivors feel able to do. A much larger conversation is happening, and the BTP campaign is one step towards validating women’s experiences. but systemic change – and rebuilding women’s trust in police – needs to come with it.

On my way home from the First Contact Centre, I spot a “See it. Say it. Sorted” poster. It shows a picture of an abandoned bag. I think back to my chat with Jen and how she had assumed the 61016 number was solely to raise concerns around terror offences. While I know now that there are officers on the other end of the line who will help in the event of a sexual assault, I’m also keenly aware that this kind of advertising fails to communicate that to women – and, importantly, to perpetrators. Though Jen’s story encouragingly ended with a conviction, how many others will be fortunate enough to be met by officers at the platform? How many will have had to repeat their traumatic accounts over and over only to never see their attackers brought to justice? When it comes to reporting, each person will have their individual – and just – reasons for doing, or not, doing so. And though nobody should feel pressured to report if they aren’t comfortable, especially while systemic change is still required, seeing the process of response operating first-hand when it does work in women’s favour, is comforting. As we push for change across society, there’s something bolstering in knowing that violence against women, from assault to everyday harassment is at least – finally – being recognised.


What to do if you witness harassment or assault on public transport

Violence prevention expert Graham Goulden provides his tips:

Take a beat

“I always tell bystanders to be selfish in the first few seconds,” Goulden advises. Because when you witness something like an assault or harassment on a train, you go into fight or flight mode and your brain is being hijacked by cortisol and adrenaline. And when you’re emotional, when you’re stressed, you’re less smart. So take a step back, take some deep breaths.”

Consider the options

Graham stresses that being an ‘active bystander’ does not necessarily mean stepping in. Instead, he says, “your presence is your greatest superpower.” So that might look like asking the potential victim if they are okay – “that’s a nice little probing question and it might be enough to stop what’s going on” – or turning to fellow commuters and saying “are you seeing that? Could we do something together? You don’t have to speak to the person who’s causing the harm.”

Record the scene

Other actions, such as recording with your phone, documenting what is happening or shouting out from a distance can all help a situation, says Goulden. “We shouldn’t encourage the public to do big heroic things, Because as soon as you do that, then they start to place themselves in danger.”

To report anything that makes you uncomfortable to the British Transport Police, text 61016, download the Railway Guardian app or call 0800 40 50 40. You can also report past incidents and anonymously report sexual offences at btp.police.uk.

If you’ve been impacted by any of the issues in this story, you can find support and information via Rape Crisis for free on 0808 500 2222 or visit their website.

Follow Cosmopolitan’s Features Director, Harriet Hall, on Instagram and X

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