Inside a warm, comfortable train compartment, upon the door of which is a sign featuring a picture of a doll and the word „Ladies,“ sit four elderly women and one young man. When asked if they know they happen to be in a women-only compartment, the young man seems startled. The women are also confused. The trial stage of České dráhy's (ČD) new project – a train compartment only for women – has begun.
How to deal with competition
„When a new competitor entered the rail market last year, we began to think what extras we could offer our customers,“ says Jarmila Němečková, the coordinator of ČD's women-only compartments project. In response to RegioJet, the new private rail operator set up by Radim Vančura, ČD initially considered special compartments for people with dogs and multimedia corners for teenagers before settling on the cheapest option: women-only compartments. A compartment designated only for women was popular not only with passengers, says ČD, but also with ticket collectors.
Women-only compartments aren't unknown in the history of Czech railways. Something similar existed under Communism, for instance, but extended only to sleeping cars. At the beginning of the year, ČD introduced special seating aimed primarily, but not exclusively, at women. This humble six-seater compartment spurred heated debate in the Czech media. Banning men from entering women-only compartments, opponents argued, was the kind of thing you'd find in a repressive Muslim regime. The Czech model is, however, very different. Women in a ladies-only compartment can ask a man to leave, if they desire, or call the ticket controller for assistance. But if female passengers don't object to a man sharing their compartment, he's welcome to stay.
ČD has no concrete numbers on how many women and ticket controllers called for women-only compartments. Němečková says only that there were „a lot of them,“ and that several dozen requests were filed by ticket controllers or sent in by passengers. „We were inspired by Austria's Österreichische Bundesbahnen (ÖBB), which has been offering a similar service for 15 years,“ says ČD spokesperson Petr Šťáhlavský.
The Austrians also launched women-only compartments as a result of demand from female passengers. ÖBB spokesperson Eva Ruttensteiner says they are „always occupied.“ Crimes against women weren't the main reason ÖBB introduced women-only compartments, however: „The security of female travelers was the secondary reason,“ says Ruttensteiner. „The primary reason was that female travelers kept telling us they don't feel comfortable travelling late at night in the company of men. That is why we launched ladies-only compartments during the night as well as during the day.“
Increasing the safety of female passengers hasn't been ČD's main priority either; the company has no detailed statistics on crime on trains anyway. Instead, ČD just wants female passengers to feel more comfortable. „Women often pay less attention and might miss their stop,“ says Šťáhlavský. „The ticket controller, who is based near the new ladies-only compartments, can help them get off the train, carry their luggage, etc.“
There are women-only compartments on 30 trains, mainly those travelling to Slovakia, Germany and Austria in the early hours of the morning and late at night. If there's demand, they should become a regular feature of around 90 trains from June of this year – still less than a fifth of all the trains on the ČD network.
Women don't steal?
Across Europe, women-only compartments are something of a rarity these days. Besides Austria, no other country has train compartments only for women. „It seems like a crazy idea to me,“ says RegioJet owner Radim Vančura, with amusement. „Should we start offering special compartments for men under 70 kilos then?“ His company doesn't plan to launch anything similar. „We try to ensure safe travel and comfort by having at least one employee per compartment.“
The response from groups dealing with gender issues has been mixed, too. „I don't welcome it nor do I condemn it,“ says Jitka Kolářová, project manager of Gender Studies. „There are certainly arrangements that can prevent violence toward women but what are we supposed to make of it? That men are dangerous and that no women are thieves?“
Translated by Naďa Straková