A rape took place almost once a week on Britain’s rail network last year – including at least two gang rapes and eight attacks on children.
Shocking Home Office figures show British Transport Police (BTP) recorded 40 rapes during 2020, one more than the previous year despite a massive reduction in travel brought about by the Covid pandemic.
BTP polices railways and light rail networks including the London Underground and Glasgow Subway. Its jurisdiction also covers stations and some attached infrastructure such as car parks, and in some large cities includes station-based hotels and even nightclubs.
The force has been unable to say whether any of the incidents took place in these additional settings.
Of the rapes recorded in 2020, 35 (88%) involved female victims and five males. They included seven attacks on children aged 13 to 15, and one on a child aged 12 or under.
Two were attacks on females of an undisclosed age involving ‘multiple undefined offenders’, which are gang rapes where the victim was unable to distinguish how many individuals had assaulted her.
Only attacks involving penetration by a penis are included. Other forms of sexual assaults are not counted.
‘Fewer bystanders and witnesses’
Dr Sian Lewis, an expert on sexual harassment on public transport from the University of Plymouth, says while the figures are shocking, “as is the case with any sexual violence it’s always going to be more than what’s reported”.
“During Covid there were fewer people travelling but that means the trains were quieter, with fewer bystanders and witnesses,” she said.
“You can assume that certain forms of assault will happen less frequently and certain forms will happen more.”
Dr Lewis added that research into sexual assault and harassment on the London Underground had shown that offences change depending on the time of day, with groping offences concentrated at rush hour and more violent or brazen offences such as flashing happening at off peak times.
The “unique” and “liminal” environments on trains – with groups of strangers confined in a small, moving space with little sense of community – can affect perpetrators’ behaviour, encourage bystander apathy, and impact the likelihood of victims to report their ordeals, she said.
“On the surface they are very regulated spaced – there’s CCTV and they appear to be controlled environments – but spatially they do encourage violence,” she said.
Rural trains, particularly where people are commuting late at night or early in the morning, may be of particular concern.
“There can be huge gaps between stops and if you know no one else is going to be getting on for half an hour, you know you have that time,” Dr Lewis said.
Lowest charge rate of any police force in England and Wales
The figures also reveal that of the 37 rape cases BTP assigned an outcome to in 2020 – which will include attacks that occurred in previous years but were still being investigated until last year – just one resulted in a charge or summons.
At 2.7%, that was the lowest charge rate of any police force in England and Wales.
Of the remaining 36 cases, 12 (32%) were closed because the investigation had been exhausted without a suspect being identified.
That was a far higher proportion than the national average of 10%.
A further 12 cases (32%) were closed because the victim did not support action being taken, although that was a much lower proportion than the 54% of cases across England and Wales that ended in similar circumstances.
The remaining 12 were closed citing evidential difficulties even though a suspect had been identified and the victim supported action being taken.
The figures suggest that victims attacked on the rail network are more likely to be supportive of investigations, but that officers find it harder than other forces to trace the culprits.
‘CCTV not owned by BTP’
Dr Lewis said BTP can struggle when gathering CCTV – often seen as core to investigations – because they need specific time frames and locations such as a carriage number in order to request it.
“The CCTV is not owned by BTP, they have to request the footage from the train companies or the station,” she said.
“It takes time and time is often of the essence. The CCTV might be wiped after 24 hours, or after 72 hours, but if you think about trauma, people might not be reporting immediately and by the time they do it’s gone.”
More needs to be done to raise awareness among criminals that the police have ways of catching them, she said, with successes tracking down attackers well publicised.
Detective Chief Inspector Sarah White of BTP said the force worked tirelessly to tackle sexual violence on the rail network, and it is still investigating nine of the cases reported in 2020 – although the remainder have been closed without charges.
"Others have been closed due to evidential difficulties, withdrawal of support by the victim, or the death of a suspect following a historic report,” she said.
"Our officers work extensively to gather evidence to support prosecution and only 20% of those reported to us were closed without a suspect being identified.
"However, all closed cases are subject to a full investigative review by specially trained senior detectives, and will be considered for further review in the future as technology and investigative tactics develop.
"We are absolutely committed to reducing sexual offending on the rail network, and victims and survivors remain at the heart of our strategy.
"We are working tirelessly to deter and identify offenders, increase positive judicial outcomes, provide increased reporting mechanisms and engage with victims on how we can improve.
"We would urge anyone who has been a victim of rape or any other sexual offence to report it to us in the confidence that we will extensively investigate and do everything possible support them.”