Rail to Refuge, the joint initiative between rail companies and Women’s Aid in which train operators cover the cost of train tickets for women, men and children travelling to refuge accommodation, has been extended until March 2021.
The move comes as figures show that, on average, four survivors of domestic abuse a day have been using the scheme.
Reports show that abuse has worsened during coronavirus restrictions and charities are bracing themselves for a surge in people fleeing abusive relationships when restrictions are lifted. The extension will help hundreds more people to take the train, for free, to reach a safe refuge.
Since April, train operators have provided free tickets to 836 people, including 210 children. In other words, around four survivors have travelled to safety each day using the Rail to Refuge scheme.
First introduced by Southeastern in September 2019 and then GWR on its routes in March 2020, all train operators joined the Rail to Refuge scheme on 9 April 2020, with the original plan to keep it in place for approximately 12 weeks or for the duration of lockdown.
However, with refuges expecting a spike in demand after the current national restrictions are eased, the scheme is now being extended for the rest of the financial year, until the end of March 2021. This means hundreds more survivors will be able to access free travel.
The number of survivors of domestic abuse asking for help has soared during the pandemic. Women’s Aid reported a 41% increase in users visiting its instant messaging Live Chat site within the first two weeks of lockdown in March and, as a result, extended its opening hours to 10:00 to 16:00 daily. Respect, which runs the Men’s Advice Line, has increased service hours from 46 to 75 hours weekly to support male victims, after seeing a huge increase in demand since March.
Refuges expect to see the increase in demand across their services continue in the coming months as domestic abuse is worsening and abusers are using the pandemic as a tool for abuse. A recent Women’s Aid survey shows 61% of survivors living with their abuser reported that abuse worsened from March to June 2020, under tighter coronavirus restrictions.
Many survivors have experienced years of economic abuse, which restricts their practical ability to escape. Free travel can be a lifeline for people fleeing abuse who may not have access to cash. Two-thirds (63%) of people that booked a journey through Rail to Refuge said they would not have travelled if the journey had not been paid for.
Nicki Norman, acting chief executive of Women’s Aid, said: “Women face huge barriers in leaving an abuser. Not only is it an extremely dangerous time, but many survivors have experienced years of economic abuse, which restricts their practical ability to escape.
“Women tell us that they simply cannot afford to leave because the perpetrator has controlled their money and they have none of their own. Many women and children escape to a refuge with nothing at all.
“Thanks to the rail industry removing the financial barriers of travel, hundreds of women have left abusive relationships and been able to access safety. It is welcome news that this important initiative is being extended, especially as the COVID 19 pandemic continues to severely impact survivors of domestic abuse.”
Jacqueline Starr, chief operating officer of the Rail Delivery Group, added: “We’re proud to have provided a vital lifeline for almost a thousand people escaping a desperate situation, but there are still too many women, men and children that need help.
“Our staff are working hard to support the survivors of domestic abuse with free train journeys while keeping the railway running for all the people, communities and local economies that rely on it.”
Govia Thameslink Railway’s chief operating officer Steve White said: “With the numbers of survivors of domestic abuse soaring during the pandemic, charities are expecting a surge in people trying to escape to a refuge when lockdown restrictions relax.
“Abusers frequently withhold money, which is why the free train travel we offer as an industry is so vitally important for the hundreds of victims making use of this scheme.”
Survivors of domestic abuse who would like to access the scheme, or need other support, can get in touch with Women’s Aid through its Live Chat service, open Monday – Friday, 10:00 – 16:00 (10:00 – 12:00 Saturday and Sunday).
Women’s Aid has also opened a new website where people can make a donation and help survivors access the lifesaving support they need.