Lifelines: how train operators and Women’s Aid came together to save lives

By Andy Bagnall, Director General, Rail Delivery Group

rail to refugeRail is many things – a link to get to work or a day out, a connection to loved ones, a route to new business. For some, however, it is a lifeline.

Rail to Refuge is a joint initiative between rail companies and Women’s Aid that helps people escape domestic abuse and reach safety, with train operators covering the cost of train tickets for women, men and children travelling to refuge accommodation. The scheme saves lives. Since April 2020, train operators have provided free tickets to 1,348 people, including 362 children over five, equivalent to four survivors travelling to safety each day.

With safe refuge often a considerable distance from a survivor’s home due to a lack of local capacity and the need to be far away from their perpetrator, rail is a critical escape route for many. However, abusers’ control of money is common, leaving little cash to fund a way out. This means that, for many, free travel is a lifeline. Almost two-thirds (62%) of people who used Rail to Refuge said they would not have travelled if the journey had not been paid for.

The life-saving importance of the scheme has been recognised, with strong statements of support from Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Cornwall and Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps. There is now cross-party political momentum to acknowledge the scheme’s significance following West Lancashire MP Rosie Cooper tabling an Early Day Motion (EDM) in the House of Commons  recognising rail companies' support for those experiencing domestic abuse and raising awareness of the scheme. We hope our friends in Westminster from all parties join Rail to Refuge’s growing supporters and sign this EDM. We also ask that readers share this blog with their networks to help raise awareness.

This was not a scheme created in a board room. Rail to Refuge came about from rail companies being open to bottom-up ideas and the talent, tenacity and compassion that characterise our people across our network. The scheme was first introduced by Southeastern in September 2019, after one of their station managers, Darren O’Brien, watched a Dispatches documentary ‘Safe at Last’ about Reigate and Banstead Women’s Aid and was motivated to make a difference. GWR joined the scheme in March 2020 to offer free travel on its routes as part of its celebration of International Women’s Day. 

All train operators in Great Britain took up the initiative on 9 April 2020, initially for the length of the first lockdown, before extending it until the end of March 2021 and now committing to further support of the scheme. RDG is extremely proud to have coordinated the ongoing partnership between train companies and Women’s Aid, showing the rail industry at its best: private sector companies taking the initiative to work with not-for-profit organisations for undoubted societal good. MP Rosie Cooper describes the scheme as “a fantastic commitment from rail companies to support women, men and children who sadly experience domestic abuse and must flee their home or abuser in order to gain safety.”

The life-saving impact of Darren’s idea has been recognised by his recent meeting on 30th March with Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Cornwall, Reigate and Banstead Women’s Aid CEO Charlotte Kneer, Women’s Aid CEO Farah Nazeer and RDG’s own Seb Gordon, Director of External Communications, who was instrumental in the scheme’s national rollout. The Duchess is an ardent supporter of the scheme, and in conversation with Darren, commented: “This is a brilliant initiative. And you should feel very proud of yourself. It’s amazing during this lockdown how many wonderful ideas have been thought up... we need more Darrens!” 

Rail to Refuge is needed now more than ever. Reports show that abuse has worsened during coronavirus restrictions. Two-thirds (67%) of survivors currently experiencing abuse say that their abuser used lockdown restrictions or the Covid-19 virus and its consequences as part of the abuse.

Every day, rail staff across the country help domestic abuse survivors set out on a lifesaving, life-changing journey. It is hard to think of a more important success for the railway family.

As the Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps commented, “Extending this vital support is truly lifesaving and I thank all those working so hard to help keep people safe on our railways.” 

Survivors of domestic abuse who would like to access the scheme, or need other support, can get in touch with Women’s Aid through their Live Chat service, open Monday – Friday, 10:00am – 4:00pm, Saturday and Sunday 10:00am – 12:00pm. Once they have received an offer of a refuge place, they can access the tickets through the member services of Women’s Aid Federation of England (including Respect, which runs the Men's Advice line), Welsh Women’s Aid, Scottish Women’s Aid, and Imkaan.

If you would like to contribute to help survivors access the lifesaving support they need and help them reach refuge, please make a donation today:


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