Quiet Carriages are an Autistic lifeline. Please don’t take them away.

South Western Railway have announced that they may be looking to scrap quiet carriages/zones on their trains. They say that this is because they cannot be properly policed, and as such they are entering into a period of consultation with customers on the future of these carriages. 

Now, I’ve written about quiet carriages before. However, that was more of a lament against the people who do not take the rules of the carriage seriously. It was not a desperate plea to save these carriages (if one company does away with them, I have no doubt that the rest will be quick to follow). 

That is what this is. 

Quiet carriages are absolutely a lifeline for disabled people like myself: autistic people, people with sensory processing disorders, people with anxiety, deaf people (of all levels of hearing impairment) and various other people of varying levels of disability and neuro-atypicality. We can be in employment, we want to be in employment, but that often means an unavoidable commute on a crowded train. Some days, the relative quiet promised by these carriages is the only reason I have the emotional energy to succeed at work. 

I think the main issue with quiet carriages/zones is that they are framed as being for ‘people who like a bit of peace and quiet on the train’ (this is a direct quote from my train line, as I sit typing this in one of the aforementioned carriages). And in framing it as a ‘being nice’ issue, rather than a ‘this is a necessity’ issue, we face two major problems, which I will address separately: 

  • People will feel less obligated to follow the rules.

If a policy is put in place for the sake of mere preference – an option for people to take if it makes them a little more comfortable – then it is no wonder that these rules are seen by most as arbitrary. It would be more pleasant for them to do this, but there is no obligation – it’s more of a suggestion that could herald a positive or a negative response. 

This creates a self -perpetuating problem – as people do not see it as a serious issue, so they do not feel a moral obligation to do as asked, so more people ignore it, so it inevitably becomes incredibly difficult to police. We would have a similar problem with disabled access parking if they were labelled as ‘for people who prefer a shorter walk to the entrance’. As it is, we do have a problem of abled people parking in disabled spaces, but framing them as a disability issue means many people take those rules seriously, thus cutting the pressure of policing it. 

Unlike disability parking spaces, quiet carriages are not exclusively for disabled or neurodiverse people. But they are incredibly important for us in a way that they aren’t for other commuters. And this should be highlighted as an effective way to lessen the need to ‘police’ those spaces. 

  • Train companies, customers and news outlets will not perceive this in terms of disability access.

    If the fact that quiet carriages are important spaces for disabled people is not visibly and unquestionably displayed, the issue will not be considered by anyone except those directly involved. And that failure to address it on a wider scale leads to situations like the one we now find ourselves – the main stream media covering the story with no mention of the disability access complications, and the train companies putting the issue up to what is essentially a public vote.

    In case anyone was uncertain, the rights of the marginalised minority should not be decided by the whim of the unaffected majority. The recent plebiscite on marriage equality in Australia stands as a prime example. 

    Of course, this could be argued to be a more trivial issue. But the basic principle remains the same: if you are swayed by the people with the least stake in the issue, you leave the people for whom the stakes are highest in a vulnerable position. That’s not to say that the general populace can’t have and voice an opinion in the debate. But the conversation should be unquestionably built around those of us who need it.

    Research undertaken by The National Autistic Society found that just 16% of autistic adults are in full time, sustainable employment. A number of these people will not be able to work, and this is not to diminish them and their right to exist in this world regardless of their contribution to capitalism. But those of us who can, and who want to, work already face an uphill struggle. You can put measures in place at home and at work, but the bit in between is different. Gone are the days of getting a nice job around the corner- if you want to work, you most likely have to travel. And if you have to travel, a large portion of that will probably be on public transport.

    Surviving as an autistic person is a balancing act between adjusments that you make to yourself and adjustments that you ask that others make for you. 

    A quiet carriage is that nice middle ground: it is one carriage, surrounded by many others, and it can be used by anyone who wants to use it regardless of neurotype. Those who want some quiet, and those who need some quiet, and then plenty of space for those who want neither. It’s that rare almost-perfect balance. 

    Something relatively small can have an amazing impact on myself and others. It allows me to commute into and around the busiest city in the country on top of working a full day in the middle. 

    The problem lies not with the carriages themselves. The problems lies in the framing and, as a result, understanding of those carriages. 

    We need a small shift in language and awareness surrounding quiet carriages.

    We need this to be understood as a disability access issues. 

    We need those quiet carriages. 

    Please don’t take them away. 

    Author: QueerlyAutistic
    Erin Ekins is a queer autistic writer, speaker and attempter of activism. She has an interest in all areas of autistic social justice, but has a particular passion for improving understanding and acceptance of the intersection of autism and queerness. She runs the blog queerlyautistic.com and is the author of the upcoming book 'Queerly Autistic: The Ultimate Guide for LGBTQIA+ Teens on the Spectrum'. By day, she works in campaigning and influencing at a disability related charity, but, by night, she is inhabits a busy space between angry internet person and overly-excited fangirl.

    3 thoughts on “Quiet Carriages are an Autistic lifeline. Please don’t take them away.

    1. An excellent compellingly argued piece on why train companies need to reframe their narrative on ‘quiet coaches’. And yes, we definitely need to keep quiet coaches it is an issue of equality and diversity.

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