Are our trains going down the toilet?

There’s a theory that women are an “indicator species” of how bike-friendly a city is. According to Deakin University’s Jan Garrard, “if you want to know if an urban environment supports cycling, you can forget about all the detailed ‘bikeability indexes’ — just measure the proportion of cyclists who are female”.

I reckon you can say much the same thing about public toilets and public transport. Good public transport systems have good toilets because good managers focus on the welfare of users. Maybe users who are given a good system take better care of it.

The idea that a major urban node like a rail station doesn’t have toilets for its thousands of daily users is simply appalling. We wouldn’t tolerate their absence in other public places like a school, a stadium or a mall.

What’s more basic than a call of nature? If you’re travelling by train and you’ve got infants that need to be changed, or pre-teens that have difficulty planning ahead, or you’re pregnant, or you’ve been on the turps, or you’ve got an aging bladder, or you or someone in your care is feeling sick, then having access to a toilet is a fundamental human necessity.

Even in Manhattan, one of the world’s great public transport oriented cities, a busy interchange station like Union Square, with tens of thousands of people passing through each day, does not have toilets accessible to the public. Dense nodes of human activity are the very places that should have toilets!

Fortunately we have toilets at major CBD stations in Melbourne, but most suburban stations don’t. According to Greens MP, Greg Barber, two thirds of stations in Melbourne do not have toilets for public use. Even some premium stations don’t open the toilets at all times, even when staffed. Mr Barber says there are 40 stations with more than 5,000 patrons per day that don’t have public toilets.

For example, Box Hill is the tenth busiest rail station in Melbourne with circa 10,400 users per day on average, however according to Wiki:

Despite being a Premium station, there are no public toilets within the station complex. Toilets for station patrons were originally located out in Main Street Mall, however, they have been closed permanently due to vandalism. Station patrons must now use the toilets provided by the adjoining shopping centre, which are only open during trading hours.

Lack of privacy is a disadvantage of public transport relative to the car, so managers should be working hard to minimise passengers’ fear they might be put in an embarrassing position. Passengers shouldn’t have to plan their travel around the risk of needing unscheduled toilet stops.

Why are there so few public toilets at rail stations? The former Minister for Transport in the Brumby Government said toilets at stations weren’t open “for good reasons: first of all for issues of security, and for issues of cleanliness, and the like”. I acknowledge it costs money to clean graffiti and repair vandalised fittings. It probably costs much more to keep toilets clean (and were toilets opened at stations I expect users would demand a high and costly standard of maintenance). But I reckon that’s just one of those base line costs, like safety, that just have to be  accepted – it’s the price of simply being in the business.

The excuse I find really odious is that toilets should be closed to prevent druggies using them. That’s really cutting off your nose to spite your face. There are other strategies for managing this problem – the Government’s promised PSOs should help – but even if toilets are used by junkies, they should nevertheless be kept open and kept in good order so ordinary passengers aren’t punished when in extremis. Travellers will doubtless avoid using toilets frequented by addicts, but they need to know they’re there when nature calls urgently and unexpectedly.

I am of course aware of the tragic incident at Roxburgh station last week, when a woman was hit and killed by a train while attempting to go to the toilet in nearby scrubland. That was a terribly sad event but I’m not arguing, as Channel 7 seemed to, that the absence of a toilet was a direct cause of her death. I don’t think that’s either fair or logical.

In a train system where the operators think about passengers’ welfare, well maintained  toilets will be available at all, or at least the great majority, of stations. To paraphrase Jane Garrard, if you want to know if a public transport system is good – if it puts the wellbeing of its users as its number one priority – then just measure the access and quality of the toilets provided for users. For that matter, sounds like it would be a good indicator of the quality of cities generally.

Update: speaking of trains and toilets – this is awful.


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5 Comments on “Are our trains going down the toilet?”

  1. Lynne says:

    There’s no evidence of users demanding a high standard of maintenance, I think you will struggle to find a nice toilet to use across the Melbourne suburban train network. Southern Cross is about the best, but they are quite a hike from the suburban platforms.

  2. In 1998 after a self funded study tour of 12 Dutch Cities taking about 200 photos and talking with the manager of the Dutch Bicycle Master Plan and collecting all the data on bicycle accidents I came to the same conclusion as Jan Garrard but the planners, road engineers and a lot pathetic bicycle tourists and they did not want to know.

    My feature articles in the cycling press, Papers at bicycle planning conferences, transport research conferences .Its so good to see Jan’s papers (Scientific American 2006) etc.

    The influence of the palnners been by and large Negative. I used tell them get on a plane get off your butt and to the Netherlands hire a bike and learn about world best practice.
    Public transport was even worse.

  3. Richard Peterson says:

    Also lacking are often sufficient seats (eg: Finders Street) and proper station clocks next to the departure board.

  4. Zen says:

    Surely the recent “exeloo” self cleaning public toilets could easily be installed on most suburban platforms or at least premium stations.

  5. Johnyboy says:

    well I have seen people go in public at stations. The pee right on the station and pee of the platform. I have seen toilets closed on south bank and people doing there business right in the yarra. I see the police wait and then bust them for doing it. If you have to go. You have to go. I was on a train in peak hour and I saw a passenger sick and he just did it in the open. Just let a big brown fudgly choc sundae go. It was horrible because the air con was not working either and the carriage wreaked. Then he walked out of the train with no pants on . ha ha.

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