Train ban inflames smokers' passions

THEY looked like unlikely demonstrators. Cuff-linked, trilby hatted, a briefcase in one hand, an overcoat hung over the other.

They even admitted as much. 'This is the first demonstration I've ever been on,' said one. 'It is the first subject I have ever felt passionate about.' The tips of his fingers revealed the extent of his passion. They were stained nicotine yellow.

As of 1 January, smoking is being progressively banned on many Network SouthEast trains, including the Kent Coast route. Angered at the decision, which demonstrators claim is authoritarian and 'discriminatory', 30 or so commuters have scraped together a smoking collective in an attempt to reclaim their old territory - the third carriage from the end of the 8.24am from Tonbridge to Charing Cross.

The commuters say their law-breaking tactics are a last resort. They have tried petitioning - with one commuter collecting 150 signatures in four days - but Network SouthEast has been unresponsive. 'They didn't even acknowledge my efforts,' Gordon Leak, a commuter who usually enjoys two cigarettes on the 40- minute ride, said.

'I pay pounds 2,000 a year for my train ticket and yet here they are taking away my right to smoke on some kind of whim. The custom of this carriage of smokers alone is worth pounds 100,000 a year to Network SouthEast. The least they can do is set aside one carriage in twelve for people who wish to smoke.'

For the purpose of the 8.24am rebellion, a poster had been propped up against the window of the third carriage. 'Give smokers their space,' it said. 'This is a customer designated smoking area.' Inside, self-conscious commuters smoked more than twice their usual ration.

'It has been a jolly ride,' Lord Harris of High Cross, who had been invited by Forest - a smokers rights group financed by the tobacco industry - said. 'We have had non-smokers joining us just to give a bit of support. At one point the guard came along and said: 'It is my job to tell you that you are in a non-smoking department.' We explained that we were asserting out libertarian rights and he said: 'That is all right, sir. I quite understand. I'm a smoker too,' and walked away.

'The point we are trying to make is that the majority doesn't have to rule the roost. People should remember this is a free society.'

A spokesman from Network SouthEast said the company had no intention of reversing its decision to ban smoking. 'Our policy of non-smoking reduces the cost of maintaining and cleaning the trains,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)