The British Transport Police looks after Britain’s rail network including the London Underground, Docklands Light Railway, Midland Metro tram system, Croydon Tramlink, Sunderland Metro and the Glasgow Subway.
Modern technology and traditional visible policing reassure staff and passengers and have led to a reduction in crime of 9.1% over the last 12 months. This enviable result has been achieved by 2,852 officers covering a beat 1,000 miles long and looking after six million people who are almost all on the move.
The history of railway policing is dramatic, reflecting the social discord of the times but also testifying to the pioneering spirit of a constabulary making full use of innovation, new technologies and skills.
Sir Robert Peel may have grabbed the headlines with his creation of the Metropolitan Police in 1829, however the railway police came into force soon after. In November 1830, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway set up a ‘Police Establishment.’ A year later the LMR authorised a pay rise for the railway police.
These forerunners of the BTP had to cope with widespread lawlessness on railway construction sites, often descending into armed battles between English and Irish
navigators. Order was often only restored with the boisterous assistance of nearby infantry regiments. Happily relations with track workers are much more circumspect nowadays.
Safety was always central to the role of the police right from the start. Watches, flags and lamps were issued to each constable and the Ulster Railway Police were equipped with a shovel and a wheelbarrow to help remove obstructions from the line. Today all officers are PTS passed and fully trained in railway safety.
The railway was quickly taken advantage of by hard-nosed criminals. Railway police however were often one step ahead, making full use of new technology. On 1st January 1845 a railway police sergeant, William Williams, arrested John Tawell for the murder of his lover, Sarah Hart.
Tawell had poisoned the girl and fled by train from Slough to London. An eyewitness told the station master what had happened. The man promptly telegraphed the railway police at Paddington. Sergeant Williams set off in pursuit. Tawell was subsequently convicted and hanged.
Following the 1856 County Police Act local police forces became better organised. On the railways some companies kept their police, others tried to do without. Crime remained a problem, particularly fare evasion, and the wisdom of having a special police force was generally accepted.
From 1900 several railway companies reorganised their police forces. The London, Brighton and South Coast Railway virtually reformed their force from scratch, followed by the Great Eastern, the North Eastern and Midland in 1910, Caledonian in 1917 and the GWR in 1918. As with almost all county and borough forces these reorganised forces were headed by ex-army officers.
The First World War put great strain on railway policing. Almost half the officers on some forces joined up. The staff shortage was made up by special constables and women officers. The Great Eastern Railway Police recruited women as special constables, one of the first police forces to do so.
After the war came the amalgamation of Britain’s 100 railway companies into the Big Four: Great Western Railway, London and North Eastern Railway, London, Midland and Scottish and the Southern Railway.
The companies were largely divided along geographical lines. Twenty railway police forces were absorbed into the new companies. Each force was controlled by a chief of police. During the Second World War the railway police were armed and their numbers increased. Women officers were back and stayed on.
Often unreported was the high level of crime during the black out, largely because of food rationing or bombing. Vast numbers of goods were carried by rail and were easy targets for thieves. Police also had to cope with the air raids and direct hits on stations and railways.
British Transport Commission Police
After the war the railway was nationalised in 1947. The railway police forces were merged into one as the British Transport Commission Police in 1949. The London Transport force joined in 1960. Pay parity with civil police was only achieved in 1957.
Shortly afterwards the Maxwell- Johnson enquiry found that policing the railways could not be done effectively by civil forces and that it was essential that a specialist police force was retained.
Certainly some of the stories ex- officers relate are, literally, hair raising and could only have been handled by experienced railway police. In his book, ‘Railway Copper,’ Bill Perkins – who served from 1951 till 1984 – recalls a man sticking his head out of a train and being hit by a locomotive coming the other way.
The man staggered down Barking Station blood pouring from his head. The man was bundled into an ambulance. No one expected him to live and Perkins arranged for the engine to be intercepted and inspected in anticipation of an inquest.
Then the hospital phoned up and said if the top of the man’s scalp could be found they could sew it back on. BTP at Fenchurch Street clambered around the loco and found the article. Officers sped round to the hospital in a car. The man lived to tell the tale and resume normal life.
The 1970s and 80s were plagued by football hooliganism. Rival fans fighting pitched battle on railway stations. International terrorism remains a clear and present danger. However, the BTP is better equipped than ever before. At privatisation the fate of the BTP was again a subject for heated discussion. However, the force continues and is now funded by the industry itself rather than the tax payer.
The presence of a BTP officer on a station remains an enduring testimony to a railway that is safe and comfortable. Few recognise the hard work that goes in to policing Britain’s railways or the debt owed to former officers over a span of 180 years.
What we do
Andrew Trotter became Chief Constable in 2009, having joined BTP in 2004. Trotter had previously served with the Metropolitan Police. He represents a police force that boasts several firsts.
The BTP was the first force in Britain to use a computer to record crime. Railway police pioneered the use of police dogs to hunt down criminals. Women police officers made their first appearance as railway police.
Says Andy Trotter, ‘BTP has all the attributes of any other police force dealing with the full range of crime incidents from murder to by-laws and we have to do all of the checks and balances of any police force having professional standards departments being subject to HMI inspections.
‘But I think uniquely we work in the private sector and we provide a public sector policing with a full range of services in a world where we are funded by the rail industry.’
Dealing with disaster
In 1989, an inquiry by Sir Anthony Hidden QC massively influenced how BTP deals with major incidents. The investigation looked into the Clapham Junction rail crash – a three-train collision which claimed the lives of 35 people.
The emergency incident training given to BTP officers up and down the country was born out of the Clapham tragedy. Serious rail accidents at Southall (1997), Potters Bar (2002) and Grayrigg (2007) saw BTP put into practice specialist techniques honed to deal with fatal incidents on the railway.
The London bombings in 2005 saw BTP’s London officers facing their toughest terrorism challenge. The actions of the 7/7 suicide bombers killed 52 people – many of whom were travelling on the London Underground near Edgware Road, King’s Cross and Aldgate.
Events in 2005 forever changed how BTP officers approached disaster scenes and more importantly the methods they use to prevent similar incidents from happening.
Stop searches were immediately stepped up. A community engagement programme was put in place. BTP’s Special Branch began to work closely with regional counter terrorism units.
Officers began to receive training to help spot suspicious behaviour in crowds. The object is to identify a potential suicide bomber by monitoring his or her actions.
Chief Constable Trotter led the Metropolitan Police’s operation at Ladbroke Grove alongside BTP. The Ladbroke Grove crash happened on 5 October 1999. 31 people died and more than 520 were injured.
‘One of the first things I did when I came here (to BTP) was look into major incident training, critical incidents and a whole range of other things like that. There was an enormous amount we had to do,’ says Trotter.
‘I think innovation and flexibility is very much our watch word. I don’t feel we’re bound by the way other people do business. We look very closely at the way we deal with bomb threat categorisation, suspect packages, things which were bringing the rail system to a halt and that’s been utterly transformed.
‘The way we deal with matters now is far more scientific in its background and we’re quite rigid with how we apply it. We’ve looked at the way we deal with fatalities and other areas of disruption and we’ve made a massive difference. Just in the last year we’ve reduced delayed minutes on the system hugely through our disruption strategy. This year alone, April to September, on Network Rail’s calculations we’ve saved £11 million worth of lost minutes. There’s real focus, the fact that we challenge all the time. We don’t just keep doing things the same way.’
Metal and cable theft has grown and with it the number of delays on the network and the replacement cost to Network Rail. It’s a problem so extensive that a joint operation between BT, the UK Border Agency, the serious organised crime unit at Network Rail and BTP has been launched to gather vital intelligence to combat metal theft.
Andy Trotter believes that thanks to this coordinated effort and additional investment from the government BTP is now beginning to win the war against metal thieves, with the number of reported metal thefts falling by 51 per cent between April and October 2012 compared with the same period last year. ‘We’ve taken over the national lead for metal theft. We’ve now managed to have operations across the country and the situation has been utterly transformed. We’ve also seen a significant reduction in metal theft.’
It remains a struggle, not least because of the ease with which stolen metal can be sold on. ‘We’ve got to choke this off because it’s the only trade where you can reduce the stolen property into something completely unrecognisable before its arrival at a dealer.
‘My nervousness is that the international economy is a bit depressed, copper prices are down a bit at the moment. We’ve got to really keep hammering to make sure that when things pick up again there isn’t a resurgence because it’s absolutely vital to keep this country on the move.’
More passengers, more crime
Trotter believes rail’s growth in the UK presents BTP with a major challenge, ‘When I joined, BTP was not in a good place. It was pretty well underfunded and even with very good staff was not performing particularly well.
‘Between myself and Ian Johnston and the excellent staff that we’ve got and quite an injection of cash from the rail companies, I think the organisation has been transformed since then.
‘Crime is down for the eighth year running, there’s been a huge increase in passenger numbers and what we’re facing in the future is an enormously successful railway.
‘It’s great news that we’ve got more and more people using the railway, but we’ve got to constantly adapt, to be aware of the new challenges and always look at where we can be flexible to deal with the demand of the industry and passengers.’
The BTP may be just like any other force in terms of legal status, power and technology. However it remains an integral part of the railway industry and most people on the railway remain proud and staunch supporters of their police force.
Written by Marc Johnson and Andy Milne