Earlier this year British Transport Police released details and CCTV images of a group of youths trespassing on the railway track during the school holidays, at Addlestone railway station in Surrey. The three youngsters were caught on camera, entering the station in the small hours, tossing a bin onto the track and removing a metal wheelchair ramp.
Having taken their leave, the youngsters returned later, only to re-enter the track and place the ramp on the live rail, sending up a dense shower of sparks. Fortunately, there were no trains running at the time.
British Transport Police could only release the CCTV images and send a strong public message, underlining the number of reports of such incidents during the school holidays and reminding people that trespassing on the railway not only endangers lives but is also a criminal offence, carrying a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
Network Rail report having to suffer 28 million incidents of trespass each year, leading to approximately 60 deaths and many more injuries. While eleven million trespassers will be children, a proportion will be as young as five.
A recent review of the problem of trespassers on the railway by Woking-based metro and rail consultancy, Touchstone Renard (just down the line from Addlestone), revealed the worldwide character of the rail trespasser problem.
From sources including international railway companies, trade associations, government departments, rail safety bodies and commissions, the figures compiled, evidencing the extent of trespasser deaths on the railway, made depressing reading. Various countries are earnestly seeking solutions to the problem with the UK and Canada appearing to be at the forefront of these efforts.
It is a common theme internationally that, by far the majority of railway deaths occur as a result of accidental or deliberate trespass. The number of European trespasser fatalities peaked in 2006, with over 2000 suicides and 800 accidents reported involving trespassers. Deaths on the track across Europe, unconnected with trespassing, brought the total of fatalities to just under 3800.
A rail trespasser death can be viewed from a range of perspectives. It is inevitably a tragic loss of life with a consequent impact on friends and relatives of the deceased. For the rail operator, however, it means trauma to staff, customers and members of the public; delays caused by Police and emergency service interventions; substitution of staff and rolling stock; delays to other trains; sickness absences from work; and administrative and legal implications. Then there are the serious and costly knock-on effects that other organisations involved have to suffer.
Anyone despairing of a rail trespasser’s death, whether or not from a commercial viewpoint, will almost certainly find themselves posing the same question: could it have been prevented?
Railway trespassers typically include those taking a chance and crossing the tracks; passengers who leap from a moving train – perhaps to avoid a ticket inspector; those deliberately entering to commit suicide; and, of course, reckless vandals and foolish youngsters – as evidenced in the Addlestone incident – playing chicken and causing mayhem, just for the fun of it.
It is perhaps stating the obvious to say that, a track at ground level and not screened in any way, makes trespassing easier. Although most deaths occur away from stations, the layout of a station complex can lead to ‘innocent’ trespasser deaths – for example, if the position of a station and level crossing with several tracks converging encourages passengers to chance crossing the lines when running for their train.
In some regions of the world, trespass on the railway is somehow embedded in the national culture, with the risk seemingly going unrecognised or deemed worthwhile. Nomadic people will wander onto the railway and others, who are part of the same area’s mainstream, up-market society, will drive onto a level crossing in the face of an on-coming train, oddly believing that they have right of way.
Canada and Australia have to deal with derailments caused by inter-state tankers crossing the railway lines, with high-speed locomotives bearing down. In Switzerland, the pressed snow between the tracks can prove too tempting for cross country skiers to resist – even if the mountain train driver lets out a warning toot, a trespasser hampered by skis cannot move sideways quickly enough to avoid certain death.
The only way to stop trespassers altogether is to seal off the track. Metro systems can, of course do this by incorporating sliding platform doors – as they do so successfully on London’s Jubilee line. However, high, line-side, open-air fencing or screening is expensive. The UK does better than most with this but, in vast countries with state borders – such as Australia – consistency and effectiveness depend upon co-ordinated action by governing bodies and rail organisations. In some regions of the world, more tunnels and bridges are being constructed to keep people away from the track but these initiatives are costly and often need to be driven by politics or culture.
Preventative or deterrent measures in the UK primarily include a combination of line-side fencing, signs, legislation and education of young people, the last of which is advanced through national initiatives supported by leading organisations, such as the Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB), Network Rail and the British Transport Police.
Trackoff is an educational website (www.trackoff.org
), owned and funded by RSSB, aiming to provide railway safety educational resources to schools and organisations working with children and young people in the classroom, through the National Curriculum. Another RSSB national programme is MusicTRAX, exploiting the key role that music plays in the lives of young people, offering competitions and events, whilst conveying key railway safety themes.
Network Rail also makes a significant contribution by running the No Messin! programme of activities for children each summer in UK railway crime hotspot areas (www.no-messin.com
Of course, as the Addlestone incident shows, British Transport Police invests considerable energy and resources into the trespasser problem, particularly seeking to deter and educate children. Other worldwide initiatives range from policies requiring the simple blast of the locomotive horn and flashing of lights to sophisticated surveillance camera and detection equipment.
Phil Austin is managing director of Touchstone Renard.
Tel: 01483 763 123