Rail 392: Industry, Whitehall and courts must act to vanquish vandals

With three incidents involving vandal damage to trains every day, a catastrophe is in the making on the railway. CHRISTIAN WOLMAR urges the industry, the Government – and the judicial system – to put the vandalism problem at the top of their agenda before it is too late.

A disaster is looming on the railways. Well before Ladbroke Grove, it was quite predictable that the lack of concerted attention in the rail industry to Signals Passed at Danger (SPADs) was likely to cause a major accident. Now the same thing is happening again with vandalism. One does not need to be Nostradamus to predict that vandalism has a very strong chance of being the cause of the next serious accident on the railway.

At the press conference on the 1999/2000 rail safety statistics earlier this month, Bill Callaghan, Chairman of the Health and Safety Commission, said as much: “It’s only a matter of time before an act of vandalism results in a fatal accident.” Of course, there have been a few such deaths in the past, the most recent being the two people killed at Greenock in 1994 when vandals put concrete blocks on the line.

There have been lucky escapes, too. Last September, a dumper truck placed on the line at Aberdeen was hit by an Aberdeen-Inverness train at more than 60mph, but fortunately the driver managed to scramble through the vestibule and no-one was killed. In 1992, three metal benches from Berkhamsted station were placed in the path of an InterCity train which fortunately stayed on the rails.

The statistics make dramatic reading. On average, there are three incidents a day on the railways where a train is damaged by vandals, and one of these involves an object being placed on the line. The Rail Passengers’ Council in its annual report, also published this month, expresses great concern at the HSE’s figures which show three-fifths of train accidents are caused by vandalism or trespass. Simply by the law of averages, one of these incidents is likely to result in a catastrophe sooner or later.

It would be easy to throw one’s hands up in the air and say that it is impossible to do anything much about this. Indeed, in some respects the task of the railway industry in preventing such incidents seems insuperable. Nobody can keep an eye on 20,000 route kilometres and, while good fencing is a deterrent, it is never 100% effective and there are limits to the amount of money which can be spent on it.

To be fair, the industry is doing quite a lot already. A teaching pack on the dangers of trespassing on the railway has been sent to 25,000 schools and followed up with more than 1,000 talks. The target group, interestingly, is the 11 to 14-year-olds, who are the most likely offenders, whereas a few years ago it was those aged 15-18. The Rail Industry Advisory Committee created by the HSE has produced a good practice guide on preventing trespass and vandalism – ‘T&V’ as it is called in the industry.

However, there is not enough urgency about ‘T&V’. A recent internal Railtrack conference on risk around driver issues didn’t even have it on the agenda until belatedly someone pointed out the gap. With three incidents a day, it should really be treated as a top priority within the industry and a national emergency by the Government. For example, the HSE says it does not have enough inspectors to work on preventative schemes because of demands resulting from the tighter procedures on SPAD prevention. That is a typical example of how organisations are always tackling yesterday’s problems rather than trying to anticipate tomorrow’s but it is also illustrative of the lack of resources available to deal with the issue.

Much of the spending – £20m a year – goes on fences. The HSE is, indeed, taking EWS to court over its failure to properly secure its Toton sidings which resulted in the death of a 12-year-old boy. But fences alone will only ever be a deterrent and they are not the ultimate solution. It is a curiosity of the British attitude to the railways that whenever a trespasser gets on the line, there is an immediate tendency to blame the rail companies, mostly Railtrack. In France, in contrast, people give a Gallic shrug and say it’s their fault. It is not fencing that will change the culture of vandalism – indeed, it may even partly stimulate it by separating the railway from the community – but a change in attitude initiated by education.

The industry needs to look beyond the immediate issues of repairing fences and putting out information packs. Trends like the destaffing of stations, oneperson operation of trains, closure of small signalboxes and introduction of automatic level crossings have all reduced the number of people keeping an eye on the railways. The potential risk of a disaster caused by vandalism ought to be factored into any decision to remove staff in this way and, indeed, ought to be considered as a reason for increasing the number of people on the railways. Placing CCTV cameras in vandalism hot spots, which may be nowhere near a station, ought to be considered, but at stations they are never a substitute for the real thing.

There is a wider point here, too, about social exclusion. The railways are always going to be vulnerable because they are so easy to sabotage or wreck. Privatisation has not helped. While it is unlikely that many vandals have noticed rail privatisation, they may have picked up on the greater hostility to the railways because of the public perception that they are being run for profit rather than social benefit.

Vandalism is, partly, a price we pay for an unequal society. If we continue to have social policies which do not address the problem of having a socially excluded underclass which includes large groups of young men who see no future for themselves in society, then vandalism is bound to continue to increase. That is not to excuse the vandals, but merely to explain the phenomenon. The best way of trying to prevent this disaster is for the Government to redouble its efforts on social exclusion as well as promoting all the ideas mentioned above and having a real sense of urgency about the issue.

That is not to say we should be soft on vandals. Indeed, while I am not normally a member of the ‘hang ’em and flog ’em’ brigade, I suggest the Home Office ought to think about issuing a directive for magistrates and judges to take a very hard line on these type of offences, pour encourager les autres.

Red tape is disabling

Making trains accessible for people with disabilities is one of those ‘motherhood and apple pie’ concepts which are universally seen as ‘A Good Thing’. Quite right, too. No-one questions that the disabled should be able to use public transport easily.

Indeed, making buses and trains more accessible for them has many side benefits, such as helping parents with pushchairs, less mobile older people and those with shopping or luggage. Therefore, it is very difficult to write objectively about issues concerning accessibility on trains without incurring the wrath of the very strong lobby for the disabled. But here goes.

The rules governing accessibility of trains are contained in the Rail Vehicle Accessibility Regulations published in 1998 following the passing of the Disability Discrimination Act in 1995. And they don’t make exactly easy reading. Try this for size: door controls must have a control device “not less than 700mm and not more than 1200mm vertically above an imaginary horizontal line extended from the door of the relevant doorway”. The device must also be “operable by the palm of the hand exerting a pressure not exceeding 15 newtons”. (A newton, by the way, is a force which, acting for one second on a mass of one kilogram gives it a velocity of one metre per second.)

Not surprisingly, no rolling stock complies precisely with all the regulations and even more arcane amendments have to be introduced to exempt operators. So, Statutory Instrument 2000 No. 2050, which came into force on August 22 and is called the ‘Rail Vehicle Accessibility (Connex South Eastern Class 375 Vehicles) Exemption Order 2000’, exempts Connex from six regulations for various lengths of time, from just four months to more than 11 years.

Connex is exempt until the end of this year from the specification that the audible warning device for doors will emit a different sound if it is operated by a passenger than when it is operated by a member of the traincrew. However, it is not until December 31 2011 that Connex will have to remedy the fact that the buttons controlling the doors do not comply, for some reason that is impossible to divine from the regulations.

All this sounds like a good laugh but actually the very detailed and prescriptive nature of the regulations is a major headache for the industry. While the regulations were being drawn up in 1996/97, the industry’s eye was off the ball because of privatisation and franchising and, according to one insider, a raft of regulations were allowed to go through without any proper appraisal from the industry of what they would mean.

While this is bad enough, there is now talk about ensuring that any vehicles which are refurbished will have to comply. This will have a perverse effect. Operators will consider it not worthwhile to implement all this paraphernalia and therefore they will retain the stock in its existing condition rather than renew it – patch-and-mend instead of renewal. And, of course, without refurbishment, the stock will remain completely inaccessible.

So the SRA will have to convince the Disabled Passenger Transport Advisory Committee of the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions not to go down this path and persuade ministers to allow for permanent exemptions. It will not be an easy task, as the disability lobby is extremely strong. But, sometimes, politicians have to be brave and stand up to such pressures.

The key message should be this: the industry should be working towards making all rolling stock accessible at a reasonable cost but not necessarily strictly compliant with all this nonsense.