British Transport Police fights for its survival

It seems an anomaly to have a separate police force for transport. Indeed, the British Transport Police’s name is rather more grand than its function since it covers only the rail and underground systems, not the rest of the transport network like as motorways and airports. Given, too, that the force only has 2,200 officers, it seems miraculous that the BTP has survived as a separate entity in these days of ‘big is better’.

However, as the BTP’s chief constable Ian Johnston, points out, merging the BTP in with the 51 other forces on the mainland would not make sense: ‘We work in a very distinct environment which has all kinds of safety and training requirements. For example, it would be impossible to train all 130,000 police in the country to go on the track.’ Indeed, there has been criticism of the fact that airports are policed in inconsistent ways as responsibility rests with the constabulary in which they happen to be sited.

Johnston, a former senior officer in the Metropolitan Police is a moderniser, a new type of policeman who has done away with the stuffy habits of his predecessors as demonstrated by his regular jog to work from his station, He took the job realising he would never get to the top in the Met and clearly wants to make a difference. And he has. Rather than working against the interests of the industry he is meant to serve – as happened when his predecessor stopped 200 people leaving a derailed train at Edinburgh for several hours because they might interfere with the evidence – he has cooperated with railway companies.

One good example is the task of removing the 300 or so bodies of people killed annually by trains, the vast majority of them suicides. Before his arrival, it took over two hours to clear the track, causing major delays for thousands of passengers. Now, thanks to more efficient procedures, such as ensuring all cars have the right kit to deal with these incidents, that is down to 85 minutes and he is hoping to reduce it further.

Under his management, route crime – criminal damage and trespass on the railway – has been reduced by 10 per cent over each of the past two years. Again, that has been the result of a series of simple procedures and cooperation with the rail industry, rather than any high-sounding public initiatives.

Politically, too, Johnston has proved astute. The Home Office was considering taking away responsibility for the policing of the London Underground from the BTP. This happened in the 1990s in New York and with just 450 officers covering the Underground, the government thought it might be a sensible rationalisation. But Johnston manage to persuade David Blunkett that to separate policing of the rail and underground systems would have led to confusion at the 60 stations in the capital served by both systems and that the Met did not have the expertise to operate below ground. Instead, Transport for London is now funding a further 250 officers to patrol the Underground.

On the national rail network, though, the financial situation for the force is not so rosy. The rail companies have to pay for the force, a ridiculous anomaly left over from British Rail days. A committee determines the forces budget and since the railway companies form the majority of its members, they have been keeping a tight rein at a time when the force is facing unprecedented demands, especially in relation to terrorism. In July, a new police authority is being created which will no longer be dominated by industry representatives but it is unlikely that it will increase the force’s budget significantly. Ultimately, the requirement for the railways to pay for their own policing – compared with roads users who do not – is an anomaly which is an issue currently on the desk of Alistair Darling, the Transport Secretary.

In a way, the future of the BTP is in the hands of the terrorists. If the rail network in London or another major city suffers a bombing on the scale of Madrid, the BTP is bound to get the blame. In fact, BTP has become very adept at assessing the terrorist threat. The railways are always the number one terrorist target and over the past 10 years there have been around 7,000 ‘credible’ bomb threats. Yet, only 70 of these have resulted in a closure or evacuation and, of these incidents, half resulted in the discovery of some form of device. As Johnston puts it ‘if we stopped the trains every time there was a threat, the terrorists would have achieved their aim without detonating a single device.’

Risk assessment is the key. But if the police get it wrong just once, that will spell disaster not just for the victims but possibly for the force, too, as the media will be baying for blood. Then it will take all Johnston’s considerable PR skills to save his force.

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