Testing times for the BTP


There is no doubt that the BTP was transformed under Ian Johnston’s tenure. It had been a real backwater of policing, earning little respect within the rail industry and none outside it. Now it is seen as a modern police force and its strength is shown by the fact that it survived a series of reviews by various parts of the government – at one time it seemed like an annual event rather like the opening of the shooting season – not only unscathed but with a recognition that its increased budget was totally justified.

 However, the new chief, Andy Trotter, faces a different situation than his predecessor. Gone are the days when the cost of paying for the BTP were easily losts in the accounts of train operators who were enjoying consistent and impressive growth of passenger numbers. Instead, the train operators are struggling as illustrated by the collapse of National Express East Coast and losses in other franchises which, so far, are being covered by cross subsidy by the owning groups.

 There may not be another review pending, but Chief Constable Trotter will be faced with demands from the operators to, at best, maintain a steady budget or, at worst, to make cuts. Therefore it is vital that he should retain the respect of the operators which his predecessor earnt for the force.

 There is no shortage of goodwill. The operators are largely satisfied by the performance of the force and they recognise just how important it is to have a dedicated force for the railway. As one senior source in an operating company put it, ‘every time we have to deal with a Home Office force, we realise how lucky we are to have the BTP. Whenever an incident is declared by a Home Office force, it takes hours to reopen the line because they do not understand the needs of the railway.’

 The operators like, too, the fact that the BTP has made considerable efforts recently to establish good relationships on a local basis. In the past too much went through Head Office and policies tended to be set down in stone centrally, but that is no longer the case with local officers now having considerable flexibility over their role.

  Certainly, there is no question in the minds of the operators that they want the present arrangements to continue. However, inevitably, there is a ‘but’. The restrictions on spending are going to put a lot of pressure on the relationship between operators and the BTP. In particular, the operators want to ensure that their priorities are aligned.

 One source of possible friction is, ironically, the BTP’s recent success in hugely improving its detection rate. There has been a lot of focus in the force on this issue but the operators feel that this could lead to concentrating too much on offences where the detection rate is high. A case in point is the recent drugs operation at Castle Cary for the Glastonbury festival. There were a lot of easy catches there, but drugs is not seen as a major issue for the operators. They are far more concerned with unruly behaviour, drunkeness on trains and assaults on staff, on which they would like to see the BTP focus.

 That goes too, for issues which can take up a lot of the force’s time such as organised crime. While many criminals, of course, use the railway to get around the country, that is somewhat out of the force’s purview.

  Overall, despite these differences, and there are bound to be some, there is no doubt that the operators are broadly satisfed with the BTP. Nevertheless, Andy Trotter, faces two difficulties in his new position. Not only does he have to match his predecessor’s achievements, but he has to do so in an atmosphere of cutbacks and restricted budgets while satisfying the operators who are ultimately his paymasters. Not easy, but a challenge I know he is happy to face.

  • Robert Hayman

    I find these comments totally disgraceful to the men and women who have served in the Force. Stating that we were unprofessional and waste of funding. As with war veterans some people have given their lves or sustained serious injury due to their commitment to the BTP, you sir are an absolute idiot and I for one am discussed with your insinuations ans conjector.
    Shame on you and the Editorial staff who alowed this BTP bashing article.

  • Mark Spice

    I find the opening remarks to be dubious to say the least, I served with BTP from 1981 – 2001 and then 2006 – 2008 and certainly never found it to be a ‘backwater of policing’, indeed during the whole of my service the BTP grew and grew in stature earning respect from both the rail industry and the rest of the police service.

    Throughout it’s historym which predates the Metropolitan Police, the railway constabularies and British Transport Police have often led the way and the force will continue to do so over the coming years I’m sure.

    I find it alarming that this person is able to speak with authority on a subject that he so obviously has little knowledge

  • Steve Simcox

    Not for the first time have you put pen to paper and been scathing regarding the BTP.
    As someone who retired from the Force in 2006 after 29yrs I find your article to be an insult to all members of the Force (serving & retired).
    Your opening comments that the Force was a backwater that had little support within the Rail Industry and none ouside pior to Ian Johnston’s arrival is without foundation. In particular regarding respect from outside the Industry. Certainly there has always been (and will continue) to be ‘leg-pulling’ between members of HO Forces about the BTP, but at the end of the day whenever I or any of the Officers I served with worked with our HO colleagues, there was always a healthy respect forthcoming towards us because we always brought something to the table that they did not have.
    Your comments on the budget being ‘easily lost’ are ridiculous. How can you suggest that a budget which was circa £100m at the turn of 2000 can be easily lost?
    With regards to your comments on the Force’s focus on easy targets you are again wildly off target. For many years the Force has set objective’s and one of the most important has always been to provide safety and support to rail staff and the travelling public. In an ideal world there would be a BTP Officer available to patrol every train and station, but we live and work in the real world, which means doing the absolute best you can with limited resources covering huge geographical areas.
    Objectives have been met on a consistent basis. Disorderly behaviour (inc Drunkeness) has also been a high objective for the Force and continues to be so.
    Drug abuse is a major source of crime. The Force has led the way with Drugs Dogs and high profile operations to detect Users/Dealers/Traffickers using the rail system. Events such as Glastonbury attract Dealers and if the Force did not mount operations to detect your so called easy targets, it would be rightly criticised.
    To suggest that the detection of organised Criminals using the rail system is outside the Force’s mental & physical scope (purview!!!) merely goes to show how ill informed you are. It is not for me to go into details of what the Force does regarding this subject matter in a public forum but you really should take the time to investigate what the Force is doing before using clever words.
    BTP has come a very long way. It has a long and proud history. It has been a World leader in counter-terrorism for a number of years and one only has to look at the magnificent work officers did on 7/7 to see that Andy Trotter will be more than able to take the Force forward.
    I hope that you take the time to reflect on what I and I’m sure many of my colleagues will have to say on this article, and will perhaps have the decency and courage to visit the Force, spend time with the rank & file at the ‘sharp end’ where there is lot more danger than the odd paper cut or running out or invectives!

  • Is this the same Mr Wolmar who contributed to the Daily Telegraph back in the mid 1980s?. If so, he has an exceedingly poor memory. That which is cited in paragraph one is a prevarication and an insult to all who are serving or have served in the British Transport Police and is not worthy of rebuttal.

  • david woolmer

    I seem to recall in the 1980s some of us spent a lot of time uncovering and investigating corruption at senior and middle management within the British Railways Board, Hardly any wonder we didn’t any respect or the support we were due, Sorry Mr. Wolmar, but the British Transport Police was working very effectively despite massive under funding long before Ian Johnston arrived

  • Peter Edwards

    It is clear that Mr Wolmar’s only involvement with the rail industry is as an observer, and even then only during the period leading up to privatisation. He has never worked in the railway environment and his comments are based on what he has read or been told, not what he has experienced. It is therefore understandable that his articles are very similar to the views of a generation of rail managers whose only interest is profit, not a police service to the travelling public. Since 1996 the privatised rail companies have been trying to reduce or eliminate the costs of BTP in order to increase their bottom line. That is why there has been a succession of reviews since 1996, instigated by those who want to increase or sustain their profits. That is why senior rail managers want BTP to concentrate policing activity solely on crimes that affect their income. And, that is also precisely where these stories and rumours about BTP being in the “backwater of policing” and “earning little respect from the rail industry” come from. There is no doubt that Ian Johnston was a good Chief Constable and I have always had the highest regard and respect for him. I remember Eric Haslem and Des O’Brien also being the saviours of the BTP. In my 31 years experience, however, BTP has survived “in spite of” rather than “because of” a succession of so called saviours. I am always suspicious about the motive and directing mind for articles such as this. But one thing is certain. It’s all about money – don’t be fooled that its about anything else. After all, Mr Wolmar makes a living writing this rubbish.

  • David Hoare

    Christian Wolmar as we know is one of those so called ‘experts’ rolled out by the media from time to time to make supposedly ‘educated’ comment when things have gone wrong within the rail industry, train accidents etc. We see the like with past military personnel asked to comment on present day military operations – they at least have had the benefit of some ‘hands on’ experience to make their comments significant, but not always accurate, factual or even relevant. So it is with Mr Wolmars comments on the British Transport Police in which I am proud to have served between 1966 and 1997.

    Admittedly BTP officers carried a ‘personal professionalism’ which set them up as equals to any Home Department officer and in some cases more than equals, but this personal professionalism was not matched by resources / support, or rather the lack of, provided to it by the rail industry and government.

    Thankfully in latter years with the creation of a proper Police Authority funding for the BTP has been put where it always should have been, little surprise that BTP has made significant headway and I hope that it continues to do so.

    My view is and has always been that all policing in the UK should be conducted under the wing of the Home Department and not the Department for Transport or other agencies which make them subject to commercial considerations and pressures.

  • Dan

    What a bizzare set of comments! I actually read the artcle as pretty darn complimentary to the BTP (in fact it is in danger of being criticised for being far too over complimetary if anything) – clearly some of those who have served with it see things differently – but dare I say it being too close can often leave one to have the same ‘objectivity failure’ that those who have posted complain the author fails to have because he is ‘an outsider’.

    I simply speak as a tax payer and fare payer who therefore helps pay for the service. But…

    I never tend to see officers about at times when I’d want re-assurance (eg late at night) – in fact I can’t think that I have ever done so, and indeed when I tried to call at my local BTP office a couple of months ago in an evening to report some youths I’d seen trespassing on the line shortly before I could not get any sort of answer from the desk which was closed by 8pm. Yet staff seem to be deployed on ‘standing about at the station’ duties at various times during normal working hours when there are plenty of rail staff about and thus the ‘public re-assurance’ that this might be designed to offer is relatively pointless IMHO.

    Yet I’m intelligent enough to realise that there will be more to policing (BTP or HO) than this and officers will often be busy doing things behind the scenes that are critically important. But I do think it is worth stepping back to get a sense of perspective! Journalistic comment can be a good way to help that happen.

  • Speaking as an outsider myself, I agree with Dan. I thought the article was mainly positive.

    Incidentally, the BTP may pre-date London’s own Met. Police, but that’s because the early railway policemen performed basic signalling duties back in the day. The railways had extremely basic signalling systems when originally built. The “policeman” was just a chap with a flag. There was no interlocking or anything fancy: it was all done by checking the timetable. Dedicated signalling staff, signal-boxes and the semaphore signals rail buffs know and love came later.

    I agree, however, that the BTP is looking increasingly anachronistic. This isn’t a criticism of the people on the front line; my beef is with the name: “British Transport Police”. Surely such a force should be responsible for enforcing laws on *all* forms of transport in the country, not just rail? Why not expand the BTP, bring it under the Home Office’s law-enforcement wing, and give it a remit to handle crimes on all of the UK’s transport infrastructure?

    A broader training curriculum would need to be provided and the commercial TOCs, bus companies, ferry owners, etc., should contribute to that, but the advantage would be a police force which is aware of the quirks and needs of each piece of infrastructure.

  • David Breen

    Where do they find these people? Did I spend 33 years of my life working 12 hour shifts,being assaulted.sworn at,reviled,searching and removing smashed up bodies from the line, terrorist outrages in the seventies and yes, dealing with drugs issues, only to find that until the BTP were “saved” by Ian Johnstone I had been working in a backwater earning little or no respect from the rail industry..
    The fear I have is that some people will believe this ***** person.
    Mr Woolmer may specialise in Transport, he has a lot to learn about Policing the railways.
    Those who remember me from my BTP days, will be proud of me for being so restrained when referring to this article.

  • Mark Spice

    The comment about railway constables carrying out signalling ‘back in the day’ (19th century) has some truth about it – for many years signalmen were referred to as bobbies because of this but don’t run away with the idea that it was their only function, far from it, they were properly sworn officers with a proper law enforcement role and often in many parts of the country the only organised law enforcers available any where.

    I said earlier and say again, where the BTP’s predecessors led others followed, this is equally true in the 21st century – the recent introduction of PDA technology giving officers access to PNC and intelligence systems whilst ‘out and about’ being a recent example, the assertion that the BTP was and is a ‘backwater of policing’ simply is not true.

    I do agree however that it is time to bring the BTP under the Home Office, this is long overdue and expanding the force to cover all forms of transport makes sense.

  • Kay Instrell

    Like many of my former collegues I joined the BTP from a Home Office Force. To say that BTP ‘had been a real backwater of policing, earning little respect within the rail industry and none outside it’ is untrue and unsubtantiated by fact..
    The Wright Report commissioned by the Government was published in 1979/80 to compare the BTP to a similar Home Office force (Staffordshire) . BTP proved that not only were they equal to their Home Office colleagues, but they surpassed them in every measurable test on day to day policing. I suggest Mr. Wolmar reads this before making uneducated guesses about the BTP! The BTP were given pay parity as a result of the Wright report because they earned it by their effective policing.
    I was proud to be a member of the BTP and I know how respected they are amongst the rail industry (my father was a train driver) and also repected by my former Home Office colleagues.

  • Dave Wood

    Mr Wolmer,
    I have resisted sending you my gut feeling about your article as I would not wish to offend anyone else other than you.
    I agree with all the comments made so far by my ex-colleagues and I wish to add that you are obviously speaking out of simple ignorance, or have you been locked (secured) away somewhere throughout the history of the British Transport Police?
    I suggest that in future you stick to commenting about things you know about and that you assess the credibility of any sources you may use in any future article.
    I am proud to have been a member of the BTP since 1969. Up until I retired I worked for one of the most professional Police Forces in this Country -the BTP – I quote “The only police force for the railway”.
    If you wish to make comment on the BTP, do some research (that means talking to the right people) and look at how the BTP in London is actually being taken over (by stealth) by the Metropolitan Police. You will see that in the not too distant future you will rue the time you spent maligning “The only police force for the railway”.

  • Peter

    Mainly comments from a load of ex-policemen, who seem pretty pleased with the sort of job they were doing. To be honest I would say that the original article was fairly complimentary.

    My experience of the BTP is that it generally gives the local police the excuse to ignore railway crime, while rarely being in a position to deal with it effectively itself. How often for example, do you see a BTP officer on a train outside London when trouble threatens?

    In addition, given the highly variable preformance of officers who are allegedly trained to deal with rail related incidents, I suggest we’d be better off disbanding this organisation and leaving matters to local officers.

    The comments about policing at Castle Cary don’t surprise me very much. It is always easier to tick boxes and meet Home Office crime targets rather than provide what rail operators actually need.

  • Fairplay

    I seem to recall millions of Pounds of Public Money was wasted on numerous failed prosecutions, including thousands of Pounds paid to compensate individuals who were wrongly treated by one section of the British Transport Police. I heard third hand that one individual was compensated to the tune of one million Pounds. In my opinion some of the individuals involved in this one section of the BTP thought they belongedon the set of a 1980s Police Soap Opera rather than being members of a professional Police force. This is not to criticise the vast majority of BTP officers who did undertake( and no doubt continue to do so), a diligent service on behalf of the travelling public.

  • Fairplay

    For the avoidance of doubt at east one, probably more, of these failed and prolonged investigations never even progressed as far as the prosecution stage.