What is Alistair Darling playing at? The transport secretary gave a widely trailed speech yesterday confirming that airport style scanners would be installed for a trial period at Paddington station to check rail passengers using the premium rate Heathrow Express service.
In the speech, Darling admitted that it was impossible to check all the 3 million passengers who use the railways every day, let alone the similar number using the London Underground and the millions getting on buses. Yet, he said, we must do everything to try to make the system safer and therefore it was his duty to ensure his department tried out this equipment. What nonsense! The practical difficulties make this whole charade a non starter. Darling admitted that rather than make any attempt to search all the passengers going into the system at 2,500 stations across the country, a few people would be selected for searches at Paddington station.
And that raises the first problem. Does the security staff target likely looking suspect – in other words young men of Asian appearance – or they randomly pull out anyone, including grannies and toddlers? When the British Transport Police chief, Ian Johnston, said in the aftermath of the July 7 bombings that his force would not go round searching white old ladies, there was an outcry. Similarly, if such a policy were adopted permanently, there would be considerable resentment in the Asian community.
Then there are practical issues. Since this trial has been widely trailed and terrorists tend to read the papers like the rest of us, then clearly not much is likely to be found when the searches are made at Paddington. But what if a suicide bomber happened to be selected for a random search? Given that there is bound to be a queue of people waiting to be checked, wouldn’t that be the perfect opportunity to cause maximum carnage by blowing up the bomb at that moment. Darling’s message was contradictory. On the one hand he was saying that we should go about our daily business as usual and all flock to the shops in Oxford Street. But on the other, he was implying that going on a train was so dangerous that, in an ideal world, everyone ought to be frisked and possibly strip searched before hopping on the 8 03 to Basingstoke.
What he has underestimated is the stoic nature of the British people. Sure, suicide bombers are a nastier breed of terrorists than their predecessors, but the old type like the Irish who attacked London and the rest of the mainland for two decades still wreaked death and destruction. And after they struck, we used to dust ourselves and get back on the trains and buses the next day, just as London continued functioning during the Blitz.
Most people are clever enough to realise that while there is a tiny risk of being killed by terrorists, they are far more likely to be hit by a car or fall off a ladder doing DIY. Of course there could be another attack, but we have to accept that the railways and London Underground are an easy target.
Rather than sounding off about security issues, Darling should have kept his mouth shut. As one security expert said yesterday, ‘if we are fighting the war against terror at railway stations, then it is lost’. The only way of trying to stop terrorist attacks is through gathering intelligence and educating passengers on public transport so that they are prepared to report their suspicions to the authorities. That is a matter for the Home Office, not the Department for Transport. He may have been seduced by the large number of security firms trying to sell their wares and cash in on the July 7 bombings. There is talk of CCTV cameras that automatically detect suspicious behaviour by spotting if someone is loitering around and X-ray scanners that could see through crowds of people. There was even the suggestion that there should be an army of Fred Bassetts, explosive sniffing beagles at every Underground station. Most of this technology is still in fantasy land and, in any case, the whole notion is madness. Security experts reckon that scanning everyone going into the Underground system would require a staff of 50,000. The mainline rail network with 10 times the number of stations would require far more.
A couple of weeks ago, another crazy idea was leaked from the Department for Transport, the suggestion that rail passengers should not be allowed drink on trains. Even if nothing comes out of these ideas, they leave an impression among the public that trains are dangerous and boring. It almost seems as if transport ministers don’t want us to use the railways any more. In fact, none of this is likely to happen. You will still be able to buy a beer in the buffet and searches will quickly be forgotten as impractical.
Alistair Darling has caught the politicians’ disease of having to be seen to be doing something. He admitted as much during his speech. He is preparing the ground so that if there is another attack, he can point to Paddington station and say ‘look we are trying out new security measures’. Instead, he should have sat on his hands and been brave enough to keep his mouth shut. But only a politician of much greater stature could have done that.