Andy Trotter is an unusual policeman. You only have to hear him talking about something he has read in The Guardian, not a newspaper often spotted on the tables in police canteens let alone on the desks of senior officers, to realise that he is the thinking man’s copper. His CV may sound like a conventional career in the force, with periods in both the Met and Kent, but he is a thinking man’s policeman who has developed a love for the railway since arriving as Ian Johnston’s deputy at the British Transport Police five years ago
His appointment, which has been widely welcomed in the industry, suggests continuity but he is aware that these are hard times: ‘It is far easier to take over a force that is in the dumps, it can only go one way, which is up. I am inheriting a force which is greatly improved. There is a whole range of indicators to show that things have improved ranging from crime figures to sickness levels and we have system that allows me to monitor them constantly. The challenge for me is going to be improving the force while having a static or shrinking budget. It will require a lot of imagination and a lot of communication with staff to keep a focus on delivering a first class service to the railway.’
The BTP is now far better equipped and staffed than it was in the past when it an ill-equipped policing backwater. Now it is a modern police force with 2,900 officers and half as many support staff, but the improvement has come at price which the industry has not always been happy to pay. Under the terms of their franchises, the operators are committed to pay the policing levy which now amounts to £202m per year with an extra £50m coming from the Underground. Trotter reckons, though, that the industry is broadly satisfied with the service it is getting. A TOC manager recently told me that in the past he thought we were, excuse my French, “crap and expensive” and now he just thinks we are ‘expensive’ which I thought was a nice phrase. Clearly they would rather pay less and I understand that.’
Indeed, it was not so long ago that the BTP was seen by railway managers as a rather alien force, intent on stopping the railway whenever it could, and Trotter acknowledges that ‘before Ian arrived, there was an element of antagonism between the industry and the force’. However, he emphases that this is no longer the case: ‘Ian’s personal style, his sheer energy and drive, the fact that he goes around the whole country talking to MDs to establish a good relationship with them and more important we have delivered a far better police service.’
The change in attitude is most apparent in the approach to causing delays on the railway. The old attitude could be characterised as ‘we must investigate everything carefully even if that causes major disruption’, highlighted by an incident near Glasgow, just before Johnston’s arrival, where a Virgin Pendolino with 400 passengers was held for several hours following a derailment and the passengers eventually detained in a village hall, effectively under arrest, even though the problem was caused by faulty track. Now the strategy is to minimise disruption while, of course, ensuring that crimes are fully investigated. Take fatalities, of which there are still over 200 a year on the railway, mostly suicides: ‘Before we started to measure it, it took around three hours, 180 minutes, to get the railway going again. Now, we have a target time of handing back the railway in 90 minutes which we monitor every day and currently it is running at 71 minutes on average. Clearly there will be the odd one in the north of Scotland which take a long time to reach and we don’t want officers driving long distances at high speeds to reach the scene, and there are others which may be suspicious and you can’t take risks with something that may be foul play. However, we are very quick to make use of CCTV, to talk to the driver and make a rapid decision with a CID officer as to whether it is suspicious and if not, clear up. We can’t take risks with this but having that discipline about rapid decision making by people who are experienced at dealing with these incidents is crucial, as well as ensuring they have the right kit – the gloves the bags, protective wear, cameras – to do the job properly.’
It is noticeable how bomb threats and suspect packages are now very rarely the cause of delays, and that, too, is down to a change in policing strategy: ‘No one talks these days about delays caused by bomb threats and suspect packages in the way they used to. If you go back a few years, every wet Friday night at Charing Cross, it would be shut because of a bomb threat or suspicious package but we brought in really good processes to screen out problems and reduce number of unnecessary closures to tiny numbers. It’s the rail and underground staff who are the heroes of this particular process, not the police.. We give them guidance on how to deal with these things – is it suspicious? Is it hidden? Is it obvious? Is it typical of the environment – for example, a suitcase at Victoria station is not inherently suspicious, there’s many thousands of them there. It is making sure that something which is ordinary and everyday does not suddenly become a suspect package and leads to tape everywhere and the railway being shut. This is where we encourage our Home Office colleagues [police officers from other forces] to call us for anything on the railway. The same goes for bomb threats, what we used to call 10p terrorism, for the price of 10p you could bring a system to a halt, and can’t do that any more.’
That does not mean there are no longer any such calls – there are, but it is the way of dealing with them that has changed: ‘Every time there is an incident across the world, there is a spike in the number of such calls – you can see one for Madrid, for 7/7 – and the same goes for suspect packages but that is more legitimate, people genuinely worried about something. This is just the sort of time when you don’t want to overreact because instead of four incidents you have dozens and dozens. We have a process and we monitor it all very carefully. We send out specialist units at a package, and examine it and x ray it and only then will we call out the explosive officers. We do not stop services unless there is a very good reason to do so. The easiest thing if there is a suspicious car at a railway station, car park and someone wants to stop the railway line, and that is where it is important that we get there first and so the Home Office force do not overreact.’
Trotter relates how recently there was an incident at Milton Keynes and a train was held up by the local force: ‘I spoke to the Assistant Chief Constable and said to her that you may have an incident in MK but now we have an incident between London and Manchester. People have to understand that there may perhaps be thousands of people stuck on trains, possibly on a sweltering hot night, or with drunken football fans and that the disruption is not just about what they can see in front of them but it is in the whole of the system.’ That is why he is insistent that the BTP, which recently survived several attempts to merge it in with other forces, should be retained as a separate entity covering the entire railway network without regard to county boundaries.
Trotter’s background explains much of why he is not the standard Telegraph reading conventional policeman and greatly informs his approach: My mother is from Rhondda valley and my grandfather was an ardent socialist, a very powerful trade union member was passionate about the working class. My father was from farming stock on the west coast of Ireland. So it was a political household, with lots of discussion about religion and politics and I enjoy debate.’ Not the obvious background for a policeman but with a father who had been a policeman before taking up farming in Kent and two brothers in the force, he saw it as having a good career structure and giving him the opportunity to play rugby at a high level as the Met has a very strong team. He had eschewed going straight from school to university but went in his twenties to the LSE on a police scholarship where he studied economics, then sociology and psychology, criminology but found the students ‘disappointingly conservative’.
Trotter’s policing philosophy is clear: tackle crime overtly and do not ignore petty misdemeanours, a strategy which he feels is equally valid for the railway as it was for London’s West End where he was posted in his first period with the Met in the early 1970s. The West End was very different than it is today, much more rundown and at the time was full of crime and criminals, and even something of a no-go area for the ordinary public. As a junior officer he saw how things changed remarkably in his time there as a result of more positive policing: ‘The West End was full of thieves, from the rag trade, the beginnings of drug dealing, prostitutes, and there were a tremendous amount of arrests. You could arrest a prisoner, process them in half an hour, and you could, without exaggerating arrest five people in a shift, which would not be possible today. The whole process was to change this by putting lots of police officers on the street, showing streets belonged to us.’ When later, in the early noughties, he worked in Westminster at a more senior level, he used that experience to ensure the streets were cleaned up: ‘In Westminster we did great work driving down street crime, just through simple policing dealing with beggars, drunks, street drug dealing, overt social challenges, in a positive way, making officers deal with things in front of them, and changed the West End enormously. Local residents, and there are a surprisingly large number and restaurateurs were beleaguered as there seemed to be a view that you can behave badly because it is Soho but I wanted my officers to do the opposite, to engage and to challenge crime, and we saw all major crime types fall by a third.’
Challenging crime is therefore at the heart of his philosophy and stresses that there is nothing particularly sophisticated about his approach: ‘It made a tremendous difference but it was not terribly difficult, just a matter of applying simple policing techniques, making sure that those things that needed dealing with were tackled. What intrigued me was that we would have a campaign about beggars, and robbery would go down. Now the beggars are not robbers – they are different groups – and we tested this, turned it on and turned it off, and when we were overt, people noticed. I want people who are drunk and disorderly, or shout, or deal drugs to be arrested. You are not going to stop drug dealing in the West End but you can stop overt lawlessness.’
This applies to the railway: ‘Railway stations should be havens of safety. I think the main line stations are but people should feel safe to travel late to the more rural and suburban stations and at the moment we can’t say that about the last train travelling out to these stations. Our goal should be to ensure people do feel safer.’
Of course, the biggest task of the British Transport Police is football violence which is where these principles of tackling petty crime face their sternest test. Football hooliganism may no longer be in the headlines but it has not gone away: ‘It is still happening every weekend. We get the reports about it on a Monday morning and it is very sad reading: racial abuse, sexual abuse, drunkenness, shouting.’
Trotter was so concerned about one incident on a late train to Newcastle that he invited the stewardess down to London to relate her experience to his management team: experience on a late train to Newcastle: When I read the report, I thought it was appalling that I wanted to hear from her first hand. It was very chastening: the abuse, the threats of violence, people sitting in first class, smoking and drinking too much. She told us that has to be prepared for that every weekend.’
He explains the complexity of the task at the weekends when as many as 400 officers – out of the total complement of 2,900 – can be on duty just to deal with football supporters: ‘The challenge for us is to know how many officers to put on trains, how many trains to put officers on and decide whether we have them at main line stations down here or at stations halfway up the line. If you intervene at Peterborough, do you take the hooligans off the train and then what do you do with them if that happens? We have a very positive approach to this. If people are misbehaving, we have to protect staff and passengers. This is an ongoing issue that is not going to go away. It is something about people in drink who think that being oblivious to the needs of others is perfectly acceptable. And we have to continue to devote a lot of resource to it.’
The big ongoing issue, even though it has had little prominence lately, is of course security. Trotter emphasises the threat is still there and that a lot is going on behind the scenes. However, when John Stephens, then head of the Met, said that another attack was inevitable, it was Trotter who had to use his well-honed media skills to ‘clarify’ what Stephens had said: ‘We don’t know whether there will be an attack but we know from the attack on Glasgow Airport that people not on the radar can suddenly become terrorists. And the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan is clearly not getting any better. The threat level is “severe” on the railway, which is second highest level. Whenever I get a briefing on counter terrorism issues I always come away more depressed. We have a dedicated counter terrorism unit and they are doing a tremendous amount of work. I don’t think people appreciate how high the threat is. There is always a danger that people will get fatigued by it as 7/7 was four years ago but transport remains a target for terrorists, an iconic target full of people. It is an open system and you are never going to get an airline type security.’
He is very clear about train enthusiasts not being caught up in anti-terrorist scares: ‘Train enthusiasts are part of our eyes and ears. I get very distressed when I hear about them being harassed. I accept it has been our police officers sometimes as well as those of other police forces and rail staff.. We have done a lot of work internally, publicising how officers should behave towards enthusiasts. Everyone is allowed to take photographs although access is a matter for the tocs. Getting it through to our officers and the PCSOs is vital.’
So why has it kept happening? ‘It is a fascinating issue. I think it is about learned behaviour, that somehow someone has got told by somebody when they arrive that photographing is not allowed and we are disabusing them of this. We have given clear direction, by direct messages, screen savers and briefings to tell our officers that we do not want rail enthusiasts to be given a hard time. The same goes for any other photographer. It is perfectly legitimate, if you think that someone might be doing something suspicious, to wander up there and have a chat. It does not have to turn into a section 44 [under the Prevention of Terrorism Act] stop. I am wary of making bold claims, as when the article comes out we could have a lot of complaints coming out, but if it does happen I do want to know – they should tell us that were stopped and where and when.’ Trotter personally follows up individual cases reported in this magazine or other media to make sure that his officers are not involved.
There are other issues, too, which are of concern to the industry such as, route crime, cable theft and thefts from ticket machines. Trotter is very keen to ensure that the work of the force is tailored to the needs of the industry. A special team has been set up to deal with cable theft whose incidence is closely linked to the vagaries of the world copper price: ‘The number of crimes is related to the price of copper, you can match it almost exactly. It is fascinating that the person who goes to steal a few hundred pounds of copper is reacting to the international copper market. I pick up the FT and look at the copper price, knowing that there is a relationship with it and the number of thefts we will get.’
On ticket machines, the force has advised how to strengthen them ‘some have less protection than Coke machines’ and also works closely with the operators on credit card fraud. Although not quite saying so as he is reluctant to get into controversial areas, Trotter is supportive of barriers as part of the TOCs efforts to reduce ticketless travel: ‘I am not advocating barriers but from a policing perspective they makes the station into defensible space. We know that bad people – I’m not talking about terrorists but robbers and thieves – do not buy tickets. You have to have some means of getting through that barrier and it stops the casual bag thief getting on that train. We know that at certain stations, people have gone backwards and forwards, stealing suitcases and, amazingly, selling the contents on the streets outside the stations. If there were another way of stopping that happening that is fine but a spin off of having barriers is enhanced security. Contrast the Underground which is pretty much a closed system with barriers and excellent CCTV everywhere with a more rural station that after 8pm people feel too scared to use.’
Stopping the ‘bad people’ is central to his ethos and he is clear on the BTP’s role: ‘The big focus for me is around violence and assaults. Trying to make the railway safer for people, crime is down but there is still a lot of fear of crime and fear of disorder. So improving visibility, providing reassurance and making sure our officers are there at the time they are most valued’. However, with a tight budget and growing social strains as the recession deepens, Trotter has his work cut out to keep the BTP on an upward track.