Gauge of a nation proves the age of a nation
“What unites us is greater than what divides.” This sentiment has been on the lips of many prominent personalities and politicians trying to articulate a common purpose and make sense of a world that appears at odds with itself along cultural, religious, and political lines. It may seem like empty rhetoric in the face of terror attacks across Europe and the senseless murder of MP Jo Cox in the UK in 2016, but on a more fundamental level, the words chime in a physical and visceral way and go to the very heart of how modern civilisations not only work but also how they were mathematically conceived in the first place.
From the crucible of the industrial revolution in the early nineteenth century, railways have provided the spark that simultaneously lit the touch paper of radical change, from the disruptive mass movement and migration of people from the land to new urban centres to development of new towns and cities across a world—settlements that were then and are now united along the lines of a common gauge. Irrespective of the cultural, religious, or political lines, the modern world was built along a standard line—one that measures 4 feet, 8.5 inches, which archaeologists suggest was set to the width of an imperial Roman chariot in pre-industrial Europe.
This model has proved the test of time in the complex development of modern policing across the UK. The British Transport Police (BTP) has become the gauge of conflict in an age of conflict.
Unlike the rest of England and Wales where policing was segmented into forty-three different constabularies—and in the case of London, more than thirty different boroughs or districts of the Metropolitan Police, as well as the separate City of London force for the Square Mile—BTP represents the UK’s only single Police force operating across national lines and crossing constabulary boundaries and developed in tandem with that of the towns and communities it touches on a daily basis. Where train services go, so go the British Transport Police with the single mission to help the UK’s 8.6 million daily commuters safely go about their lives and legitimate business as they travel to and from work.
Running like the time-tabled service it is there to protect, BTP is the thin blue line along almost 10,000 miles of over-ground railway line and represents the law enforcement benefit of the rail operators and their staff and passengers across the country, as well as policing the London Underground, Docklands Light Railway, the Midland Metro tram system, Croydon Tramlink, Sunderland Metro, Glasgow Subway, and Emirates Air Line in London.
The number of people using Britain’s railways is predicted to rise by 16 to 20 per cent by 2019, so BTP is expected to respond to an increase in demand for its services and as such has restructured from seven areas across Britain into three larger divisions. This new structure has been put in place to deliver a more efficient force, generating savings to reinvest in more Police officers across the railway network.
There are currently more than 3,000 full time officers, 362 Police community support officers (PCSOs), 1,300 specials, and 1,689 office and administrative staff responding to thousands of transport-related incidents each year. In 2016–2017, BTP carried out more than 1,200 life-saving initiatives.
As a nation, Britain has developed city-by-city, town-by-town, community‑by‑community in line with the forging of the industrial revolution. The railways were the veins that carried people and products to market, and BTP, as one of the UK’s oldest forces, has followed that map, that journey, and that timetable to this day.
It is the home of many “firsts” for the Police. The term “Police station” came into modern parlance because of the early British Transport Police as station houses to base officers, which were located at one-mile intervals along the Liverpool to Manchester Line in the early 1830s.
Part of their early work was simply to remove obstacles, items, or people from the lines, and early officers were armed with digging equipment to carry out these tasks. The railways were built by the huge itinerant communities of navigators (“navvies”) who came to England from Ireland, Wales, and across Europe to help lay the first gauged lines.
The BTP took a foothold in southern England as the genteel middle classes of Buckinghamshire asked for a division of what was to become the Metropolitan Police to protect their property from the influx of lawless railway workers building the lines close to their doorsteps. These often-lawless communities lived cheek by jowl in makeshift shantytowns along the lines that they were building. The close proximity and atrocious living conditions in these powder-keg communities often led to high levels of crime and disorder, which needed to be controlled if Britain was to forge ahead and become the power house of the world. Order had to be established. Enter the early British Transport Police.
In 1939, a riot amongst the navvies erupted along the Chester to Birkenhead line, which took four days for officers to put down.
In 1840, a brutal murder was committed in one of the shantytowns near Glasgow, and the ringleaders were rounded up, tried, and then hanged on makeshift scaffolds along the line that they were there to build.
The BTP was the first force to enrol women officers and also the first to use Police dogs in 1907. Today, with one of the largest dog divisions in the modern Police service, there are more than sixty dogs used by BTP along the thousands of miles of UK tracks carrying out tasks including searches for drugs and explosives.
As its jurisdiction increased, the BTP was recognised as a Police footprint that developed in step with the growth of modern, industrial Britain. As the towns and cities grew around hubs and the iron umbilical cord of the railways, so did the requirement to maintain law and order.
Reaching Out to Retail
As modern new stations now look more like small towns with retail and hospitality facilities to support the increasing travelling and commuting public, BTP has seen its role as protecting those businesses and communities in the way that it has always done since the 1830s.
Detective Superintendent Gillian Murray is currently the head of BTP’s Professional Standards Department and is an advocate of a collaborative approach as she reaches out to the constituents of the more than 2,500 railway stations across the UK, whether they are the moving passengers or the static businesses helping to service the requirements of those travellers and commuters on their journeys. Organised retail criminals use the rail network in the same way that they use the motorway links—to cross Police force boundaries and commit often-industrial levels of crime, comfortable in the knowledge that neighbourhood constabularies are unlikely to share intelligence and therefore bring them to book. This is not the case for BTP, which seamlessly operates across those boundaries.
Many constabularies have faced policing challenges around retail crime in the wake of average 20 per cent service cuts. Superintendent Murray and her team have seen their role as working even more closely with retailers and hospitality companies that form part of station concourses.
Millions of people are on the move every day of every week, but the travel patterns are varied with some stations seeing a disproportionate number of travellers. Waterloo, for example, is the UK’s busiest railway station with figures showing almost 100 million entrants and exits in a year, based upon ticket sales. Victoria station shows around 80 million ticket sales followed by Liverpool Street at 60 million.
Outside London, Birmingham Grand Central, completed only a few years ago, has an annual footfall of over 60 million, which is just shy of the UK population travelling through one location. And there are new stations opening in a move that reverses the effect of the 1960s Beeching cuts when 5,000 miles of track and more than 2,000 stations were removed from the network.
Kenilworth Station in Warwickshire, closed since the early 1960s, reopened in April 2018 to service commuters who previously had to travel to Coventry or Leamington Spa to get to and from London.
All of this increasing footfall—Waterloo, for example, is expected to witness a 3 per cent increase in the next few years—brings additional pressures for the BTP, hence the strategy of working with the commercial arms of those stations makes perfect sense from both a commercial and law enforcement perspective.
“As a single, countrywide force, our network jurisdiction and reach is vast,” said Superintendent Murray, who joined the BTP as a new recruit in 1990.
A Scot who has worked all over the UK but is now based in BTP’s nerve centre in Camden Town, north London, said the job continues to grow and evolve along with the rail network.
“We cover the entire country from Scotland down to the south coast, into Wales in the west and East Anglia in the East, which of course throws out challenges to us as there are key hubs and centres that put additional stress upon our resources,” she said. “One of these challenges is the growth in the new stations and policing what are in effect small towns of retailers and hospitality venues. Yes, stations are places that we pass through on our longer journeys, but they are also now destinations in their own right. With shops, coffee establishments, and bars, they are meeting places where people congregate.”
They are also potential hot spots and melting points of traditional crime from store theft to pickpocketing to contemporary offences partly enabled by mobile phones and social media such as racial and sexual abuse, including so-called “up-skirting,” particularly on the London Underground, which the Government is considering specific legislation against.
Superintendent Murray, who was in BTP’s Criminal Investigation Department (CID) for much of her career, said, “Getting to where we are now in terms of success rates is, and continues to be, a long journey, and we can’t do it on our own. With expanding station footprints, we are constantly reaching out to retailers and landlords to help us to help them police these growing hubs.
“Retail crime is such a volume issue for us, which is why we are looking to build these relationships to help plug any intelligence gaps. This is why we are placing so much emphasis upon creating the partnerships with the retail businesses so that they can help us to help them.
“We need to know that we have the right intelligence picture across our estate, so the knowledge of these businesses is incredibly important. Together, it can make all the difference. Retailers understand that their problems are shared with their peers working in other businesses so that they can also help each other. It is about being strategically joined up.”
Now Superintendent Murray wants to go further to have those conversations with not only the loss prevention teams but also the property managers so that BTP has advanced knowledge of plans to redevelop stores or station concourses, to add to her broader intelligence and possibly help shape it from a policing perspective.
“Stations are no longer places that people simply pass through. They are dwell spots, and inviting retail and hospitality businesses are there to encourage this interaction and make the commuters’ journey less stressful. We need to understand where the biggest threats are, where people meet and congregate, where the pressure or vulnerability points are, and how we can influence the debate and the design to make stations safer places for all of the users, whether they be retail staff or customers and the travelling public in general.
“We don’t police the same way as we did five or ten years ago in the same way that retail businesses don’t sell merchandise in the same way that they did five or ten years ago. The world has changed as has the nature of the threats and the demands on our time and service.”
The terror attacks across Europe, many of which have targeted the rail and underground systems, have changed policing forever, but policing priorities for the network must be part of a broader discussion with businesses, including the rail operators, the travelling public, and the businesses that support the customer journeys.
“We are dealing with huge volumes of footfall on a daily basis, and we have to be cognisant of the threat risk and harm to all, including vulnerable offenders. In and around stations in Manchester, for example, there is a huge problem with the effects of the drug “spice,” which has had a profound effect on safety and well-being.”
Easy access to the drug, which can have a profound impact on the individual, is leading to aggressive begging and rough sleeping, with many people steering clear of the area.
Superintendent Murray continued, “Here, we deal with other partners and agree to the best approach—again, part of our broader collaborative approach—which helps us to build our intelligence. The day job is all about horizon scanning, dealing with the issues we face every day, but looking ahead to what is coming in the commercial landscape in and around our stations network. We want a clearer understanding, and our crime reduction teams want to engage as early as possible.
“We are getting good traction with some of the bigger retailers at our stations, including Boots, Marks & Spencer, WHSmith, and John Lewis, and we are seeing what the problems are and working through them together.
“We started this approach eighteen months ago, and we are doing great things together. It is, however, difficult to measure success in a smart and tangible way, but we know the model works and that we do better together. We have just got to arrive at a gold standard of what that looks like and get everyone signed up to it.
“This is not simply fighting crime but also focused upon well-being and safety—we want the retailers to help us to help them.”
Part of this approach is to hold regular monthly surgeries with retailers in order for them to identify their problems and priority lists of persistent offenders with the BTP.
“We don’t use a constant nagging approach but helpful meetings that highlight what is happening around the stations so that we can take practical steps to deal with local criminality and provide advice on conflict resolution and approaches to vulnerable offenders, where applicable.”
The approach is already showing a head of steam in terms of increased collaboration, but this cannot come quickly enough as the role of protecting the rail network is growing and groaning under the weight of responsibility as even more stations are commissioned, including Luton Airport Parkway and London Cross Rail, and as work on one of the UK’s biggest ever engineering projects—HS2 between London and the Midlands—starts in earnest.
“HS2 is a great example of the partnership approach as BTP views on a range of issues have been embedded within the plan before a single sleeper has been laid,” said Superintendent Murray.
British Transport Police may only represent a fraction of the UK policing capability, but its strength lies within its ever-moving parts and its deep relationships with key transport stakeholders driven by the understanding that it does not have all of the answers to the rail network’s security issues and cannot succeed alone.
While the Beeching cuts of the 1960s may have heralded in an era of transport austerity with railway growth hitting the buffers, today’s rail story could not be more different with full steam ahead for network expansion and the growing pains that will inevitably involve. This growth will stimulate greater mobility and plays to the strength of the ongoing collaboration between the rail sector and British Transport Police in keeping the network safe across a number of different platforms. Whereas history may judge the Beeching era as a “points failure,” this renaissance of collaboration is proving the point that there are more factors that unite than there are those that would divide a nation in constant flux and transit.