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End of the line for railway police?

A regular reader, and IPSA Council Member, Simon Smith featured in our Professional Security print magazine in January 2015, on the future composition of the British Transport Police. He writes now that the cat has been put firmly among the pigeons.

Those watching the excellent Baroness Ruth Henig in the House of Lords on the last day of the last Parliament, will know that this was one of the issues raised during questions about Home Office matters in the Lords.

The reason for the wheel falling off, frankly, has been the decision of the Scottish Government that the transport police in Scotland shall be integrated into their national police force (Police Scotland) with 230-plus warranted officers transferred to that force from the BTP. This has been opposed by the trade unions representing the railway industry and many other people. One of those is Steve Mannion, the former Assistant Chief Constable in charge of BTP in Scotland, and prior to that ACC of Strathclyde Police, a man therefore who is in the unique position of having served both as a civil policeman and as a commander of railway policing. The criticism seems to be levelled at the recognised differences between police in the railways and normal civil police work.

The question that will interest readers, of course, is how private security will benefit from any changes. As said in the previous article, private security is already deployed and a number of security companies are making a healthy living in work for the railway companies. There has also been some privatisation of the functions of ticket inspection. Entrepreneurial based companies, especially those, in Scotland, with ACS [approved contractor status], should be looking at the opportunities that will inevitably follow on from the dismantling of the BTP north of the border.


The brief history of the BTP is that it was formed in 1948 when railway companies, canal companies and dock companies were nationalised. Originally it patrolled railways, docks and canals and was known as the British Transport Commission Police. The British Transport Commission was the overarching body for all public transport. In 1955 it amalgamated with the London Transport’s own Police, LTPB Police. The former Railway Constabularies had included those of organisations like the Caledonian Railway and did include officers, such as in LNER stationed north of the Border as well as those stationed south of the Border. Where the original police got their authority has been a matter of some conjecture among police historians for some years.

The theory is that, because the original railway police were on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, they derived their authority from the County Justices of the Peace, who just swore them in for Lancashire. In such a casual way was the world’s first Railway Police Force formed. By 1861, in the case of Edwards –v- The Midland Railway, the establishment of railway police forces was deemed, by the High Court (in a decision that would not be made today) to be an implied term of running a railway company, even without specific statutory authority


In 2011 the then Secretary for State for Transport, Phillip Hammond was written to by the Scottish Justice Secretary, Kenny McAskill, to point out that Police Scotland (PS) had just been created and it would be good to integrate the transport police. PS was due to start operations, taking over from the eight existing constabularies, as indeed it has subsequently done. It is fair to say that at that stage, the Department of Transport was not conducive to this, and made the counter-proposal that the police commander in Scotland would be answerable to the Scottish Government and accountable to them in the same way as local police commanders are accountable to local politicians to some extent. It is fair to say that, at that time, the politics were not on the side of the Scottish Government. Why has this changed? The result of the 2014 referendum has led to the creation of the Smith Commission, and that commission has decided on the transfer of far greater powers to Scotland than had previously been contemplated. Effectively, what is known as “Devo Max” has become the order of the day ,especially since the election. However, even the Commission proposals were for accountability rather than integration.

Advantages and disadvantages

The advantage, of course, is that the Scottish Government will have control over policing in Scotland. In totality. They will also not have a situation where the word “British” has to be used on anyone’s uniform or marked vehicle, which may have significance to the more nationalistic elements of the SNP. Transport police officers are trained at Scottish police training schools and will be easy to integrate and, in practical terms, as with all the transport police personnel, they have learned throughout their service to work with local policing.

The disadvantages are shown clearly by the fact that all the rail unions are opposed to it and are that sometimes it is easier to patrol a railway line in a straight line than it is in a blob. Civil policing tends to work in a blob spread across a map. Whether it is an area, division, or force area, most civil police forces have a blob of land on a map ranging from a small beat in a town to a large county or, indeed, a combination of counties in the case of people like Thames Valley and West Mercia. Railway police, by their very nature, patrol in straight lines rather than blobs.

There is also the question of the loss, over time, of expertise and, unless Scottish police officers transferred into their transport division, were allowed to come to BTP Training School in Walton-on-Thames, some of that expertise would undoubtedly be lost over the years. There is also, as London Underground found, many good reasons for closer co-operation without integration. Attempts for the London Underground to be policed by the Metropolitan Police, have been strenuously and successfully resisted, leaving all else aside by the Metropolitan Police themselves.

The situation in New York, where the transit police were integrated in the New York City Police, is not necessarily a happy precedent. It has also been pointed out that there are areas of the world where railway police forces do cross international boundaries and in North America, the two very cogent examples of the Canadian Pacific Railway Police and the Canadian National Railway Police. CPR operates a number of units in the United States, personnel are trained in the specific state of the United States in which they operate and their arm patches and badges have the ‘stars and stripes’ instead of the Canadian flag, in deference to the side of the border upon which they are operating. CNR does not even do that, and officers of CNR operating in the United States, although locally trained, still have their crown topped CNR badges. CNR Police were also recently involved in a joint task force set up to deal with the threat of bombings on trains between New York State and the Canadian province of Ontario, and worked alongside FBI, NYSP, ATF, DHS, RCMP and OPP in that task force. So, providing local laws are dealt with and personnel are trained, there is absolutely no reason why there should not be a cross-border transport police force. The precedent exists.

The future

However, there isn’t going to be. The Scottish Government have made perfectly clear and, all we can do is fall back on the reasoning already offered, that all police in Scotland are going to come under the direct control of their chief constable. The fact that he is an Englishman, along with at least one of his deputy chiefs, is overlooked. He is, in fairness, answerable to the Scottish Government and is running the Scottish Police Service. The suggestion that they had to have an Englishman running things because the Edinburgh police and Glasgow police couldn’t stand each other, is robustly refuted. Based on experience, in New York and elsewhere, this is what is going to happen:

1. Policing, certainly outside big conurbations, of transport assets, will decline and there will be fewer police officers deployed.

2. The suggestion that local police will be able to fill the gap will not prove as effective, because local police are not just sitting idle waiting for somebody from the railway station to phone up.

Incidents will have to be dealt with in priority and in exactly the same way as all other incidents affecting the civil police. Already, throughout the United Kingdom, local police do respond to railway stations when there is an emergency, but they do so confident in the knowledge that the transport police will get to them. There is, in fact, in civil police forces, the standing joke that the initials “BTP” stands for “Be there presently”. This is because of the distance that is already having to be travelled by transport police officers because there are not that many of them. It does, however, relieve the civil police of either having to follow through on incidents or having to have expert technical knowledge relating to railways. BTP officers are separately trained in relation to railways, and are able to understand the railway community better. This is not to be unfair to civil police, it simply is bound to be the case.

3. Increasingly railway companies are relying on private security and, as previously stated, some railway companies are relying on private security staff to check tickets. The law on this point is very simple, once the appropriate Department of Transport examination is taken (and it is not rocket science) security staff can be issued with an authority, normally a small card, which can be hung round the neck alongside the blue badge, authorising them to examine tickets and collect excess fares. The paperwork associated with this is not, it is fair to reiterate, rocket science. The railway industry does still maintain revenue protection inspectors, but that varies from company to company.

It is fair to say that, in the days of the British Railways Board, such personnel, then designated Travelling Ticket Inspectors, (TTI) were senior personnel who were regarded as having acquired rank and paid accordingly. Readers may thus think that, with security officers getting a small extra payment per hour, it was £1 per hour extra, the railway companies can see the advantage of this system financially. However, it is equally fair to say that it has allowed RPIs to form teams and be concentrated on operations, rather than being sent individually onto trains, which was becoming a health and safety issue with the increasing assaults.

4. The security of railway lines can be covered by patrolling security officers employed by the company who do have other functions. The very excellent company that is guarding the line between Southend and London Fenchurch Street, an ACS approved contractor, have staff who check a section of railway line in the course of their normal duties and who have been a great benefit to the BTP The BTP have never been at the strength that, perhaps, would have been appropriate for them, so security staff have been able to fill in gaps both on stations and on patrolling track.

5. This will increase in Scotland and, in practical terms, especially in the remoter regions of Scotland, local security staff will become the alternative. There will also be pressure from the Trade Unions, who, to reiterate, have already expressed concerns, and the simple, easy and cheap way to assuage their concerns will be the increasing use of security staff.

6. There is also a manpower crisis that is going to erupt in those officers transferred to PS Transport Command. To be frank, BTP warranted officers are on better terms and conditions than PS officers and the writer has seen it all before. When the ports ceased to have BTP officers, the majority of them did not choose to transfer to local forces, or private security, but chose to transfer to the railways. Because of the travel concessions, this led to officers living in Harwich who had previously been on the docks, transferring to London railway stations and even, in one case, the Birmingham area.

For all these reasons it is inevitable that the British Transport Police will lose their jurisdiction north of the border, that there will be a paucity of officers transferring to the PS Transport Command, and that railway operators will increasingly need a front line force at least to hold the situation until PS can assign officers. For ACS registered companies, because the Scottish Government is insisting on ACS for any public sector work in Scotland, this is the opportunity and certainly directors of such companies should be urged to start talking to their local railway company. It is unlikely that a railway company will give a national contract covering the whole of Scotland, they are far more likely to want a number of companies, based on areas or even, in the case of big cities, a big city. Fairly local companies to Aberdeen, Dundee and certainly Inverness, should be seriously thinking about obtaining a small contract for their local area. Bigger Scottish based companies, and there are obvious reasons why Scottish based companies will have the advantage in this matter, should be thinking about Glasgow and Edinburgh.

As to what will happen with the BTP in England and Wales, goodness only knows. Whilst the Welsh Nationalists don’t seem to have the clout that the Scottish Nationalists have, that could change, although there is no detectible desire for Welsh police forces to be integrated into a national force. The other thing that is obviously going to be an anomaly is the name of the force. It has actually been an anomaly for some time, since the abolition of the British Transport Commission. It became more of an anomaly when canals and docks ceased to be a part of the jurisdiction and it had led to confusion, such as in a notable case where transport police officers were mistaken for traffic police officers. Admittedly, by a very foolish defendant. Still, it is not every day that you go to a magistrates court to prosecute somebody for a ticket fraud and assault on a collector, and find yourself receiving admissions that a man had stolen a car in Plymouth ! However, it is clear from both the Department of Transport and the way the trade unions on the railways have reacted, that there is going to continue to be a separate railway police force and, whatever it is called, the remit and expansion of private security into railways is going to continue and all companies should be thinking about ways in which they can benefit and profit from that.

Picture: Buffers at London Waterloo; by Mark Rowe


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