Horrific attacks remain rare on our railways

Just as I went to bed on Monday May 22 I noticed a tweet from the British Transport Police. It was dealing with an incident at Manchester Victoria. I thought little of it. BTP deal with incidents at stations every day.

Waking the next morning, it took a few minutes to make sense of what was coming from my radio. That tweet had been the herald of an event that saw troops on the streets and armed police patrolling trains within days.

Unlike July 2005’s attacks in London, which took place on London Underground line and one of the capital’s buses, Manchester’s attack did not take place on transport networks. Victoria station was caught within it because the concert venue attacked was built partially above the station and one of its exits empties across the station concourse.

This meant that staff from Victoria were among the first on the scene, to be greeted by an appalling picture. It’s impossible to imagine what went through their minds or the impact the sight is having on them. Neither the staff, not their employer Northern, sought publicity in the days after the attack. Nevertheless, I’d like to thank them and pay tribute to their selfless action.

Northern and TransPennine Express had to move quickly to amend timetables and draft in buses to replace trains. Victoria has always been a key station for services from north of the city and from Yorkshire via the Calder Valley that run through Summit Tunnel and Rochdale. In recent years, it returned to prominence for TransPennine Express with Liverpool trains taking this more direct route rather than running through Piccadilly’s congested pair of through platforms. The station forms a key interchange with Metrolink services as they serve Bury, Oldham and Rochdale using former heavy rail routes.

As well as rearranging services, Northern had to cope without the trains stranded in the station as police investigation teams sealed the station to carry out their vital work.

Yet making the changes to schedules, diagrams and rosters is normal business for train operators even if the cause on this occasion was anything but normal. And that’s an important point. The event behind Manchester’s rail disruption is extremely rare. You have to go back to 2005 to find something similar.

Doubtless there have been other potential attacks that have come to nothing thanks to the police and other agencies disrupting them before they can disrupt us. It’s probably right that we hear little of this.

Physical security around stations has noticeably increased in recent years. Those bollards – the silver stumps – that have proliferated recently protect against what is seen as the most likely attack, in the unlikely event of an attack, which is a vehicle careering into crowds. Known as ‘vehicle as a weapon’, it’s what we saw on Westminster Bridge in March, in Nice in July 2016 and Berlin that December.

A vehicle is much easier to find and use than explosives. Most adults can drive but very, very few would even know where to start with chemicals needed to make a bomb. Hence the stumps that provide a defence against vehicles. They don’t make such attacks impossible or casualties impossible but this form of attack remains rare.

Rarer still is the explosive attack. It’s harder to provide physical defences but modern station designs incorporate features that should reduce the effect of any explosion. You could install scanners at stations and check every passenger but just imagine the disruption this would cause at Waterloo, Euston or New Street on a morning.

Armed police provide some form of deterrent but they’re not easily able to prevent a determined attacker. One such attacker was jailed for 15 years a couple of days after Manchester’s attack, having been found guilty of planting a home-made bomb on a Jubilee Line train in October 2016. This attacker was intercepted but defence is better provided by early detection and interception rather than intervening at the point of attack. By necessity, this work takes place away from public view.

All of which is to say that rail travel remains safe. That something is possible does not mean it’s likely or even probable. Britain has seen few attacks recently and its transport network even fewer. We should carry on using trains and carry on using them to travel to concerts, matches and other events that attract many people, as my old colleague Pip Dunn did to reach Wembley stadium to see Huddersfield Town win a football match.

In the days after Manchester’s attack, the RMT union called off the strikes it had planned for Northern, Southern and Merseyside on May 30. I’ve been frequently critical of RMT but this was the right decision.

I don’t know quite what was going through GTR’s mind when it released a statement welcoming the strikes’ cancellation but then calling on the union to use the opportunity “to agree to the very good offers we have made”. It quickly realised its crass mistake, issuing a “correct statement” thirty minutes later that said: “This is an appropriate response by the RMT to the tragedy in Manchester. We thank them for taking this step.”

I can only think that it had a series of pre-prepared statements to cater for various scenarios surrounding the cancellation of a strike and it pressed ‘send’ on the wrong one.

Yet this error is nothing more than a footnote to a much bigger event. As we remember the awful events of May 22, we should remember the railway staff and BTP officers at Victoria station for their prompt and brave response.

This article first appeared in RAIL 828 on June 7 2017. 

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Philip Haigh

Freelance railway writer, former deputy editor at RAIL magazine - news, views and analysis of today's railway.

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