A dare, a buzz, a ride

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The Independent Culture
Train surfing has claimed seven lives in this country and severely blighted others. Jim White on a temptation that is only a piece of waste ground away

A recent edition of Benetton's house magazine, Colors, carried a series of photographs taken in Rio de Janeiro; stunning shots of young Brazilians riding urban trains, but not inside, in the conventional fashion. Instead they were up on the roofs, adopting positions, arms akimbo, legs spread, like surfers riding big ones down at the Copa. What they are doing is called train surfing. It's hot. It's trendy. It's on the front of the Benetton magazine. Looking at the snaps you can almost feel the adrenalin rush.

Andrew Scott, however, might not find the cover so exhilarating. Seven years ago, when Andrew was 15, he was messing around with some mates on a patch of waste ground abutting Heddon Road, in Hull. Lots of kids play there, pouring on from the estate that backs it, or on their way home from the local primary school. Through the middle of this typical patch of urban decay runs a sweep of railway line, along which big freight monsters trundle to and from St George's docks. Andrew knew that other lads in the area, bored with football and messing around on BMX bikes, had invented a game. They would jump aboard the slow-moving trains and ride them for a stretch, then leap off again before the train picked up speed. That day Andrew and his mates thought they would have a go: it was a dare, a lark, a rite of passage. And it was so easy to find a train - there they were, running straight through the boys' manor.

When one came in sight, Andrew ran alongside and tried to grab hold of a service ladder attached to the side of one of the wagons. He didn't make it.

He's not quite sure what happened or why, but the next thing he knew he was underneath the train. His left leg was severed beneath the knee. When he got to hospital, the doctors discovered his knee was so badly mangled that much of the remainder of his leg had to be amputated. It was the first time Andrew went train surfing. And the last.

On 16 June 1992, when he was just 13, Michael Swainger was playing with friends on the same waste ground where Andrew had met his accident. He can't remember who it was, but someone suggested they should ride a train as it passed by. Like Andrew, Michael didn't make it. When he came to, lying by the trackside, he noticed an arm and a leg on the ballast a few feet away. They were his own.

You could say Michael and Andrew were lucky. Last month a 21-year-old man climbed out of the window of a late-night train from Charing Cross to Hayes. Passengers waiting on St John's station, Lewisham, south London, saw him hanging on to the side. He fell off a few yards later and was killed. Last December another 21-year-old climbed out of the train as it rattled between Leigh-on-Sea and Benfleet in Essex and hung from the guttering. He lost his grip, fell and died instantly.

"We got outside the train together and held on to the gutter with our feet swinging in mid-air," Steve Scutt, the victim's brother, said at the inquest. "We'd done it before. People were shouting for us to get back in. I caught a glimpse of him falling."

It may not have reached the levels of Brazil where 200 people a year are killed, but in all, over the years, seven people have died in this country train-surfing: the youngest was Justin Dredger, who fell under a London Underground train. He was nine. British Transport Police know it's a buzz for the young, but are uncertain how significant a problem train surfing has become across Britain.

"There are various forms of surfing: travelling between carriages, on top of the train, or clinging to the sides," says Simon Lubin, a Transport Police spokesman. "And there are various ways in which people gain access, either from alongside the track or actually climbing out of windows and doors once aboard. But, as far as we are aware, it hasn't developed into a craze. We hear of about one incident nationally a month. The tragedy is, many of the incidents we become aware of are accidents."

Train staff, however, are encouraged to report any surf sightings to the Transport Police, who, as soon as a pattern is established, dispatches officers to investigate.

"Surfers we have caught in the act tend to be from the age group where you can take them home and talk to the parents," says Mr Lubin. "Once you've done that, they usually stop. We have also begun to run education campaigns."

It seems from the limited Transport Police evidence that surfers generally live within easy access of railway lines: people do not travel miles to ride the roofs. This is an opportunity fad.

It certainly was in Hull. According to Andrew Scott, he was responding to local peer pressure rather than an urge to be part of an international trend. And where he lived it was very easy: the trains were just there. Which is why he believes he has a justifiable case for compensation; a writ issued on his behalf against Associated British Ports and British Railways is presently being heard in the High Court.

"Andrew suffered devastating injuries from an accident that could and should have been prevented," says Nick Gutteridge, of the Hull solicitors Philip Haymer and Partners, who also acts for Michael Swainger. "Neither party acted to eradicate a risk that was self-evident. We are seeking compensation for the financial and other losses sustained as a result of the accident."

Now 22, and with grossly restricted mobility, Andrew Scott has never worked. He has severe phantom pains emanating from toes that are no longer there and has no recreational or social life. However, no other Hull youngster will suffer the same fate. Not unless they are capable of climbing the 6ft reinforced steel fence that now runs alongside the track where he and Michael had their accidents. Indeed, should Andrew win his case, this could be the shape of railway lines to come: wherever they pass through places where children might gather, fences will have to go up. Which could prove an unforeseen financial time bomb for whichever quango inherits responsibility for the track after privatisation.

"I think we have to be realistic about fencing," says Simon Lubin. "There is a sense in which people have to be responsible for their actions, even young people. I mean, we don't have fences alongside motorways. If anyone went playing on motorways you would think they might expect to get run over. And it would not really be the motorway's fault if they did."

In the meantime, as the court decides whether the railways have a case to answer, boys across the country will be reading magazines like Benetton's Colors and deciding that a trip aboard the roof of their local train might be a good way of passing a dull afternoon.

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