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Drink - and late trains - fuel attacks on rail staff

BY PHILIP THORNTON Transport Correspondent

RAILWAY WORKERS are being punched, kicked, and spat at by passengers subject to increasing bouts of "rail rage", fuelled by both drink and frustration at late trains.

A total of 335 rail staff were assaulted in the 12 months to March, a leap of 25 per cent from 267 attacks the previous year, according to Vic Coleman, the Chief Inspector of Railways. On the London Underground assaults are now the single largest cause of injury to staff.

Train companies are being urged to publicise successful prosecutions of people who attack railway staff, to highlight the growing problem.

Mr Coleman praised train companies for taking a tough stance, saying staff should not have to go to work in fear of violence.

He said it was difficult to say if the attacks were always caused by "rail rage" - anger at the increasing levels of unreliability and delays on the railways over the past 15 months - although he accepted it might be part of it. He said the problem of assaults was a wider issue in a society where violent crime was perceived to be increasing.

"Employers must do what they can to prepare and support their staff," he said. "They might need to think about copying the policy of the aviation industry where they do publicise incidents and prosecutions."

A month ago there was a huge wave of publicity about "air rage" after a vicious bottle attack on an air stewardess by a drunken passenger.

Steven Handy, 37, clubbed Fiona Weir, 31, and then slashed her with a vodka bottle after he was caught smoking in the toilets of an Airtours flight from Gatwick to Malaga. She needed 18 stitches to her arms and body.

Handy was bailed by a Spanish court, but later he was banned from travel on all airlines, by ferry companies and by Eurotunnel.

The rail unions are particularly concerned about attacks on staff. Last year RMT members in Eastbourne, the sedate East Sussex resort, considered industrial action over the issue. Some services, especially those out of London carrying City commuters, have a reputation for drink-related violence.

Two years ago three thugs who tried to "surf" on the outside of a packed commuter train attacked two conductors who remonstrated with them. The two injured conductors were taken to hospital in Bedford, one with a suspected broken nose and the other with cuts to his head and face.

There are significant differences in attacks on airline and railway staff. Assaults on airline staff nearly always tend to be linked to drinking, rather than frustration at delayed services, although anger over smoking bans also causes trouble. Some airlines have proposed a blacklist of violent passengers, but there are concerns over civil liberties issues.

Last year the Health and Safety Executive, the sole regulator of rail safety, wrote to all train companies highlighting its concern. Mr Coleman said many had responded positively with new schemes to train staff to deal with aggression, employing security staff and sharing best practice.

South West Trains, the commuter operator in south London, Surrey and Hampshire, has put posters at all stations warning potential offenders it will make sure they are brought to court.

"We will take out private prosecutions in cases where the British Transport Police are not prepared to prosecute," a spokeswoman said, although there were worries about victims having to relive traumatic incidents for the court and for the media.

She said the groundswell of violence was an issue that the Association of Train Operating Companies (Atoc) should take up. Atoc said it took assaults on staff seriously, but there was, as yet, no policy on publicising incidents.

n Traffic wardens are being given the same training as nightclub bouncers, to help them cope with a surge in "ticket rage" attacks by drivers.

Thirty assaults a week are reported on parking attendants in London alone. Even more violence is expected after proposals to increase parking fines in the capital are approved this week.

Last month, the House of Lords rejected a Bill by London authorities to make it a specific offence to attack a warden, like an assault on police.

Westminster council is training its staff in "non-confrontational" techniques. "We are disappointed the Bill was rejected because it was intended to protect staff," said Alan Bradley, chairman of the council's environment and planning committee. Camden council is also considering training its staff in self-defence tactics used by police.