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`Q' train police to target rail vandals

HELICOPTERS and "dummy" commuter trains carrying police and a small army of plain-clothes officers are to be mobilised in the biggest crackdown on railway track vandals.

The new tough approach follows an experiment by Railtrack during the half-term holidays last October. The strategy was used on lines out of London's King's Cross and was so successful that it is set to become standard procedure. The "blitz" resulted in 27 trespassers being apprehended and one arrest.

Vandalism costs Railtrack pounds 26.6m a year in repairs and nearly 11,000 hours of delays to trains. A spokesman said: "After the success of the last operation it is something we are looking to see if we can do in other parts of the country."

Railtrack hired two helicopters, from the Metropolitan and Hertfordshire police forces, at a cost of pounds 4,000, to target the line from King's Cross to Huntingdon and also lines to Hertford and Royston.

The week-long exercise, dubbed Operation Scarecrow, involved teams of Railtrack and West Anglia Great Northern Railway staff together with British Transport Police.

It also used "Q trains" - special trains carrying police officers who can jump out and tackle trespassers and vandals located by the helicopter and ground patrols. Each ground patroller carried a mobile phone and pager and had access to lineside telephones to call up assistance.

The teams uncovered two serious incidents. One involved a group of children firing missiles at passing trains, and another concerned a man who was seen riding a motorbike alongside the East Coast Main Line track, where trains travel at speeds of up to 140mph.

Railtrack is planning to repeat the exercise at Peterborough during the Easter half-term holiday, but will not use the helicopter because of the smaller area involved.

The strategy is one of a series of campaigns aimed at stopping the railways from being used as a playground. "It is one more step to getting the message over and one more method to combat the problem," said the spokesman.

Figures from the Railway Inspectorate show vandalism is a serious problem. There were 1,098 train accidents due to vandalism in the year to March 1998 - almost 10 times the 163 recorded in 1991-1992 - half of which involved missiles being thrown at trains.

Last winter 100 passengers had a lucky escape when a sleeper train ploughed into two stolen vans that had been abandoned on the London Euston-Inverness line.