Alarm over 22% rise in assaults on rail staff

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The Independent Online

Assaults on rail staff are at record levels as frustration mounts among passengers over the deterioration of train services, the network's safety watchdog said.

Attacks on railway employees rose by 22 per cent in the 12-month period to March 2001, with workers on the London Underground suffering the steepest increase. Of the 462 assaults, 169 were on Tube employees – a 67 per cent rise on the previous year. Staff were punched, kicked and sworn at during the 12 months. One driver was threatened with a knife by a group of youths.

Vic Coleman, chief inspector of railways at the Health and Safety Executive: "I feel there is an increasing level of frustration among passengers. You see frustration more than you used to. One of the key problems is that people do not feel good about the railways – their image and their performance.

"Improving the quality of service would certainly help to reduce the temptation to assault." He said it was "totally unacceptable" to inflict verbal or physical violence because of a grievance about services.

Vernon Hince, acting general secretary of the RMT rail union, said more resources should be allocated to curb assaults on staff as "a matter of urgency". The figures were just the "tip of the iceberg" because only serious assaults were reported, Mr Hince said.

"Passenger rage has escalated since railway privatisation," he said. "Our members have taken a large part of the rap, and robust measures need to be taken to ensure their protection."

The HSE's annual safety report showed deaths because of trespass or suicides on the network had increased by nine per cent to 299. Ten of the trespassers who died were under the age of 16 – four more than in the previous year.

While the number of "incidents" such as trains hitting obstructions, derailments and fires was down by five per cent – 55 per cent of them were due to vandalism.

Mr Coleman said it had been a "traumatic year" for the rail system. The 12 months to the end of March included the Hatfield derailment in which four people died and which resulted in nationwide speed restrictions as engineers tackled cracked rails. Towards the end of the period, 10 people were killed in the Selby crash, caused by a motorist falling asleep and careering on to the main east coast main line.

Confirming provisional figures released in September, however, the executive's report showed the number of collisions and derailments fell by five per cent during the year. The number of broken rails dropped by 23 per cent and the number of signals passed at danger was down by 20 per cent.

The number of rail inspectors had increased from 108 to 145 during the 12-month period and the executive intended to double the number during 2002.

Mr Coleman said there was no evidence to suggest railway safety had been compromised since Railtrack was placed into administration, but he added: "We continue to watch it [safety] like a hawk."