Violence against rail staff reaches 30-year high

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Britain's rail system suffered one of the most violent and lawless periods in its history last year, with a record number of attacks on staff.

Britain's rail system suffered one of the most violent and lawless periods in its history last year, with a record number of attacks on staff.

Official figures released yesterday also showed that some 300 people were killed through trespass and suicides in the 12 months to March ­ the highest figure for 10 years.

Two of the suicides involved 15-year-old boys, one of whom was killed in April last year when he placed his head on the line near Wigan. The other died on the track near Carluke, Lanarkshire, a month later after he laid down in front of an oncoming train. Ten other children died while trespassing.

Figures compiled by the Health and Safety Executive showed that a record number of people died on the network. Some 17 people were killed in train "incidents", including four in the October 2000 Hatfield derailment and six in February's Selby crash.

The number of employees attacked was the highest for at least 30 years as incidents of rail rage soared. Severe injuries to staff caused by assaults rose from 22 to 32 ­ a 45 per cent rise.

Attacks that resulted in hospital treatment or employees being off work for at least three days increased by 22 per cent ­ from 380 to 462, the annual Railway Safety Statistics Bulletin revealed. More than a third of assaults took place on London Underground.

The attacks ranged from staff being punched and kicked after asking passengers for tickets to a group of youths who threatened a train driver with a knife before throwing a bottle at him, cutting and bruising his face.

The document showed that the executive's rail inspectors issued the highest number of safety enforcement notices for five years in the wake of the Cullen report into the Paddington crash and the Hatfield rail disaster last October. Vic Coleman, the chief rail inspector, said his organisation could no longer take on trust assurances given by the industry.

The number of signals passed at danger in 2000-01 was 446 ­ down from 568 in 1999-2000. But the executive repeated its warning that the improvement was beginning to level off. The number of broken rails came to 721 ­ a 24 per cent reduction on the 1999-2000 total.

Mr Coleman said that some trends were in the right direction, but the deaths at Selby and Hatfield and the widely acknowledged weaknesses in controlling safety risks, showed there was "absolutely no room for complacency". He warned that rail companies could expect him to take tough action if safety was not improved.

Mr Coleman said: "We are trying to get through to those in the criminal justice system just how serious acts of vandalism are."

George Muir, director general of the Association of Train Operating Companies, said the rail industry had made solid progress in several critical areas. But he added: "Violence against our staff will not be tolerated and I fully support the train companies' actions to prosecute any passenger who oversteps the line. The industry must also continue to invest in the fight against trespass and vandalism."

Rod Muttram, chief executive of Railway Safety, a Railtrack subsidiary, said: "It is disappointing that the number of trespasser, suicide and workforce fatalities have increased, but the industry has launched some key initiatives to tackle these issues." He said the rise in assaults on staff was due partly to increased reporting of the problem.