Menace of the railway children: Christian Wolmar looks at the social pressures that lead to vandalism on the track

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The Independent Online
THE TRAIN accident in which two people died at the weekend after vandals had put concrete blocks on the line was sadly predictable. That it was the first time in more than a year that a train passenger had been killed in a railway collision or derailment, demonstrates not only British Rail's enormously improved safety record but also that vandalism has finally reaped its long-threatened toll.

The incident at Greenock near Glasgow was no isolated case. On average there is one incident of an object being found on the line every day, the vast majority deliberately placed there by vandals.

By luck, there have been very few fatalities as a result. The Greenock deaths were the first since 1965, when an electric train was derailed at Elm Park, near Hornchurch by pieces of metal, killing the driver and a passenger. But the practice is hardly a modern one: in 1851 five people were killed as a result of a wooden sleeper being on the line. Ironically, the suspected culprit, a 10-year-old boy, was apparently killed by lightning on the same spot a year later.

There have been many recent lucky escapes. In September 1992, three heavy metal benches were taken from Berkhamsted station in Hertfordshire and placed in the path of an InterCity express carrying 500 people, which amazingly stayed on the tracks after hitting them at 90mph. No one was hurt.

The annual report of the Health and Safety Executive, Railway Safety, lists a frightening catalogue of incidents in which concrete posts, litter bins and pieces of rail have caused derailments. As the report points out, it is an anonymous crime with little chance of the culprits being caught, since they are unlikely to stay around to admire the fruits of their labour.

British Rail always avoided publicity on incidents involving objects on lines. Its pep talks to schoolchildren concentrated on trespass - about 150 trespassers, other than suicides, are killed each year - rather than vandalism. This was to avoid spreading the message of just how easy it is to cause havoc on the network.

Railway vandalism has enormous resonance. Railways have traditionally been a cohesive force in society, linking distant parts of the country in a way that is far more exciting and inspirational than prosaic old roads and cars, binding together cities and even nations. We have always had a deep affection for railways, even though most of us rarely use trains.

Railways, in turn, are dependent on a certain level of social cohesion. They are, in effect, unpoliceable. It is impossible for Railtrack, which took over responsibility for the track and infrastructure in April this year, to keep an eye on 27,000 miles of track. Only a sense of social responsibility makes the very act of having railways feasible. They are both a civilising force, and a demonstration of a society's level of civilisation.

Recent trends have made vandalism more likely. Staff have been removed from stations, which the unions say enabled the Berkhamsted benches to be taken away. Signal boxes, which used to be littered around the network providing unofficial guards at every junction, have been combined into central locations, leaving the track unattended.

But behind all these factors lies another explanation. Because railways are impossible to police, they must operate on trust. In wartime, the first casualty is the trains, which become impossible to run because they are so prone to sabotage and destruction. It would take barely a handful of gangs of vandals around the country to make railways inoperable. There were even suggestions that objects on the Chiltern line near Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire on Wednesday were placed there by disgruntled railway staff or sympathisers, although there has been no evidence to back that up. (The line has been able to continue operating throughout the strike days, thanks to the centralisation of its signalling into one box and its modern infrastructure.)

Greenock was just the sort of location in which such an act of wanton vandalism was most likely to occur. Its local industry, shipbuilding on the lower Clyde, has disappeared; what new assembly jobs there are, are largely a female preserve. Male unemployment in Inverclyde, the local authority area, is 17 per cent, while the equivalent female figure is 4 per cent.

While it is impossible to condone what is being treated as murder, it would not be surprising if disgruntled youths with no prospect of a job in an area of extreme deprivation were to take their anger out on one of the few functioning public services in the area. The railway offers a target for their anger.

The railways, too, have changed. They are no longer such a cohesive force. They may still be loved, but no longer play such a central role in society. They will soon no longer be a public service.

Many of us now in middle age used the railway as an extended playground as children. It was a much safer thing to do in those days. The trains were slow, and, on branch lines, infrequent. There weren't electric cables and rails hanging around everywhere, except of course on Southern Region. We did not, however, return as teenagers to drop bricks on trains.

Now those little lines have long gone and the trains roar by at great speed, stopping rarely. The only thing kids can do without risking their own lives - but those of passengers and railway staff instead - is to lob stones at the trains as they whoosh past.

The crime of putting things on the line may not be new, but acts of vandalism throughout the rail network are increasing, according to the British Transport Police. They have even reported that children as young as six have been found throwing stones at trains. Unless efforts are made to restore that sense of social cohesion, what is to stop them being the ones putting concrete blocks on the line in 10 years' time?

(Photograph omitted)