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  The British Transport Police - Philip Trendall  
 
 

 

The British Transport Police (BTP) provide a full range of policing services within the transport network including National Rail, London Underground and light railways. Generally they work as a joined-up added value part of the Police Services of England, Wales and Scotland. They have 2,400 officers almost evenly distributed apart from a bias towards southern England. Here Superintendent Philip Trendall, Counter Terrorist Support Unit, puts their work in perspective.

This interview appeared in the Summer 2005 edition (No 39) of Custodial Review.

 

 
     
     
     
 

The British Transport Police Counter Terrorist Support Unit.

 

The British Transport Police (BTP) provide a full range of policing services within the transport network including National Rail, London Underground and light railways. Generally they work as a joined-up added value part of the Police Services of England, Wales and Scotland. They have 2,400 officers almost evenly distributed apart from a bias towards southern England. Here Superintendent Philip Trendall, Counter Terrorist Support Unit, puts their work in perspective.

Steven Mitchell (SM)                It is such a large area to cover with a relatively small number of officers with the added complication that most of your patch is on the move all the time. Just what level of security is possible?

Philip Trendall (PT)       Depends what you mean by security. We define it as a secure transport system is one where the travelling public experience a low rate of crime. Traditionally one of our problems has been distinguishing between actual crime levels and the public’s perception of crime and/or disorder…..in other words how safe they feel and that has a clear crossover into the counter terrorism field. What we can’t do in an open public transport network, especially in the SE mass transport scene, is to treat crime in the same way as in a closed network such as an airline or a ship. What we can achieve is a situation where the transport system is less attractive for the people who wish to offend, that is offenders have a good chance of being detected. Overall the control of public space should be as tight as our constitution allows to satisfy the travelling public expectations.

SM      I’m always intrigued by what experienced police officers say about surveillance equipment, CCTV et al, versus privacy issues. Is it possible to draw a happy line between the two? In other words can you keep the public safe without being intrusive?

PT        If we are going to have a system whereby a person can buy a ticket at Paddington, board a train and be off down the line in a matter of minutes, the system we are used to, then there are security complications that come with that. A greater degree of surveillance would require a change in the style of operation. People are asked to arrive at airports with the expectation that they and their luggage are going to be searched so they arrive two hours earlier than they would need to in safer times. That is not the case for a rail passenger catching the 8.10 out of Paddington. Even so there are lots of safeguards in place associated with keeping the ‘turn-up and go’ style but these safeguards have to be agreed in partnership with government, the rail operators and, most importantly, with the co-operation and support of the travelling public.

SM      It is interesting to note that American domestic airlines, prior to 9/11, used much the same style as we use trains, they turned-up and expected to be able to board with minutes to spare. After 9/11 security checks began and that caused a fracas.

PT        We can discuss tighter control but we’re not advocating it, there are some reality checks to appreciate first mostly to do with scale. There are three and a half million passenger journeys a day on the Underground and two million on the main rail networks…that is a lot of people on the move in a very short time. We have had the power to stop and search for some considerable time and have used it more frequently since the London bombings of 7th July. This is where expectation meets reality, an airline type check would bring the rail network to a halt but what lesser safeguards would be appropriate and, at the same time, maintain an efficient operation?

SM      OK, it is obvious that not everybody can be stopped and searched but aren’t there other technological fixes like CCTV surveillance. We see the cameras on London buses.

PT        There are parts of the Underground, and in other trains, that are covered by CCTV. CCTV is a whole separate subject because it’s an area of continuous development. There are many different types of incidents on the railways and the BTP has a large range of technical equipment to deal with them. But that equipment is mostly there to help an officer to make a decision, it’s not necessarily for surveillance. We keep abreast of emerging technologies by an almost continuous dialogue with scientific parts of the government and also internationally. This doesn’t stem just from the events of 7th July, it has come from a desire of the BTP to make sure we know what’s available and what’s useful in the context of our work. We liaise with foreign police forces and other international agencies to share ideas. Unfortunately we are not talking about a machine that makes people 100% safe or something that automatically goes blip when a terrorist appears.

SM      Can you talk about communications, data gathering and the collection of intelligence as a defence against terrorist activity?

PT        The lead agency for fighting terrorism is the government, that is the Home Office, security services and the MET Anti Terrorist Branch. We are linked into that most usefully by face to face discussion. If we have a bit of intelligence we can share with them, or vice versa, then the transfer takes place. We have access to each others data bases whenever relevant and/or appropriate depending on what else is happening. For a majority of our operations and in intelligence gathering the MET are in the lead. They have national responsibility for co-ordinating terrorist investigations as opposed to preventive counter terrorism operations. We don’t see any territorialism in that, the Met have the capability and it is best that they do it. We have a particular expertise in counter terrorism within the railway network stemming from years and years of dealing with Irish Republican terrorism which started in the 1880s. We haven’t got anyone here who remembers it personally! That and the attacks from 1974 onwards have given us an insight into such tactics although the current international situation is different in many ways. We were able to learn a lot from colleagues in Madrid and in Paris after attacks on their rail systems.

SM      From a layman’s point of view it seems impossible to counter the actions of a determined terrorist in an open society, and transport systems are particularly vulnerable.

PT        Not really, in the same way anybody can walk along Oxford Street with a weapon or for that matter any city, town or village with evil intent. What we can and continue to do is to make sure that the railway system, in partnership with the rail industry, has a status that is a clearly controlled public space. Therefore we are not talking about being able to screen out and exclude every wrong doer that might pass through the portals, say, of Waterloo…..what we are saying is that it might be easier for the terrorist not to attempt their offences there. Irish Republicanism provides a good example, during the 90s the railways were a popular target until the terrorists  were caught on CCTV and were tracked through the system. Of course in the case of suicide bombing the work must go much deeper, asking why these people want to attack, why they want to use that mode and to discover exactly what motivates them in the first place. That entails working with and understanding communities. It’s not just about trying to protect people from railway bombers because in many ways that is much too late because the very best that can happen is that they will be intercepted or deflected. What we need to do is to solve the problem much earlier on.

SM      But in the meantime you have a system that makes it very difficult for a terrorist to get to a predetermined target and hopefully be deflected from their purpose.

PT        The railway system is full of eyes and ears, those of the travelling public and the railway staff. Although there are many unstaffed parts of the network the densely populated, potential target areas, do have staff and they are very good at noticing what is normal and what is not. There is such a thing as a railway community, 130,000 employees and five million passengers who mostly understand the pattern of their journeys even who usually sit in the same carriage. Mixing with the railway community is a very dicey business for somebody not keen to be noticed. We had a meeting not long ago when the subject of rail enthusiasts, train spotters, came up. As a group they are very knowledgeable about railway routine and from our point of view, rather than being viewed as a nuisance, they are a useful form of surveillance. Then nearly everybody carries a mobile phone and we have a terrorist hot-line direct.

SM      How do you encourage the railway community to keep their wits about them and report things unusual?

PT        Mostly by poster campaigns. There are poster campaigns running at the moment on the underground that says, ‘You might be stopped and searched but this is part of the process for keeping you safe’. Sometimes stopping people is difficult because they are hurrying to their destinations. Also posters asking people for information, we get a lot of response from that, and others about not leaving luggage unattended and challenging other people’s luggage.

SM      Interesting that because of the famous British reserve, counter-intuitive, not my business so leave it alone….a culture you have to overcome?

PT        That’s right. Our American counterparts use the same technique but take it a bit further. The Washington Metro have a poster that says, ‘Hey is that your bag?’ I can’t imagine us being that strident. We often have a supervisory officer on hand when we need to stop and search someone mostly, of course, with a negative result. The supervisor will approach the person after the search to see what they felt about it, whether they felt reassured or that it could have been done better The style of encounter between the police and public is all important, we want people to feel reassured, not victimised.. We also have meetings with rail users representatives, the unions and the managements.

SM      How do you view your future work?

PT        Well the aim will be the same, that is the safety of the travelling public, but the techniques the BTP use have been evolving rapidly. Events in Madrid and London have moved things forward even more. The efficient running of the transport system in the UK is essential to our well being and will develop to meet the needs of society. Our job is to develop our techniques accordingly, even to anticipate situations, and that is what we shall be doing.

 Our message to the travelling public is that we have reaped the benefit of the planning we have done and all the exercises we have undertaken although we might have cursed them at the time. We have practised dealing with many forms of attack along with our colleagues in other agencies. Exercises are never perfect but we can say they were successfully concluded and a lot was learned. Of course we learn from experience, for example the crash at Moorgate 28th February 1975 helped to plan what we and the other emergency services would do if we had a crash in a tunnel. That planning helped the Met Anti-Terrorist Branch, Fire Brigade and the Ambulance Service cope with the outrage at Kings Cross recently.

SM      Thank you Philip for taking time to speak with the Review.

 

 




 
   
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