Tackling alcohol consumption on Britain’s railways

Despite managing one of the safest railways in Europe, UK operators are still faced with the serious consequences of excessive alcohol consumption. Recent research showed that 60% of passenger deaths and assaults over the past decade were alcohol-related. So what can rail companies do to help eliminate this risk to personal safety and security to both staff and passengers?


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Over the past decade, technological advancements, paired with raising passenger awareness and tightening guidance and regulation, means that the UK has now become the safest rail network of its size in Europe.

However, some issues still remain when it comes to alcohol-related dangers to both travellers and staff, particularly during the holiday season, when a greater number of inebriated passengers find their way home

According to a new report published by the industry’s independent safety body RSSB, alcohol intoxication was identified as a factor in 66% of deaths at the platform train interface (PTI) in the past 10 years. A further 40% of passengers assaulted or abused on the railways believe their assailant was intoxicated, and staff reported that approximately 60% of assaults that they had personally experienced were alcohol-related.

“Over the most recent five years, 2010 to 2015, it was actually worse than in the previous five years,” says James Page, senior communications manager at RSSB.

More cases reported

New data released by Network Rail shows a 25% increase in alcohol related incidents across the rail network in December, compared to the beginning of the year. Over the past five years, over 4,000 alcohol related incidents have been reported and 44% of all such cases reported last winter involved alcohol.

The rise can be mostly attributed to better reporting and data collections systems put in place, but also to the increase of rail passengers over the years. The total number of passenger journeys in Britain reached 1.69 billion in 2015-16, compared to 1 billion in 2005-06, Office of Rail and Road (ORR) data shows.

At the same time, train companies have also given more than £2bn in funding to the British Transport Police (BTP) over the last ten years, and over 33,000 CCTV cameras now cover stations and trains around the country.

The updated industry guide published by RSSB highlights the challenge the industry continues to face, namely striking a balance between providing an appropriate level of protection to passengers who have consumed alcohol, while at the same time protecting front line staff from anti-social and criminal behaviour.

Treading a fine line

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“Rail transport is very safe and if people are going out drinking it is probably one of the safest ways to get home,” says Paul Leach, human factors specialist at RSSB and author of the report.

“They are not getting into an unlicensed taxi, they are not wandering around the streets, and so you need a kind of balance between managing their safety and interacting with people who are very intoxicated.”

The updated guide focuses on ten measures that can be implemented to manage the risk presented by inebriated passengers, such as increased staffing levels, increased CCTV coverage and improvements to station design in terms of lighting, handrails and non-slip surfaces.

“There are multiple operators with different issues related to intoxication, and there isn’t a generic problem across the entire network,” Leach says. “It can be quite specific to operators, certain stations and locations. We need to identify and pinpoint what are the specific alcohol related risks, and manage those, instead of looking at a generic approach across the entire network.”

RSSB is preparing to launch a public awareness campaign in association with Network Rail in December. Under the ‘Lend a helping hand’ banner, posters will be displayed at train stations, as well as notices on screens in busy stations.

“An integrated approach would be even better and we are planning to try and facilitate that sometime in the New Year,” Leach says.

Could an alcohol ban be the answer?

In 2012, Scotland’s rail operator ScotRail banned alcohol consumption on its trains between 9pm and 10am, in response to a hike in anti-social behaviour reported by its passengers. At the time, ScotRail maintained that the crackdown was designed to send out a clear message that anti-social behaviour at stations and on trains would not be accepted and it aimed to “prevent a small minority having a disproportionate negative impact on the majority of passengers”.

In the months closely following the ban, alcohol-related offences on trains spiked towards the end of the year, but 18 months down the line, authorities hailed the move as a success.

Would a similar ban be the answer on the rest of the UK’s network?

"Over 33,000 CCTV cameras now cover stations and trains around the country."

“I don’t think a blanket ban would be the solution,” Leach says. “I think a full alcohol ban is probably unrealistic in that you want people to use this mode of transport and you want them to use the train when they are intoxicated, because it means they won’t try to get into their cars.”

One technique that has worked was introducing dry trains only during certain popular events that draw big crowds and celebrations, such as football matches.

Network Rail also targets specific areas of the railway, Page says.

“I know they do a lot of work with communities who live in and around level crossings, and they look at creative ways to raise awareness, such as putting posters up in pubs near the level crossing.”

Drawing inspiration from other sectors

One tool that could have applications in the rail industry is a data-sharing app such as SmartGUARD, which allows information about anti-social behaviour to be shared with other members of staff. This way, someone who was banned from a station or train due to their abusive or threatening behaviour would not be allowed entry by mistake by another member of staff.

Today, SmartGUARD is being used in airport security, as well as retail stores, events and venues.

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“I think it would be a useful thing,” Leach says, “but while an airport is more of a closed system, the rail industry is what we call an open-network, you can get on or off at any stop, some stations are manned some are unmanned, and different stations are owned by different operators.

“So using this app would involve a bit more thinking as to the practicalities of how it can actually be used.”

Ahead of the launch of public-facing campaigns at the beginning of 2017, industry bodies are currently working with members of the community in and around railway stations, for a multi-pronged approach to tackling the issue.

“We’ve spoken about people who own pubs and venues at or around the station, to work together and make sure that when people are drinking, they are safe,” Page says.

“It would be foolish for us to think that we’re going to do a campaign at the start of December and suddenly see a change in attitude and the number of incidents. I think it’s a positive step, but it will need to be a continued campaign. We need to spend several years focusing on the problem and educating people.”