During the 1830s and 1840s most cities, towns and counties of England, Scotland and Wales were without a police force, and in those places where constables did exist their numbers were hopelessly small and their performance poor.
The early railways were built by aggressive capitalists. They were unconcerned at the massive adverse social affect on cities, towns and villages that had been relatively undisturbed, and unpoliced, for centuries. Suddenly, the largest and most brutal workforce (‘navigators’) ever created descended on town and village. Thousands of hard-drinking, frequently violent ‘navvies’ subjected local people to theft, drunkenness and barbarity on a scale that created uproar and fear.
Thus Parliament demanded that those who employed the railway navvies must pay for constables to police them: policing the construction of the railways was a legal and urgent social necessity. As each line came into use the railway constables became responsible for ensuring that the lines were kept clear for passing trains and they became the first railway signalmen using flags and lamps.
But the new railways were not universally popular and landowners, chartists and the like made them the subject of frequent attack. The railway police were in the front line. In addition, all around the country, railway lines extended into commercial docks – Southampton, Hull, Cardiff, and many more. The railway police suddenly spawned ‘docks police’ too.
By late Victorian times, the railways were the means by which virtually all of the population travelled any distance – including the old and vulnerable, young and vulnerable, female and vulnerable, rich and vulnerable. And of course, those who preyed on them. Now the railway police were also required to investigate sexual offences, theft from passengers, mail robberies, thefts of freight, booking office robberies, frauds and so on.
But protecting the lines of railway from malicious damage and protecting the travelling public and railway staff from criminal attack were not their only duties. The railways had replaced the canals as the chief means of moving freight across the country, and commerce had continued to grow nationally. Tobacco, wines and spirits, clothing, the Royal Mail, virtually every valuable commodity was being conveyed and stored in railway goods yards. Railway freight quickly became a magnet for both the opportunist thief and organised criminality.
Furthermore, from the 1890s until the present day, terrorists have found the opportunity to damage and disrupt our national transport system irresistible. No other industry has suffered nearly anything like the attention of terrorists.
Whilst railway companies have always had an interest in minimizing the publicity attaching to crime on the railways, in reality it has been extremely significant.
The individual railway police departments eventually gave way to several regional railway police forces before becoming one unified force. At this time the Transport Police was the second largest police force in Britain.
It has been well over 180 years since the first railway police force started duty. In that time the railway police have been more innovative and more involved in matters of national significance than most forces in the Land.
In 1907 the railway police were the first to use police dogs anywhere in the United Kingdom.
In 1917 the railway police were the first in Britain to appoint women as sworn constables.
Today, led by a chief constable, the Force comprises about 3,000 sworn constables, 250 special constables and over 300 community support officers plus 1,500 civilian support staff. There is a large contingent of CID officers and all the specialist departments you would expect of a modern force.
Over 10,000 miles of track and 3,000 stations are policed by the Force. It serves not only Britain’s railways and London Underground but also, in conjunction with the French Police, the international Eurostar services. And, as the nation’s transport system has changed and developed, it provides policing services to London’s Docklands Light Railway, Thames Cable Car, Glasgow Subway, Midland Metro and some other similar transit systems.
By Graham Satchwell. Now retired, Graham was once Britain’s senior-most railway detective. His book An Inspector Recalls: Memoirs of a Railway Detective is a frank and intimate account of a life spent on the frontier between crime and punishment that recalls the gangsters, politics and often-questionable police culture of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s.