Working in the wake of 7/7

THOSE words '7/7' became imprinted on British history, when 52 people were killed and more than 700 injured by four suicide bombers in London. Today, two years on, the threat of terrorism has changed the way British Transport Police work forever.

By Tracey Sparling

THOSE words '7/7' became imprinted on British history, when 52 people were killed and more than 700 injured by four suicide bombers in London. Today, two years on, the threat of terrorism has changed the way British Transport Police work forever.

In the first of a four-part series going behind the scenes at London Liverpool Street station, features editor TRACEY SPARLING visits our gateway to the capital where officers are poised, on 'critical' alert.

FOR two years Pc Lee Williamson had waited for the moment - the moment when he would be called upon to defend Britain from terrorism.

Then it happened, on July 7, 2005, right on his beat.

When the explosion happened between Aldgate and Liverpool St underground stations, and in the hours which followed he kept watch at a hospital where a suspect's bid to evade capture ended in vain.

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PC Williamson said: “I had just passed trough Warren Street ten minutes before the explosion happened, on my way to work. I was getting changed when I heard about it on my radio.

“I was put on a cordon outside University College Hospital in Euston Road, when we received a report that a suspect was in the public area of the hospital.

“I'd spent two years of my career waiting for the terrorist incident that our superiors had warned us would happen. We were aware the railways were a prime target after the IRA in the past, so we were pretty well prepared for it. But every single day that radio had crackled with information about other incidents, and I got to thinking 'it hasn't happened, so it's not going to happen.'

Acting Sgt Roberts said: “On 7/7 I was at home on a day off, but got in as soon as I could and helped at King Cross. In times like that our welfare officers come into their own. The chaplain was serving hot food at 2am, and officers were just amazing.

“I think the perception of BTP, in the eyes of the public, changed from that day on.”

Looking back on that day a year on, Lee and colleague acting sergeant Ben Roberts can see despite the horror, some good came from the wreckage.

BTP officers are often associated with service delays following accidents on the line, but acting sergeant Roberts said: “The praise we received after that day showed people really acknowledged the efforts everybody made. Our priority is to be on the lookout to keep people safe.”

As we speak, a traveller tugs at the sleeve of Pc Williamson, saying he has spotted an unattended bag chained to a post by the station's entrance.

After a brisk walk outside Pc Williamson soon spots the big red kit bag and finds its owner some distance away, who claims he is running a team of charity collectors and thought it would be all right to store their belongings there.

BTP attend all sorts of incidents on the railways, from accidents and derailments to suicides and robberies - not forgetting Ipswich v Norwich football matches!

There may be just two British Transport Police covering a huge area, as officers from Liverpool Street can be deployed to Bishops Stortford, Enfield, Romford, Tottenham, Hackney or Chelmsford for example.

Acting sgt Roberts said: “Every incident is different and there are 300 a year in the country, which all need investigating. It is our job to find out whether a body on the tracks was an accident, suicide or a suspicious case of murder. We do everything from responding to the initial call, to identifying the victims and informing their families.

He added: “There's always someone here, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, it's quite intensive.”

Their counterparts in the 'regular' police may taunt them with cries of 'tickets please' but Pc Williamson said people travelling without a ticket are statistically more likely to be wanted for another crime.

“You would think they'd want to stay in the background,” he said, “but quite often they seem to draw attention to themselves by not buying a ticket. Criminals don't buy tickets, if we catch people travelling without one there may well be further crimes they are guilty of. It's not uncommon to find people who are wanted for other crimes that way.”

A Canadian tourist interrupts, asking to take a photograph of the cops on parade.

Pc Williamson said: “Tourists just want a snap because we are often the first British police officers they see on arrival in the UK - if they've come on the Stansted Express for example.

It soon becomes obvious that BTP are seen as an unofficial tourist information service for the many holidaymakers and daytrippers passing through Liverpool Street.

We retreat to the City of London police station just across the road, to the sanctuary of the canteen where their colleagues are enjoying hearty fryups for breakfast.

Acting sergeant Roberts said: When we're on the station we are very high visibility in our green jackets, so a lot of people ask us for assistance.

“Sometimes I wish we could have cardboard cutouts of us pointing the way to Brick Lane on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights! That's not a bad idea! Then we end up pointing they way to places we are standing right next to - I don't mind helping people but they have to put a bit of effort in first.

“On Thursday Friday and Saturday nights it can be really hectic with people drinking and enjoying themselves - drinks after work in the City is a big event. We do expect lot more disorder at those times. We see people missing their last train home to Ipswich, thinking they can squeeze in a cheeky MCDonalds before running to the train, then we get people stranded in London. We help point them to hotels but when they are 15 or 16 years old that becomes a problem because we have a duty of care to them.”

They deal with people from all walks of life, and tell the story of one local vagrant who hangs around Liverpool Street.

Pc Williamson laughed: “He takes his false eye out and throws it at you, he thinks it's funny.”

He added that an ancient law states a policeman must give up his helmet if a pregnant woman needs to urinate -in it. “We often get questioned about these old wives' tales” he laughed. “Luckily mine has vent holes in it if I ever get asked that.”

Acting sgt Roberts said: “We do see some strange things. Flash mobbing is the latest thing, where 1,000 people turn up as an organised event - like when they turned up out of the blue to dance to their i-Pods. It was really weird to see all these people dancing in a silent station for ten minutes, then they just went away. It's a sort of abstract art. Sometimes you just go with it but if they are causing a public nuisance you have to act.”

When it comes to crime, I hazard a guess that it must be hard to identify offenders on a patch with such a transient population.

PC Williamson admitted it is difficult, and said a little thank you for the successes goes a long way: “We get a whole lot of crime given to us to investigate which you cannot solve, so when you do get a crime where you can identify the offenders, and can make that call to the victim to say he's going to be arrested, then people are very very grateful.

“We don't always get it right or we might be having a bad day - sometimes when you're stuck on a train at 2am in the pouring rain it's not much fun - but when somebody says your work is appreciated it's great.”

With both plain clothed officers and those in high visibility gear, the force proactively tries to spot people who might be a risk to others. One recent initiative has been Operation Shield, asking passengers to walk under a metal detecting arch to find potential weapons. Acting sgt Roberts said: “We found one guy had a machete down his trousers.”

After a rise in bicycle thefts, police installed dummy bikes fitted with tracker devices to help catch offenders. There are also a lot of security measures which travellers don't notice, like the automatic number plate recognition cameras in car parks, 350 cctv cameras, hourly security sweeps of station, and face recognition software.

Pc Williamson once pulled a man off a bridge who was trying to kill himself, but not every job is so dramatic. Acting sgt Roberts said wanting to help people and keep them safe was the main aim.

He said: “It's the ethos behind every officer who joins. They don't go into this role for a nine-to-five, Monday to Friday job. In some small way they are trying to make a difference to somebody's life.

“They might not tell you because they're too macho to admit it, but deep down it's true.”

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Tomorrow: Why Liverpool Street Station's manager goes station-spotting on her holidays.

British Transport Police has increased staffing levels across the UK rail network, in response to the current increased security threat.

To provide reassurance to the travelling public and rail staff, patrols have been increased at key mainline stations, stations which interchange at airports and on some train services.

To deter crime, officers are currently making more use of stop and search under the Terrorism Act.

Vehicles driving in to mainline stations, as well as passengers, will be subject to random searches by officers for the foreseeable future.

Passengers and station staff have been warned to be extra vigilant and report any suspicious activity immediately.

Liverpool Street is the biggest station in country, in terms of passenger numbers at 400,000 a day.

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