Alastair Dalton: Expertise in dealing with rail suicides will be ever more vital

British Transport Police would be merged with Police Scotland under Scottish Government proposals
British Transport Police would be merged with Police Scotland under Scottish Government proposals
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They are both tragic incidents and the cause of one of the biggest disruptions for train passengers.

Suicides on the railways regularly lead to the cancellation of large numbers of trains and widespread delays across the network.

The effect of every incident can already be significant, but is likely to only become more so as both the number of trains and passengers increases over the next few years.

As The Scotsman reported on Monday, more than 230 trains more a day are due to be running in Scotland by 2021 - another one in ten - among nearly 1,300 extra across Britain.

The number of journeys being taken on the network is already at an all-time high, at more than 1.7 billion - twice as many as 20 years ago.

In Scotland, the total has reached 95m, with current ScotRail operator Abellio planning to far exceed 100m by the time its franchise ends in 2025.

The huge cost of rail suicides made for a sobering evidence session at the Commons transport committee this month, when Samaritans chief executive Ruth Sutherland told MPs the average cost of each incident to the rail industry alone is £230,000.

She said one death last year cost more than £1 million. With 250-300 suicides a year, that’s a staggering total approaching £70m.

Significantly, the figure is also on top of the estimated £1.6m cost to the state of a life lost.

That huge cost to the industry in terms of disruption, compensation and train drivers taking sick leave after incidents is alas because the railways are a sitting duck.

They unfortunately provide a macabre draw for those deciding to kill themselves, far greater than any road - with the network then paralysed in the aftermath of such horrific events.

The current significance of the issue is the Scottish Government’s planned merger of British Transport Police (BTP), which patrols the rail network, with Police Scotland.

At stake is the impact of the move on the skill, sensitivity and efficiency of officers handling such incidents.

There have been claims, including from ScotRail, that when Police Scotland officers have been involved, it has taken far longer on occasion for trains to get running again.

The operator has pointed to an incident in 2015 at Carluke in South Lanarkshire which BTP officers identified as a suicide just over an hour after it happened, but the line remained closed for approaching another two hours because Police Scotland wanted to treat it as a crime scene.

BTP has just 284 officers north of the Border compared to more than 17,000 at Police Scotland, which suggests it could have staff more readily at hand than the rail force to help deal with incidents, especially in remoter areas.

However, the specialist knowledge of operating in such a discrete and separate environment can be crucial, and it is not for nothing that bemused outsiders sometimes regard the railways as a parallel universe.

There are also concerns at the potential fate of such expertise if BTP is to be swallowed up by an organisation already struggling to save money, and battling many other challenges.

As politicians continue to mull over the proposals, the industry will want to stress that the railways are no niche part of the Scottish economy but will play an increasingly important role as a catalyst in the country’s future development.

Keeping the system moving will be ever more vital.