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Trespassers will be prosecuted

GWR sign mounted on a section of old rail at Bourne End (Bucks) in 1961. Photo: Mike Peart.

People didn’t appreciate the dangers of getting too close to wheeled traffic. As far back as the 18th century, attempts were made to keep unauthorised people away from wagonway traffic. The 1835 Highway Act included measures to prevent people being exposed to danger near railroads. As railways spread across the country, laws were passed and refined in the light of experience. According to Acts of Parliament and, for example, the 1906 Great Western Railway by-laws, ‘Wilfully trespassing upon the Railway, or any of the Stations, Works or Premises connected therewith, and refusing to quit the same upon request made by any Officer or Agent of the Company or aiding or assisting any person therein’ could attract a penalty of up to £5, or in default of payment a term of imprisonment not exceeding one calendar month. Then there were ‘Trespassing so as to expose to danger’ and ‘Trespassing after warning’ which were better value for the guilty at a maximum of £2. Mind you, £2 in 1906 would be in the region of £250 now.

Historically, trespassers appearing in court in the early 20th century came up with some creative explanations and pleas for mitigation. While they might have been acknowledged, they did result in some of those accused having to pay court costs, and/or fines usually in the range of 4/- (20p) to 5/- (25p). This list of excuses offered back then includes:

- I was only digging for worms on the railway embankment before going fishing;

- I was going round my snares to collect rabbits;

- I was collecting green food for my rabbits;

- I was shooting at rats on the railway;

- I’d shot a hare and wounded it but it got on the railway and I wanted to put it out of its misery;

- I was retrieving my ferrets;

- I was looking for game birds I’d shot which had flown and fallen over the railway boundary;

- I was looking for strawberries on the embankment;

- I needed to get to the tennis courts on the other side for a match quickly;

- We were on a walk and wanted to avoid cows in the field next to the railway;

- I was late for work and in a rush to avoid some of my pay being deducted;

- I was just leading my goat (over five tracks) in order to tether it to graze on the better grass on the opposite embankment;

- I was very worried and looking for my missing child;

- I was just retrieving my golf ball;

- We crossed the railway to get a better view of the diving pool from the top of the embankment;

- We went over four tracks to get a better view of Brooklands race track;

- I was checking the nearby colliery’s drains and culverts after heavy rain;

- I was just getting a bit of coal from the outcrops;

- We had no coal and I was trying to knock some off passing wagons;

- I was picking up lumps of coal on the tracks;

- I was saving a mile’s walk in bad weather on the way home from work;

- I went to retrieve my hat which had blown off and I then used the opportunity to walk home down the track.

Some cases, though, resulted in a fine of 10/-. That was the fine imposed in 1927 for the worm digger. That’s over £32 for the worms at current values! He might have been better off with a pennorth of maggots…..

A pre-Grouping L & YR sign. Photo: Mike Peart.

Looking now at the present day, a trespasser is defined as “someone who accesses prohibited areas of the railway, and their actions are due to deliberate or risk-taking behaviour”. One would think that in these more sophisticated days trespassing would be far less of a problem. This appears not to be the case. Between April 2020 and March 2021 there were 16,431 incidents of trespass reported on Britain’s railways. In that period, there were eleven trespasser fatalities and this doesn’t include the desperately sad figure of 253 suicides. Despite the possible fine of £1,000, trespassers got on the railway for such things as retrieving dropped wallets and purses, articles of clothing, keys and mobile phones. Others were intent on getting close to passing heritage traction, theft, graffiti and other forms of mischief. Despite CCTV at vulnerable locations, improved fencing, better communication of safety messages and improved ways to report incidents, the figures remain worryingly high with almost half of cases in the under 25 age group. Reluctantly, we have to conclude that humankind hasn’t got that much wiser when it comes to moving about on our higher speed railway away from permitted areas.

Mike Peart

Mike Peart is a former railwayman on British Railways (Western Region). He is co-author of Volumes 3 (Freight Marshalling Yards), 4 (Level Crossings) and 5 (Train Detection and Control) of the “History & Development of Railway Signalling in the British Isles” series, and Trains of Hope”, all published by The Friends of the National Railway Museum. He’s been an active Friend of the NRM since 1994 and was one of the four “schoolboy” founder members of the Great Western Society (Didcot Railway Centre) in 1961.
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