Back to the Future: The Historical Perspective of Collaborative Railway Policing

by Peter McAndie


Specialist railway police officers working seamlessly alongside their ‘local police’ colleagues, with increased accountability in Scotland: this is the goal to be achieved by the creation of the recently announced Scottish Railways Policing Committee.1

The committee will comprise members of both the British Transport Police Authority, and the Scottish Police Authority, charged with reviewing and reporting on the performance of railway policing in Scotland, reporting on co-operation between Police Scotland and BTP and scrutinising BTP’s public and stakeholder engagement efforts.

Great local accountability and a collaborative approach to governance is a laudable goal.  The solution in the form of the joint committee should be welcomed, not only does it bring certainty to officers about their futures, but it also represents a modern day return to governance arrangements employed by many of the first railway police forces in Scotland, formed shortly after the railways themselves, the first of which in Scotland was opened in 1831.

When considering the future of the BTP in Scotland, it is first necessary to understand the events which gave rise to the existence of a dedicated railway police in the first place.

Whilst many parts of Britain had various systems of ‘watchmen’ and the like for some years, the ‘new police’ in England and Wales was not formed until 1829, with the formation of the Metropolitan Police2, often credited as the first modern police force.

However, students of Scottish policing will recall that Carson3 argued that before the formation of the Metropolitan Police, Scotland had already begun to develop modern police forces, with constabularies being established in Glasgow as early as 1800, Edinburgh in 1805, Paisley in 1806, 1811 in Perth, 1818 in Aberdeen and 1824 in Dundee. All of these constabularies were established by Acts of Parliament.

The first known official railway police force in Britain also predates the formation of the Metropolitan Police, with the formation of the Stockton & Darlington Railway (SDR) police in 18254, though unlike the Metropolitan Police and its Scottish ancestral constabularies, the SDR police are not believed to have been established by Act of Parliament, and so perhaps cannot be fairly called a ‘modern force’.

Rather the first known enactment relating to railway policing was the London and Birmingham Railway Act of 1833 which empowered local Justices of the Peace to appoint railway constables within specified counties5, and so some 4 years following the formation of the Metropolitan Police, the London and Birmingham Railway Police are thought to be first ‘modern’ dedicated railway police force.

The first known railway police force in Scotland was the Garnkirk & Glasgow Railway police, thought to have existed as early as 1838 at a time when their duties would have included signalling trains by hand prior to the arrival of mechanical semaphore signals. Indeed, though the need to provide hand signals was quickly removed, the hand signals were later revived by ‘local police’ to manage “the new fangled motor car”.6

The primary motivation for the creation of dedicated railway police forces was to address the ‘great mischiefs [and] the outrageous and unlawful behaviour of labourers and others employed on railways…’5,7

Those employed in the building of the new railways were themselves responsible for high levels of crime and disorder and so magistrates could appoint constables and special constables for the purposes of dealing with and attempting to reduce the problem.

A key point, however, is that the cost of such policing was then recovered from the respective railway company, ensuring that the public purse did not suffer as a result.  Afterall, the railways were a private enterprise, so why should the public foot the bill for keeping the railway staff in line?

The purpose of the railway police changed upon completion of the building of individual railways and upon their opening to traffic, at which point, “it is interesting to note that the railway police, organised originally to protect the public from the railway employees, gradually developed into a force designed to protect the companies from dishonest employees and evil-minded members of the public.”7

Writing in 1943, the then Junior Assistant to the Chief of Police for Great Western Railway (later Chief Constable of BTP), Mr William Gay noted that “(t)he important thing is that the railway forces undertake certain special police duties… in the widest sense, for the benefit of the community” whilst acknowledging that the railway police could not “…hope to be successful if they did not receive the fullest co-operation from all the forces responsible for the territory through which the railways pass”.7

This remains true today, whilst Police Scotland and BTP frequently attend calls on behalf of one another, the relationship is generally viewed as asymmetrical: with Police Scotland perceived to be doing the ‘heavy lifting’ in the relationship: providing custody facilities, armed policing support, back up for officers in need of assistance, and so forth.  There are of course exceptions to this, with Police Scotland frequently benefiting from the presence and expertise of their BTP colleagues.

Some excellent and rather novel examples of the cooperation between railway and local police to which Mr Gay referred can be found: as Stacpoole-Ryding4 noted, in the early years many railway police officers were also sworn in as special constables of local borough and county police forces, giving them powers to act as constables outwith the railway, thus reducing the burden on local officers and providing an option for additional policing support to the local force when needed.

This dual status arrangement was of course not required for local officers, who already had authority to conduct police work on the railway, as upon any other private premises by virtue of their basic police powers.

This mutually beneficial relationship persists today, although the need for railway officers to be sworn in as special constables has thankfully long since been made redundant. Today local officers continue to support British Transport Police by attending calls in their absence, or in support of them, and likewise, BTP officers frequently attend incidents outwith the railway in place of, or in support of, the local police.

But why maintain separate forces?  Some critics of BTP argue that the local police often must ‘do BTP’s job for them when they’re not around’, so why not merge them?

This argument can be swiftly dealt with when one considers that the railway companies have always been ‘rate payers’ and are thus entitled to call upon the services of the local police just as any other business would. Indeed, it is on this basis that the Great North of Scotland Railway Company relied upon the local police to deal with incidents “off the beaten track” in rural parts of their railway since the start of the 20th century.6

And so, using the same logic that has been employed for over 100 years, we must see that the railways are today entitled to a policing service from Police Scotland. When this service is required, it must not be seen as Police Scotland ‘picking up the slack’ from BTP, but rather it should be considered that the railway companies pay for a policing service from the local police, a service which they do not make full use of, preferring instead to pay additional money to the BTP for their specialist service.

By contrast the average business and citizen does not pay for railway policing through taxation, and so do not enjoy the same entitlement to service from both forces that the railway companies do. This ‘relationship of unequals’ has been the source of some tension over the years: Mr Gay of the Great Western Railway Police noted that amongst some local officers there was a “lingering suspicion that…a railway police officer is not a ‘real policeman’”.7

One novel way of ensuring this tension had no adverse effect on the communities and railway involved was demonstrated repeatedly in the North of Scotland where various local chief constables were also appointed as chief constable of their local railway police force, thus ensuring that local officers “paid more than a little attention to the line”, as was the case with the Chief of Aberdeenshire Rural Constabulary, William Anderson, who by the time of his retirement in 1858 also held the posts of Chief Constable for the Great North of Scotland Railway and also the Turriff Junction Railway.6

In conclusion, the railway police have a long and interesting history, with close collaboration with ‘local police’ woven throughout. From sharing chief constables, to one force recovering costs from the other and to having officers sworn into both forces, options for smooth joint working and mutual support have long been explored and enjoyed. Ultimately however, though similar in purpose, local and railway police forces are different beasts, with different stakeholders, meaning that though the forces look similar they will in fact most likely have very different organisational identities.8

This point was not lost on Mr Gay of the Great Western Railway Police when he wrote in 1943 that “it is easy to compare [the railway police forces] adversely with the public forces, but it should be appreciated that it is really impossible to make a true comparison between forces which differ so greatly in administration, organisation and function.”

The new joint committee, bringing together those charged with oversight of BTP and Police Scotland to ensure proper, joined up oversight of the BTP in Scotland represents, in my view, a modern return to the original solution of sharing Chief Constables.  The key benefit of the old approach should surely be a consequence of the new one, and a welcome one at that: that both railway officers and local officers will pay more than just a little attention to the areas covered by their opposite number.  More cops, paying more attention, can surely only be good.  In an emergency the public want the police, they rarely care which badge is on their cap.



  1. Scottish Government. Railway policing committee created. Updated 2019. Accessed 30 July, 2019.
  2. Dinsmor A, Goldsmith A. Scottish policing – a historical perspective. In: Donnelly D, Scott K, eds. Policing scotland. 1st ed. Devon: Willan Publishing; 2009:40-61.
  3. Carson WG. Policing the periphery: The development of scottish policing 1795–1900. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology. 1984;17(4):207-232.
  4. Stacpoole-Ryding R. The british transport police: An illustrated history. 1st ed. Stroud: Amberley Publishing; 2015:32-33.
  5. British Transport Police. Police manual A guide to the criminal law and its administration, and to the general orders issued by the chief constable. London: British Rail; 1966.
  6. Conner D. The history of the scottish railway police. Updated 2002. Accessed 20 November, 2017.
  7. Gay W. The railway police. Police Journal. 1943;16:218-225.
  8. Jacobs G, van Witteloostuijn A, Christe-Zeyse J. A theoretical framework of organizational change. J Organ Change Manage. 2013;26(5):772-792.


Webmaster’s Notes:

Peter McAndie is based at BTP Aberdeen and is a BTPHG member.

This article first appeared in the January 2020 edition of History Lines.