At 4.26pm on Wednesday 21st May, a second year university student boarded a metro train at Longshan Temple station in Taipei, Taiwan. He was carrying two knives with him. In the four minutes before the train arrived at the next station, he killed four people and injured another twenty-three.
When quizzed about the motives for the attack, the man, Cheng Chieh, told police he had wanted to do 'something big' since childhood, and that it had felt 'nice' to have stabbed four people to death. He later also admitted he found it difficult to live and, feeling unable to take his own life, he had chosen to commit mass murder in order to receive the death penalty.
Whilst this attack was the actions of a lone individual who clearly has significant mental health issues, it raises some important questions about what could be done if a similar attack should take place on London's underground?
Violent incidents on our own tube network are not uncommon. In 2012/13 there were 1,897 such incidents, an increase of more than 100 on the year before. Whilst some of these will be idiotic drunken fights, we have also seen more serious incidents such as the stabbing of 15 year old Sofyen Belamouadden at Victoria Station in 2010. Copycat attacks after incidents such as that seen here in Taiwan are not uncommon, and indeed two people have already been arrested carrying blades on the Taipei metro since the incident.
Since the horrendous terrorist attacks in London in 2005, security on our transport infrastructure has been stepped up. The British Transport Police have a more visible presence across the capital, and intelligence services and the Metropolitan Police have foiled a number of planned attacks. But we have already seen terrorists in the capital resorting to low tech weapons in the brutal killing of Lee Rigby last year, and attacks such as these are far harder for the intelligence community to monitor and intercept.
So what could be done if events such as those seen in Taipei were played out in the capital? The answer at the present time is, worryingly, very little. Under the current staffing and security structure, TfL staff cannot be everywhere on the network, and it is on-board trains where there is a worrying gap.
In Taipei, Cheng Chieh planned his actions carefully, choosing the location because he knew this was the longest gap between stations on the network. He knew that there was nothing that anyone could do to stop him during that window.
He inflicted his damage in just four minutes. In London, there are eight longer gaps between stations (including Heathrow T4 - T123), with the longest clocking in at seven and a half minutes.
Currently the only staff always present on a tube train is the driver, who is isolated in the cab. Should such an incident take place, the first thing other passengers are likely to do is to pull the emergency alarm. But in London, this action would stop the train in the tunnel, only serving to lengthen the journey and so exacerbate the attack, by allowing the attacker more time.
It is be impractical, expensive, and would be hugely unpopular, to introduce airport level security, or knife arches, across the network. But whilst there is perhaps a role for them on an ad-hoc basis, or where there is intelligence of a specific threat, the only real option to counter this threat is a regular staff presence on in carriages.
Whilst there are sometimes staff on the platforms of major stations at rush hours, underground staff are, more often than not, still to be found behind ticket desks or sat in booths by the gates.
The RMT Union argues that London Underground proposals to close ticket offices and have more staff on the platforms and concourses will make the network less safe. They need to think more progressively.
Ticket offices are no longer viable in the age of the Oyster card and contactless payments. Even train drivers will become obsolete eventually, with many networks, including the DLR, already running driverless trains.
To make the network safer for commuters, from individual attackers, terrorists, and simple drunken idiots, what is needed is the presence on each train of a staff member with the appropriate training to step in and handle such an incident, as well as informing the driver and other network staff so they can take appropriate action. At other times they can act as ticket officers, escorts for disabled and elderly passengers, and information points. This is a solution which offers a long term vision for a safe, secure, modern tube network, whilst at the same time securing jobs for many TfL employees.
This is the staffing model both unions and TFL should consider to protect jobs, provide customer service to commuters, and most importantly offer peace of mind and a level of security that is currently missing on the network, and minimising the risk of another Taipei-style attack taking place in London.Suggest a correction