Workplace violence risks in the railway sector

Although railroad security has been an industry concern for hundreds of years, the specific threat of railway workplace violence has garnered minimal attention. Railway accidents involving fatigue, drugs or hazardous materials have grabbed headlines in recent years, but railroad employees are more likely to encounter incidents of aggression or outright violence on the job, explains Stacey Blau, Chief Operating Officer, 5326 Consultants, Inc.

The August 2017 edition of Al-Qaeda’s magazine Inspire brought renewed attention to the threat of terrorist violence on railways. Al-Qaeda urged acolytes to attack trains, citing their vulnerability compared to air travel and the prospect of casualties, widespread panic and economic damage to Western countries. The propaganda discussed how to make devices from off-the-shelf materials that could be attached to railway tracks and cause derailments.

Workplace violence risks in the railway sector

Acts of workplace violence can sometimes lead to train derailment.

There have been several lethal train-related terrorist attacks in recent years. One recent example was the April 2017 suicide bombing at a subway station in St. Petersburg, Russia that killed 15 people and injured 64 others. The most catastrophic train-related terrorist attack in history is the commuter train bombing in Madrid in March 2004 that killed 192 people, injured around 2,000 and almost certainly changed the course of Spain’s general elections a few days later.

Day-to-day workplace violence

The reality is that the overall workplace violence danger to railroad employees is much broader, but the typical day-to-day risks are less likely to attract media attention. ‘Workplace violence’ constitutes any incident in which someone, be it a co-worker, passenger or third-party actor such as a criminal or terrorist, deliberately inflicts injury or death on a worker. There are around two million workplace violence incidents reported annually in the United States, so the actual figure is undoubtedly higher, and there were nearly 5,200 workplace violence fatalities in 2016.

Although most workplace violence statistics capture physical incidents, the broader experience of workplace violence includes enduring abusive verbal communication and threats, non-verbal threats and intimidation that fall short of physical contact, sexual harassment and stalking. Even when passengers are the victims of a violent incident, the workers can suffer trauma from witnessing the incident or physical injury from handling the aftermath. Train-related suicides are a particular phenomenon, as is the traumatic shock they cause railway employees.

Statistics of workplace violence

Bringing together accurate, relevant and recent statistics on railway workplace violence is a challenge owing to the numerous and disparate job categories, duties and work environments in the railway industry. Most statistics cover the broader transportation sector and workplace violence numbers are frequently an unspecified part of wider figures for workplace injuries and fatalities, including accidents.

Statistics that have been compiled show 85 per cent of workplace violence homicide incidents involve robbery. Therefore, those who collect money, at stations, on-board while transacting with passengers or in dining cars, are at particular risk.

Statistical breakdowns of assaults against railway workers by occupation are not common. However, the ‘Rail Safety: Annual Safety Performance Report’ from the UK from 2000 to 2001 shows the following numbers of workplace violence incidents by job category that underscore the risks to all those that work in the industry:

  • Train crew (rear end): 31 per cent
  • Revenue protection staff: 25 per cent
  • Platform staff: 16 per cent
  • Other: 11 per cent
  • Not recorded: 8 per cent
  • Train crew (front end): 5 per cent
  • Other on-board staff: 4 per cent

Risks to dining car attendants can be seen in statistics for the food and beverage industry. Most fatal injuries that occur among food and beverage servers are the result of workplace violence. Of the fatal injuries for servers from 2003 to 2008, about 69 per cent were homicides, 73 per cent of those killings were shootings and 14 per cent stabbings, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics. The availability of alcohol on trains has been identified as an aggravating factor for violence.

The Bureau of Labor and Statistics have also noted that women comprise a decided minority of railway employees – perhaps as small as 11 per cent in the United States. Crude and threatening remarks from passengers, gender-based bullying by co-workers toward women who occupy job categories historically dominated by men and sexual violence are among the risks female workers face.

Workplace violence risks in the railway sector

Customers can get easily agitated if there is a problem with their tickets.

In the United States, police and security forces face the highest percentage risk of workplace violence in any job category. They suffer 650 incidents per 10,000 employees with the average worker’s risk at 6.9 per 10,000. This extreme statistic underscores the need for increased tactical training for both police and security forces to handle violent threats.

Stimulators of workplace violence

Virtually every month brings news of hundreds or thousands of railway company layoffs. Such cutbacks, as well as single firings, can turn a disgruntled employee into a violent attacker.

Anecdotal stories from railway workers across the world tell disturbing accounts of violence. Angry passengers spit at and shove platform personnel over delays that are generally the result of factors not under train workers’ control, such as crumbling infrastructure and crew shortages. Train crew on long-distance journeys may be in contact with others in confined areas for many hours or overnight, making them prey to groping, stalking and other abusive behaviours by both passengers and co-workers. Unlike bus or taxi drivers, most personnel on trains are not working in the presence of safety screens or barriers and may physically brush up against passengers whilst passing through train cars.

Fewer uniformed police and security staff are available to survey trains and facilities, thus presenting an overall greater opportunity for terrorists, criminals and predators. Non-security railway personnel often are the ‘first responders’ in drunken brawls, knife fights and domestic disputes that occur on trains. Railway personnel themselves can be injured in the fray and can themselves become hostages in volatile situations. Personnel face difficult judgement calls when confronting fare dodgers or other potential troublemakers, many of whom can threaten and intimidate. Railroad workers often work alone and in isolated or poorly-lit areas, especially those on freight trains and those in yards and depots. Many work irregular hours, including night shifts. These factors increase their vulnerability to workplace violence attacks.

Unlike airports, train stations are generally not closed systems with clear access control points. In some mass transit systems, millions of passengers stream in and out daily. Metal detectors and searches are limited, therefore anyone with the intent has the opportunity to board a train with a firearm, knife or other weapon, such as an explosive device. Guns are a major threat in the United States because of the sheer number of firearms owned by the population. The prevalence of guns strongly influences the increased threat of workplace violence as opposed to Europe or most other parts of the world.

Workplace violence risks in the railway sector

Police do not have time to regularly monitor behaviour within the rail industry.

It is impossible to monitor the entire rail network, which comprises 100,000 miles in the United States, the vast majority consisting of rail freight. Potential terrorist targets on that network are limited only by the imagination of the attackers. This poses a particular conundrum for explosions of hazardous materials on freight trains that may have a handful of personnel aboard and little or no security. They become targets because their routes pass through major population centres or key infrastructure.

The average worker – and not just in the railroad industry – is more likely to be a victim of a workplace violence incident than a fire. Railroads, like other government and private entities, are facing risks to their people as well as their property, reputation and financial health. Because the perils are clear, liability in lawsuits, government investigations and fines are becoming an undeniable risk whether the event in question is an active shooter mass casualty incident, co-worker assault or bullying. Some employers and unions have faced lawsuits for retaliating against railway workers who reported workplace violence.

Improvements going forward

Mitigating workplace violence risks is a priority. Railroads must start with implementing zero-tolerance workplace violence policies. They must actually enforce those policies and eschew any form of retaliation against workers for making workplace violence reports. They need to regularly train all employees to identify problematic behaviour (by co-workers and passengers) that could indicate a risk of a violent event and have reporting mechanisms for workers to relay information.
Workers in isolated circumstances need panic buttons and personnel need live, hands-on training that teaches them when to run, hide or fight in violent situations. Management must also put in place threat management teams to handle employees spiralling toward violence and have crisis management tools when the possibility of danger is imminent.

Railway police and security forces are largely unschooled in the tactics to handle active shooters and other violent perpetrators and they need specific and regular training in these tactics as well as de-escalation techniques to handle threats. Drastic improvements are needed to secure the safety of the rail industry’s employees and customers.


Stacey E. Blau is the Chief Operating Officer at 5326 Consultants, Inc., a Miami security consultancy founded in 2010 which focuses on workplace violence training and crisis management; executive protection, due diligence and investigations, social engineering penetration testing and related training for business, individual, military and government clients.

Related organisations

Related regions

Related people

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.