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EYE IN SKY TO SPOT VANDALS; A new initiative to stamp out vandalism on the railways has taken to the skies across South Wales. Echo reporter Laura Nicklin was on board.

POLICE officers were flying high after unveiling their latest weapon in the fight against vandalism on South Wales' railways.

Throughout the Easter weekend, as part of a joint initiative by Railtrack and British Transport Police, two helicopters took to the skies to patrol the region's railway lines in an attempt to put an end to the recent spate of attacks on trains.

On Friday, I was given the chance to get a bird's eye view of what these 'flying eyes' get up to.

I was taken up in the helicopter, chartered by Railtrack for the fourday holiday weekend, for a taste of what it means to have eyes in the sky.

The helicopter I was flying in was chartered from Cardiff-based company Veritair, and was joined by the South Wales Police Helicopter.

The two choppers spent the weekend patrolling the skies over South Wales watching for people trespassing on the lines or causing damage.

While I was up in the air, I was able to appreciate what an valuable tool it really is.

On a clear day, the crew is able to survey miles of track in a matter of minutes, and quickly spot any obstacles thrown on the lines.

During the second surveillance flight, the helicopter was called to Newport where fencing had been put on the lines.

The helicopter managed to be at the scene within minutes - much quicker than even the fastest patrol car - but the culprits had already disappeared.

After the flight, I accompanied Sgt Mark Clelland, from the Cardiff section of the British Transport Police, on a tour of some of the vandalism hotspots in Cardiff.

As soon as we set off, we received a call reporting that a bike had been put on the line in a notorious trouble blackspot - Barry Wrides, near Llandaff in Cardiff.

The Barry Wrides crossing has become a particular hotspot in recent weeks.

There have been two serious incidents in the past week, one of which saw the windscreen of a train smashed.

A 14-year-old boy was arrested for endangering the safety of persons on the railway in conjunction with that incident - and the maximum sentence for the offence is life in prison.

When we arrived, Sgt Clelland checked the area thoroughly but no bike was found.

He thinks that it was children playing on the lines who may have left the bike and collected it later.

While at Barry Wrides I spoke to a group of children playing near the crossing.

They told me that it is a popular place for the older children to hang out.

One said: "The older kids come down here and throw stones at the trains, they also put stones on the tracks."

Sgt Clelland said: "They line up stones on the tracks which can be as dangerous as any large object.

"I don't think they realise the potentially fatal outcome of their actions."

Sgt Clelland said: "The school holidays are the worst time because most vandalism is committed by school-age children.

"We want to send out the message that we view these incidents as very serious and that they will be dealt with as such."

Catalogue of attacks

IN the past month the Echo has reported that:

An Intercity train travelling between Swansea and Paddington had its windscreen smashed by a brick as it passed under a bridge in Fairwater.

The driver of the train, which was travelling at 75mph, was treated for shock.

A train travelling over the Barry Wrides crossing in Llandaff, Cardiff had its windscreen smashed after a stone was thrown from beside the track.

The driver was treated for cuts to his face.

A 14-year-old boy was arrested for the Barry Wrides incident. He was arrested for endangering the safety of persons on the railway, an offence which carries a maximum penalty of life in prison.

Only hours after the arrest of the 14-year-old boy, another train was attacked at the Barry Wrides crossing.

While in the St Mellons area of Cardiff a train had a side window smashed by school-age children throwing stones.

The impact of vandalism

IN the First Great Western area, there have been a total of 1,042 incidents of trespass and vandalism between April 2001 and March 2002.

In South Wales, 3,600 minutes a month can be lost due to incidents of trespass and vandalism, which equates to 15 hours every week.

Trespass and vandalism costs the railway industry pounds 26m every year.

More than pounds 500,000 has been spent on erecting robust, high-resistant fencing in the South Wales area.

Intercity trains can travel up to 125 mph. A train travelling at that speed would take one and a half miles to stop completely.

The windscreen of high speed trains are made from specially toughened glass which consists of seven layers and is more than an inch thick.

The Veritair helicopter used in the operation was a Eurocopter Bolkow BO 105 twin turbine, which holds four passengers and has a maximum speed of 130mph.

The South Wales Police Helicopter is a Eurocopter AS 355 F2 twin turbine which has a maximum speed of 150mph and is fitted with special cameras.

CAPTION(S):

VANDALISM PREVENTION Sgt Mark Clelland of British Transport Police and Joel Morris, Cardiff Mobile Operations Manager, hope the helicopter being used, top, will help prevent crime. CAMPAIGN AGAINST VANDALISM How the Echo has reported previous stories.
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Publication:South Wales Echo (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Apr 2, 2002
Words:897
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