Rail passenger security screening

The results of a DfT commissioned study into understanding passenger and stakeholder perceptions towards the enhanced screening measures have been published

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in London on July 7th 2005, the Department for Transport (DfT) introduced a security screening programme known as the ‘LUNR trials’ (London Underground, National Rail). The trials were introduced in 2006 to explore a variety of ways in which explosives could be detected on the transport network. Research carried out in 2006 to gauge public opinion in response to these trials found attitudes to be largely positive towards the programme, however, on the whole passenger respondents were not willing to accept major delays to their journey or forego personal privacy as a result of security screening. The screening programme was updated in June 2008 with enhanced x-ray technology and dogs trained with the ability to screen moving passengers.  
Central to the future development of the enhanced screening measures is an understanding of passengers’ and stakeholders’ experiences of the measures, and as such their perceptions of them in the wider context of transport and national security. Research was commissioned last year to investigate these experiences further, with the specific objectives being:

  • To provide understanding about passenger perceptions of screening and reactions to this screening programme and to explore how these vary depending on the level and type of screening experience (e.g. screened by x-ray or by detection dog);
  • To learn about the perceived operation of the screening process and to identify ways of improving the process for passengers; and, 
  • To explore how the screening programme influences passenger perceptions towards their security and transport security in general and whether there are any unintended consequences.

This report presents the findings of qualitative research designed to explore passenger and stakeholder perceptions of the use of explosives detection security screening in mainline railway stations. In total, 36 depth interviews and ten mini-discussion groups were carried out with passenger respondents recruited across four stations (London Paddington, London Waterloo, London Liverpool Street and Birmingham New Street). Those passengers recruited had experienced the screening, or had seen either type of screening taking place.
In addition, ten depth interviews were conducted with British Transport Police (BTP) and wider rail sector stakeholders. Qualitative research is valuable in providing in-depth insights into perceptions and attitudes across key groups. It is worth noting, though, that qualitative research uses small, purposive samples and as such the findings cannot be generalised to the wider population.  

Predeterminded mindsets
A key finding of the research was that passenger respondents’ perceptions of the screening measures tended to be directed by the mindsets they already held about transport and national security. A scale of acceptance, often reflecting these key respondent mindsets, was evident in the immediate in-station reactions.  
The scale of acceptance ranged from those who were overtly positive about any security measure designed to protect the public, to some who were opposed to anything that they perceived to restrict freedom of movement or as a potential breach of civil liberties. The mid-range included those who were unquestioning or accustomed to security screening, as well as those who were slightly more wary or dubious.
Predetermined mindsets often went on to influence passenger respondents’ experiences and perceptions of the measures, and ultimately their expectations from them.

Police visability
The first point at which the predetermined mindset of passenger respondents became clear was on seeing the police. Indeed, the visible police presence prompted four main types of reactions amongst respondents, often reflecting their personal values on security and/or policing in general: familiarity, reassurance, vulnerability and animosity.
The reactions of several passenger respondents reflected the fact that they had become accustomed to seeing the police in stations, and as such the presence of the police went unnoticed. However, overall, many passenger respondents felt a sense of reassurance on seeing the police. In this light, respondents felt the police presence would increase their general safety in the station. Both BTP respondents and wider stakeholder respondents also placed a great deal of value in visibly reassuring passengers.  
However, others perceived the police presence in less favourable terms; for some the police evoked an increased sense of risk or self-awareness, while others were negative about a perceived excessive focus on security.

Experiences of the screening
Passenger respondents’ experiences of the screening process also impacted on their subsequent perceptions of screening overall. Again, reactions often reflected the predetermined mindsets with which passenger respondents entered the station.  In particular, the approach taken by the police was generally seen to be proactive and positive. Some passenger and stakeholder respondents recognised the important symbolic function that the screening devices provided as evidence of such a proactive approach to policing. In addition, experiences of being selected for screening further compounded this for some, while others began to question the reasoning behind the selection process.
The features of the measures themselves also fed into levels of acceptance amongst some passenger and stakeholder respondents. For example, having their bags screened by the x-ray machine gave some passenger respondents greater scope to experience the proactive and friendly approach of the police. Overall, however, the dog screening was seen to be less invasive and quicker.

Awareness & understanding

A key finding of the research is that awareness of the purpose of the screening was low amongst passenger respondents; many believed the police were screening for drugs, knives or guns. As such it was rarely the counter-terrorist objectives of the screening that drove acceptance.
BTP stakeholder respondents and observations revealed that the level of information available to passengers was low, and therefore the low levels of awareness could be attributed to this. In line with this, the research suggests that there was a slightly higher association with counter-terrorism and the x-ray machine, rather than the detection dogs. This could be linked to the greater interaction with the police during the x-ray screening process, during which reference was made to the Terrorism Act under which passengers were stopped.
On the whole, however, where counter-terrorism was cited as the purpose of the screening, this was simply added to a list of things passengers thought the police could possibly be screening for.

Functionality, detection & deterrence
BTP stakeholder respondents saw many advantages in the two devices being used during the same deployment, including being able to focus on the x-ray screening during periods when the dogs needed to rest. However, being relatively less portable and flexible than the detection dogs, the x-ray machine was seen as relatively less appealing by both the BTP and wider stakeholders.  
Passenger respondents’ limited experience meant they did not comment widely on the perceived capability of the measures, but a few raised concerns about potential health risks and the machine’s reliability.
As part of their reflection on their experiences, passenger respondents started to question the detection and deterrent capabilities of the deployments. Indeed, while there was an underlying sense that ‘something is better than nothing’, the lack of frequency and coverage in deployments was felt to limit their effectiveness for passenger and stakeholder respondents. As such, passenger respondents came to rationalise that deployments may actually displace the terrorist threat to other stations or areas. In addition, there was a sense that money may be better spent on addressing other passenger fears such as anti-social behaviour on transport.

Information & communication needs
Passenger respondent information priorities varied according to their predetermined mindsets, in-station experiences of the screening and perceptions upon reflection. For example, while some wanted confirmation of their rights in the process, others simply wanted to know what happens during the process itself, and others didn’t require any additional information at all.
As such four different passenger typologies have been identified through the research: Supporters, Passive accepters, Questioners and Objectors. Each typology has its own attitudes, information needs and risks associated with the provision of additional information. While passenger typologies are not static and do overlap, they show the complexities in developing a communication strategy for the screening measures.  
For wider stakeholder respondents, information dissemination was about reconfirming how the measures can be beneficial for their customers, particularly in terms of public reassurance, which was a key motivator for them. In order to ensure stakeholder buy-in is not jeopardised, any significant knowledge gaps should also be addressed.

Developing passenger screening
When reflecting on the features which respondents felt would create the ‘ideal’ deployment for them, passenger respondents felt that the focus should be on reassuring passengers and appeasing negative mindsets. For example, passenger respondents felt that deployments would need to be police-led, focused on the dogs, quick and non-invasive.  
While some passenger respondents thought there should be an increase in frequency and coverage of deployments, the current format of deployments was not seen to lend itself well to this.
Wider stakeholder respondents focused on the need to develop the x-ray screening technology in the future were the frequency of deployments to be increased. BTP stakeholder respondents discussed ways to improve the deployability of the devices.

Public reassurance
Overall, it has been shown that public reassurance has driven much support for the current screening measures, amongst both passenger and stakeholder respondents. Indeed, the visibility of the police in the station was shown to provide a strong sense of reassurance to those who had the predetermined mindset of being accepting, or unquestioning. Wider stakeholder respondents also valued the reassurance the visible police presence gave to their customers, with the benefits for wider station security being important in this.
Equally, passenger respondents, on the whole, liked the proactive and friendly approach of the police when they actually interacted with them. Strongly linked to this was the reassurance seen to be provided by the screening devices themselves. Indeed, the research showed that the screening devices also symbolised the proactive approach of the police. This was perhaps most clearly seen in the distinctions made between this type of screening and wider stop and search functions of the law. In many respects, the screening devices were also seen to facilitate the positive interaction with the police and as such strengthen the reassurance the police provided.  
However, it became evident throughout the research that the explosives detection dogs were seen in a more favourable light than the x-ray machine by many; on the whole, the dogs were thought to facilitate a quicker, less intrusive screening experience. Perhaps central to this were the views on being selected for screening, as being selected for x-ray screening had the greater potential for sensitivities to develop, while the dog screening was seen to remove human bias from the process.  
The research has also clearly shown that there were limitations to the screening from a public reassurance perspective. Primarily, the predetermined mindsets of passenger respondents have been shown to dictate perceptions of the screening to a great extent. In particular, it is questionable whether there is a way of making screening more acceptable for those with the most negative mindsets towards security, the police and the ‘big brother’ issue in general. Moreover, though the experience of the screening has been shown to potentially reassure those who enter the station with a more questioning or wary mindset, it can also increase a sense of vulnerability in others. For example, some respondents became self-conscious on seeing the police, and started to question why they had been selected for screening.
In addition, even where passenger respondents tended to be accepting and reassured in the station, the research has shown that reflecting on the specific counter-terrorist purpose of the screening (as opposed to general crime deterrence) can reduce reassurance.

Detection & deterrence
The research also revealed that the screening is potentially more reassuring from a deterrence perspective than a detection one, despite a general consensus that tangibly measuring its deterrent capabilities cannot be done. Both stakeholder and passenger respondents felt ‘something is better than nothing’ from a deterrence point of view and for many, the deterrence value of the deployments was thought to be a key rationale for the screening.  
That said, the level of reflection which the research prompted caused some respondents to identify perceived limitations of the measures. For example, many passenger respondents raised questions surrounding the lack of frequency and coverage in the deployments, in that smaller stations were typically not included, and the time spent in each was limited. However, addressing these doubts is clearly not a clear-cut process. While increased frequency and coverage could begin to address the doubts respondents had about the detection and deterrent capabilities of the devices, it could simultaneously raise concerns about the possibility for increased delays to passenger journeys.

It is clear that the design of future deployments needs to take account of the finding that reassurance is central to acceptance, focusing on features such as proactive policing to do this. In addition, there are implications for how deployments can appease negative mindsets. For example, the passenger experience needs to ensure the impact and burden on them is as low as possible.
However, the research has also clearly identified knowledge gaps amongst passenger respondents, particularly in terms of the purpose of the screening. The design of future communications needs to maintain and build on the reassurance that deployments provide as well as avoid moving passengers towards the ‘objector’ typology. Therefore, future communication strategies will need to navigate the different passenger information needs and ensure that dissemination meets the public interest.
For example, the research suggests that there are clear knowledge gaps from the passengers’ perspective in awareness about the purpose of the screening, and the factors related to this (the use of the law, citizens rights and whether selection is intelligence led, to name but a few). The current communication methods do not appear to provide passengers who are sensitive with reassurances on key elements of the screening, such as why they have been selected for screening. However, the research has also begun to highlight that when knowledge and awareness of the purpose of the screening is developed, passengers begin to reflect on the capabilities of the screening to detect and deter. Such reflection caused some passenger respondents to question the legitimacy of the screening measures, which implies that increased knowledge could undermine the levels of reassurance provided by the screening.  
Therefore, the primary consideration for the future development of a communication strategy is balancing these two needs, while constantly being aware of shifting social and political influences on passenger mindsets. In the current climate, it could be recommended that any communication strategy would clarify that the deployments are part of a suite of measures rather than the main approach to counter-terrorism, reassuring that public that intelligence-led policing remains a major weapon against terrorism. In this same vein, the message needs to be conveyed and spread that deployments are countering terror as well as other crime and anti-social behaviour. Therefore, it could also be recommended that communications would also reinforce the value seen in the police multi-tasking at deployments; there are clear benefits in terms of reassurance when wider stakeholder and passenger respondents believe the screening increases safety in general.
Implications for the development of a knowledge base amongst stakeholders differ somewhat to those of passengers. Indeed, while many of the findings for BTP and wider stakeholders overlap with those of passengers, there are key differences. The stakeholders engaged within this research were predominantly aware of the counter-terrorist purpose of the screening due to their involvement with it. Given the findings from passenger respondents, one would expect that wider stakeholders would therefore be somewhat questioning about the capabilities of the screening. However, the research showed that acceptance and support for the screening was high amongst the small number who took part in the research. But where public reassurance or acceptance came under question (for instance if roll-out would imply passenger delays) wider stakeholder respondents became more dubious about the screening measures. As such if stakeholder support is to be maintained and developed consideration should be given to how the screening is beneficial to them, and the potential for public reassurance needs to be maximised in all communications. In addition, the perception amongst one or two wider stakeholder respondents that the current approach to knowledge dissemination was ‘London-centric’ could also be addressed by strengthening communication channels with stakeholders outside London.

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