Gray says that many years of dealing with deaths on the railway has desensitised him from the most horrific images he is forced to endure, but the task of informing loved ones remains as harrowing as ever. His solemn and essential duty to assist the coroner by recovering the body helps distract him from dwelling too long on the macabre.
“It’s incredible how it comes in fits and starts, where you get a whole wave of it and then nothing for a year. I don’t know the reason for that.
“We have a major regional mental health treatment centre here at Fulbourn, which is right next to the railway line. The Victorians built them right next to each other, and we are still living with that now. But we do a lot of liaison with them to mitigate the times when patients will try and get onto the railway.
“When fatalities happen you go into automatic mode in terms of preserving the scene and the dignity of the person. Obviously sometimes they do it in a public area, and we have to try and keep the public away and cover the area. After we’ve made sure the trains have stopped, we have all manner of kit in the back of the car to assist us in dealing with fatalities.
“We recover any property which might be strewn across, to try and find who they are and identify them. Sometimes they will be very particular and lay everything out by the side of the track, sometimes they will have nothing on them and it will be days before we find out who they are through DNA and fingerprints.
“I find that because I’ve done it a number of years, dealing with the body on the scene is dreadful in itself, but I can deal with that and you get used to it. But to this day I still find the most difficult bit is when you go to the family. I try not to look at any photographs because then it really hits you.”
This can prove to be a race against time, as modern technology and social media increasingly threaten to circumvent official process. Gray makes it his business to personally inform the next of kin, if there is any possibility of a journalist or any other source of information reaching them first. Despite having experience on his side, he says the emotional response of family members still has the power to catch him by surprise.
“People hear it on the news in today’s modern world, and we get that all the time so we frantically try and get to the next of kin first. It can be difficult to establish the relationship because you don’t know if they’re the current partner, ex-partner, son-they-don’t-get-on-with or all manner of things.
“You don’t know what their reaction is going to be because you’re standing there as a police officer, and they might not have a very good relationship with the police and you’re giving them the worst news they could ever receive in their life. I’ve been assaulted before, but you also get some people who are simply relieved to have closure. The scale of reaction is staggering.”
After 22 years’ service, Gray does not consider death on the railway or speaking to grief-stricken relatives to actually be the most difficult aspect of his role. This status he reserves for troublesome cases of juvenile runaways and detaining people under the Mental Health Act.
“Juvenile runaways can be a nightmare because if you’re on your own, they can make all manner of allegations and accusations,” he adds. “So you frantically try and get another officer from somewhere to help because you are in a vulnerable position, particularly if they are a young female.
“Equally, if you drag someone off a railway line who wants to commit suicide, you are in a vulnerable position as you become responsible for them and their safety. Until the health services take responsibility you have this person thinking all manner of stuff right next to a busy railway line and trains. You put them in the back of the vehicle and hope someone else arrives. Out there, you don’t know just how close help will be.”
Gray can recall one occasion when a woman with known mental health difficulties was retrieved from the platform edge and returned to King’s Lynn Hospital, where she was being treated. What followed demonstrates how exposed officers can feel when answering this type of call.
“We managed to calm this lady down by promising her milkshake, which she was obsessed by. We took her straight back to hospital, and kept stopping to top up her milkshake.
“We got back there late at night and we were left in a room along with my colleague, while we waited for a mental health assessment.
“Suddenly she rises up like a phoenix from the flames and goes from nothing to being stark naked in a split second, and starts singing Madonna songs. She went from being almost asleep one minute to suddenly ripping off all her clothes.
“I’m straight on the phone trying to get help. This girl is going for me, while I’m on the phone, and my colleague is desperately trying to know where to put his hands to stop her.
“Afterwards you can laugh about it because eventually someone with medical training came, but at the time you’re in a desperately vulnerable position. You can’t just walk away and leave them because you’re responsible for whatever happens.”
Gray has developed an impressive ability to reconcile the positive experiences of policing the railways with those he’d rather forget. However, it is clear that the work of the BTP will get no easier, with the rising patronage of the railways, the constant addition of new infrastructure and the heightening threat of terrorism.
Cambridge will also gain another station in 2017, to serve the city’s science park and the suburb of Chesterton. It will undoubtedly pose an additional strain on the BTP team at Cambridge, but one that Gray says they will take in their stride.
“The brand new station being built will add some challenges. You don’t know exactly what new set of problems it will cause because every station is unique.
“Cambridge is massively expanding and with it are its transport facilities. With that comes its own challenges and we’ll have to see how it goes. But it won’t be a problem for us.”
- This feature was published in RAIL 794 on February 17 2016.