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What have the railways got to do with the 999 system?

Updated Friday, 8th July 2016

Did you know when you dial '999' the origins of this system lie in the railways? Explore the history here. 

freight train on the WCML approaching Carnforth Creative commons image Icon Ben Brooksbank [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons under Creative-Commons license If you’ve lived in the UK for any length of time, you’ve probably dialled ‘999’ at least once.  But you probably haven’t realised that the origins of the system that you’re using lie in the railways.

In the early years of the twentieth century, the railway companies in Britain were struggling with congestion and inefficiency on their networks. Whereas today’s rail traffic is highly predictable, in 1900, freight movements often required special trains, and events like bank holidays or works outings put lots of pressure on the networks. Signalmen controlled which train had priority, but there was no overview of where each company’s traffic was heading. Congestion and late arrivals were common, and increasing.

This changed in 1909 when a number of railway companies, led by the Midland Railway in Derby, introduced centralised train control. All trains were given a unique identifying mark, and signalmen used the telephone (which had only just become a mature technology) to phone Derby and report when each train had passed. At Derby a system of sliding tags on brass rails gave the train controllers an accurate visual impression of where each train was on the network: they used this to instruct signalmen about where to send trains. The control room was born, and efficiency rose.

In 1915, when the British Army went to war in France, its generals realised that they needed the most efficient supply arrangements. So they hired the man who had invented train control, Cecil Paget. He replicated his Derby system on the railways operated and built in France by the British Expeditionary Force, bringing in control rooms which relied on real-time information relayed by telephone: a new practice within the army.

Phoning in reports to a control room became exceptionally significant in 1917, during the panic which followed the German daylight air raids on London. As well as precipitating the creation of the RAF, this prompted the British to bring back experts from France to create a control system, the London Air Defence Area. Sighting reports and unit readiness were telephoned in to a central map room, where the controller of the defence issued orders to fighters and AA guns. A young Home Office civil servant named Arthur Dixon liaised between the LADA control and police, whose role was to raise the air raid alarms. RAF generals who received tours of the control room included the man at the top, Lord Trenchard.

By the 1930s, Dixon was still at the Home Office: the mastermind of a series of plans to modernise policing to make it more efficient through the use of new technology. Trenchard was Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. In 1934 they implemented the ‘Area Car Scheme’: police cars equipped with radios would patrol London, reporting their whereabouts and readiness to a control room, where their position was marked on a map. The main input to the control room came from the public, who for the first time could ring it directly to report a crime or incident. By cutting out its local stations and centralising its control systems like this, the Met accelerated its speed of response.  . . . but the people phoning the control room probably didn’t know that they were using something first developed by Britain’s railways.

Further Reading:

Chris A. Williams, (2014) Police control systems in Britain, 1775-1975: From parish constable to national computer, Manchester University Press, Manchester, ISBN: 978-0-7190-8429-4 #polconsys.

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