Safeguarding staff on public transport

photo ticket collector in public transport

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The job of a frontline worker in public transport can be tough; sometimes dangerous and sometimes dull, and always with a customer-friendly smile. The problems of a society often exist in a microcosm on public transport. If a particular society has problems with gangs, alcohol abuse, sexual harassment, fighting or hooliganism, then that problem will very likely be transferred to public transport. Those on the frontline, facing these problems day and night, are public transport frontline staff, most notably drivers, ticket collectors and security guards.

When people decide to apply to become drivers, ticket collectors or security guards on public transport, they are generally aware of the potential risks they will face. During the training phase they are introduced to the concepts of customer service, public safety, and importantly, the different types of aggression they might be confronted with.

De-escalation: different threats, same goal

There are different types of aggression thy must deal with on a daily (and increasingly, nightly) basis. De-escalation is, or should be, a focal point of their training. “Talking yourself into trouble” is commonly heard in discussions on the role of staff on public transport. They can talk themselves into (or out of) trouble depending on their ability to read their audience, to recognise the type of aggression they are facing, and their ability to de-escalate confrontational situations.

Public transport operators’ procedures and policies differ around the world, but de-escalation is increasingly recognised as an essential component of HR training. Staff often receive physical training, too, and while most people think that this means that they are trained to fight, it’s the opposite: they are actually trained to step back. It’s not about taking somebody down.

For example, there might be a bus route that passes a psychiatric institution. If somebody from the institution boards the vehicle and acts strangely or insults the driver, it must be recognised that this is not a personal attack. It’s different from somebody who is refusing to pay for a ticket. Or maybe the passenger starts a confrontation but the driver reacts badly. Maybe there are teenagers in a party mood. It is essential that staff know how to read the social cues and react accordingly. HR training often teaches staff to be careful in making a distinction between these kinds of aggression.

Division of authority

What kind of authority is granted to frontline staff varies from country to country because it depends on the division of rules between police and security staff.  Security guards and ticket collectors may or may not have the authority to write a fine, for example, or to escort an unruly passenger from the vehicle. Some security guards are allowed to apprehend people, while some have handcuffs and pepper spray. It all comes down to national legislation.

Large public transport companies generally offer different security training programmes for different roles. For example, drivers get training in security awareness and anticipating problems. They are trained to call for help, whereas security staff get additional training because they are the help. The other difference with security staff is that confrontation is part of their job.

Some passengers are aware that public transport security guards have minimal authority. They know the guard will have to call for assistance and that it will take at least two stops before backup arrives. That is why, in some countries and regions, security staff are assigned more authority. When bus operators started to run buses 24/7, that’s when problems began with alcohol and aggression at night. It solved one problem (drunk people wandering around the streets and night) and caused another (attacks on drivers and vandalism). Some night buses have taken the decision to place station security guards on night services.

Huge psychological strain

Working in this kind of environment is similar in many ways to factory work; it can be monotonous and not terribly intellectually stimulating. The main difference is that the workers in public transport have to deal with the public, remain pleasant, all while facing the possibility of sometimes violent confrontation.

One problem is the typical profile of the individuals who apply for frontline staff jobs in public transport. They are often from less affluent backgrounds with lower levels of education. They receive the lowest salaries, and yet they are tasked with an extremely mentally challenging job.

They often have to stay on the vehicle for the entire day with very little authority other than to stand around and observe. They have to respond to aggression in an unaggressive way, and that requires a very specific type of training and a very specific type of personality. It can be difficult to identify that person in the selection process. There are a lot of people who apply who don’t get the job. A psychological test usually lets the HR department know if they are suitable.

No more tough guys

However, despite all this, drivers tend to stay in their jobs for a relatively long time. Something really bad has to happen for a driver to give up their job. On the other hand, security staff are slightly harder to retain, perhaps because of the added psychological pressure. One good solution would be to try to make their job more interesting. It’s a low skilled, low paying job with huge psychological pressure, and a lot is expected from them. Security guards could be paired with ticket inspectors with whom they might alternate jobs, or their role could be combined with customer service.

There was a pilot project in Barcelona where security teams were split up and each guard patrolled individually. They were much more approachable and customer-oriented. People felt safer around them and it reduced the number of problems, and if there was a issue they called for backup.

The image of security guards as tough guys is changing to be more customer-service oriented; the more they are seen as hosts (who are strict when they need to be) the more successful and happy they will be. This is the balance that needs to be struck to safeguard staff on our networks.

Bernetta Harting, Coordinator Public Safety & Crisis Management at HTM in the Hague and Andrea Soehnchen, UITP Secur-ED Project Coordinator, contributed to this report.

For more information please contact editor(at) or andrea.soehnchen(at)


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