Once – in all my years travelling by rail – I left a bag on a train by mistake.

It was sometime between 2005 and 2007 when I was working in both London and Sunningdale (50 mins west of London), and unusually I had a bag with a suit in it in addition to my regular bag – and I forgot to take that suit bag off with me. Within minutes of alighting I realised, I informed station staff who radioed the train. The train manager located the suit, put it out of harm’s way, the train went to Reading to the end of the line, then back to London Waterloo, and the bag was taken to lost property there – and I collected it the following day. The situation might have changed since, but Waterloo lost property back then was like Aladdin’s den – with wares of all sorts piled up and hanging in every available space.

Lesson 1: anyone can make an error, and many people do – a lot of things get lost on public transport.

That period living in London was in the aftermath of the 7 July 2005 bombings, and the second interesting learning point came from a bus ride. I was living in Clapham, and one early morning hopped on a bus from Clapham High Street towards Clapham Junction. Double decker bus, ground floor, a handful of passengers at the back. And there, on the luggage rack above the wheel arch opposite the driver, was a massive holdall. With no-one anywhere near it. “Is that an abandoned bag?” I asked the driver. He shrugged, didn’t care. I asked the other passengers at the back of the bus. Relieved, it turned out it belonged to a guy right at the back corner – at least 5 metres from the bag. I settled into my seat and observed. How many passengers, I wondered, would notice or remark about the abandoned bag throughout the rest of the trip? None, it turned out. I was the only one.

Lesson 2: most people are generally unaware of what is going on.

Fast forward to today, and I have amassed a lot more experience with all of this.

A suitcase in the middle of the concourse at Berlin Südkreuz, and when I mentioned it to a passing policeman he shrugged and stated “oh someone will come back for it!” And within a couple of minutes, indeed someone did.

And just last week on a TER regional train between Laroche-Migennes and Nuits-sous-Ravières in Bourgogne, France, a guy got off in Tonnerre and left a rucksack behind on the overhead rack. The only staff member I could find was someone doing questionnaires on board, so I asked her what to do – she notified the driver, who came and collected the bag when we were stopped in Nuits-sous-Ravières station. With just a couple of minutes delay the train departed.

Which was not at all what happened on board a OUIGO TGV this week – when a passenger left his bag behind, 1000 passengers were evacuated at Le Creusot, emergency services were called in a helicopter, and the passenger – despite having informed SNCF that he had forgotten his bag after he had alighted – will be taken to court and could be fined up to €100000. I am sure that the guy was Senegalese had nothing to do with it, oh no. And yet the train manager is being praised for how he followed the procedures. I am also pretty sure that had the rucksack been on a rack at the end of a carriage in the TGV, not above a seat, no one would even have noticed until the train reached its destination.

As I see it, if every single abandoned bag were seen as a threat, French railways would grind to a halt. Trains would be stopped for hours all over the place.

But they are generally not stopped for hours, because – as was the case in my TER last week – there was a presumption of innocence, the presumption that a person made an honest error. To assume that this passenger on the OUIGO was guilty – especially once he had himself informed SNCF staff – is bad enough, but to then threaten to fine him for this over-reaction strikes me as absurd. Vigilance, sure. But the assumption that every one of our fellow citizens, in public places and on public transport, is a wannabe terrorist leads us to a society based on distrust, and this sort of security theatre only serves to emphasise that. Yes, a bag in a train might be a threat – as might pretty much anything else in public spaces might be a threat – including, for example, those cars the evacuated passengers were sitting next to in Le Creusot. But we’re not assuming every car in a parking lot is a threat, so we likewise should not assume every bag in a train is a threat either.

One Comment

  1. The current alert state in France is at it’s highest level (urgence attenat) which goes some way to explain the increased number of disruptions we are seeing on commuter services due to “bagage oubliee”.

    When you add in the extra spice of “JO24” I will be surprised if we get even a whole day without disruption on any given line.

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