This article originally appeared on VICE UK. Owen is 16 years old and obsessed with his new hobby: clinging to the roofs of buses and trains, and riding them through the streets of London. With over 7,000 subscribers on his YouTube channel, "Trickster," Owen is becoming one of the "faces" of the UK train surfing scene—not something you really want to be, given the fact that police don't look too kindly on the way he spends his free time.
The college student got into endangering his life for fun last year when he started climbing cranes, before moving onto riding buses. "I went bus surfing down Regent's Street—that was the first time," he tells me. Soon, Owen was looking for new challenges, and after seeing a video of people climbing onto the roof of a train, he thought he'd try his luck.
"It depends on the space you have: If you have a lot of room to spread out your bodyweight, then you can balance yourself, but if you’re in a space where there’s not, you have to hold on," he says of what happens after you've clambered up onto the roof of a moving train. "You're just pumped up; it relieves a lot of adrenaline. Once, I hung off an Overground train. Afterward, I realized it was one of the stupidest things I'd done."
Owen films his videos using a GoPro—and that time on the Overground train, the camera caught his dramatic escape from the police. "It was a lot of fun because as the video stopped, the police were on the way," he says. "I wasn't in the mood to get arrested, so I jumped over the tracks and cleared the electric rail."
Owen made it away that time, but a year into the surfing lifestyle his hobby has come at a cost. The second time he bus-surfed down Regent's Street, he was arrested, and this January, he was convicted of endangering the safety of a person conveyed by the railway after train surfing.
Owen's train surfing, he tells me, is driven by his desire to remove himself from the problems in his hometown. "The area I grew up in is not the nicest of areas," he explains. "I like to go and get my life out of that area and to get that adrenaline through surfing rather than carrying knives.”
From Stratford, east London, Owen's reasoning might at first seem like an odd excuse. But research by Network Rail last year found that youth trespassing on the railways is more prevalent in areas with higher socio-economic deprivation.
Despite Owen’s certainty that train surfing isn’t as dangerous as, say, carrying a knife, it’s thought that the crime carries a relatively high fatality risk. Official figures are difficult to come by; experts say that deaths from train surfing are often simply recorded as deaths on a railway—from falling from the roof into the path of an approaching train or being electrocuted on the tracks.
This "hobby" isn't new. Railway companies and the British Transport Police have been warning, on and off, about the dangers of train surfing for years. In 2003, a coroner in Sussex condemned the pastime after an 18-year-old laborer, Thomas Clarke, died after climbing onto the roof of a moving train while on his way home from Guy Fawkes Night celebrations. On New Year's Day last year, 17-year-old British teen, Nye Frankie Newman—part of a well-known free-running group, whose antics include train surfing—died in a train accident on the Paris Metro. His death is rumored to have been surfing-related.
These days, however, the train surfers aren't just chasing the adrenaline rush; they’re also chasing YouTube hits.
Some 22,000 people had watched Harris Ahmed's video of him train surfing in London, while blurting out excited squawks of "swear down, man's a daredevil" and "this is mad; bro, this is just awesome."
Last year, Ahmed was convicted of endangering the safety of a person conveyed by the railway after uploading a video of himself train surfing in Brentwood, Essex—a video which has since been deleted. In court, he admitted to two further offenses of train surfing.
Like Owen, 18-year-old Ahmed’s entry into train surfing began on impulse rather than as a planned criminal activity. While waiting for his train one day, he tells me, he just decided to hop on top of the carriage rather than go inside.
"I'd bought a ticket and everything, it wasn’t even planned," he says. "It's a feeling that you can’t describe. It was adrenaline pumping, it was excitement, a rush—and then I thought, Why not film it?" He maintains that the first time he train surfed, it wasn’t for the views. "It was for the excitement. I was caught up in that moment."
A few weeks later, after he uploaded the video onto YouTube under the title "London train surfing escape," police arrived at his house and arrested him. "My parents weren't happy—they were shocked. I didn’t tell them, they found out about it from YouTube," he says. "I don’t see it as being a criminal."
Recent figures show that trespassing on the railways has reached a ten-year high, with 8,000 people in 2016 risking their lives on Britain's train tracks. Young people, like Owen and Ahmed, are the most likely to engage in this kind of risk-taking behavior.
Inspector Steve Webster of the British Transport Police oversaw the case involving Ahmed, and disagrees that his actions were not criminal. "Not only is train surfing dangerous, it is against the law, and we will always investigate and look to prosecute," he says, adding, "I am stunned that people think [uploading videos of themselves train surfing] is a clever idea, particularly in cases where they use selfie sticks dangerously close to the overhead power lines, which conduct some 25,000 volts of electricity."
Despite their experiences, Owen and Ahmed are both reluctant to acknowledge the dangerous side of train surfing. "I know the extent of my limits," Ahmed, who is now studying media in college, insists. "I was holding on with both hands."
Owen says: "I'm not harming anyone else by doing what I’m doing."
For those dealing with the impact of train surfing and trespassing on a daily basis, though, the reality is somewhat different. Allan Spence, Head of Passenger and Public Safety at Network Rail, has seen the often devastating results of a split-second decision to jump on top of a train.
"Somebody is train surfing because they want some kind of excitement out of it, but the impact on others because of that selfishness is huge," he says. "It's selfishness for a cheap thrill."
The increase in rail trespassing has prompted Network Rail to carry out a series of outreach programs in schools and community groups, warning young people of what can happen when they play on the railways. "When people see footage of train surfing in other countries, they may not realize the differences," says Spence. "Our bridges, our structures around the railway, have very tight structures: Someone riding on the top is very likely to get hit. There are very real dangers."
Dr. Patrick Waterson believes a lack of awareness around the dangers of the railway among young people contributes to teenage trespassing. The Loughborough University academic in Human Systems and Complex Factors undertook focus groups with young people about a series of videos designed to help their understanding of rail safety, and was left shocked by the lack of knowledge teens had.
"They know it’s dangerous, but they have no idea about the voltage," he says. "It's the amount of voltage that could actually power a whole house, but they underestimate the risk." Waterson adds that the lack of understanding among focus groups was worse in urban areas, and believes rail safety should become part of the national curriculum. "It's not covered," he says. "Fire and road safety, personal safety, internet use—they all are, but rail safety should be there."
For Owen, his dealings with the law might have succeeded in reducing the appeal of train surfing in London—but they haven't put him off risking his life altogether. Now, he's planning to venture further afield, with trips to Paris and Dubai and the many climbing opportunities those cities hold.
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