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Melbourne trains were hit by more than 1000 graffiti attacks last year, almost half of which took place while the train was in service, as vandals became more adept at stopping trains in their tracks or invading restricted railway areas.
Vandalised trains must be taken out of service promptly to be cleaned, causing disruption to passengers, although rail operator Metro will often leave a graffitied train in service in peak times.
Metro has called for tougher penalties for those caught attacking trains, including jail time for the worst offenders, but recent research suggests a "tough on crime" approach to the problem will fail.
An Australian study of the impact of stiffer anti-graffiti penalties in Western Australia in 2004 found attacks had not reduced two years later, particularly among recidivists.
The study, published last year, has been cited in a new European Union push for a more innovative approach to countering graffiti on public transport.
The EU project, called Graffolution, says social media has encouraged international graffiti tourists to visit foreign cities on a graffiti spree and post the results online.
Social media has also eroded the effectiveness of rail operators' conventional "rapid removal" strategy to deny vandals a wider audience for their work.
"Now the showcase to the world is not only a train, a wagon or a wall, but also a picture that can travel around the world and is only a few clicks away," the EU project notes.
Metro has itself locked horns in court with a number of overseas visitors who have come to Melbourne to graffiti trains.
Swedish "spraycationer" David Christopher Isaksen Kjellan was last year ordered to compensate Metro almost $4000 for his attacks on 10 carriages.
And German-Australian dual citizen Peter James Lorenzen was this month ordered to perform 56 hours of unpaid work and repay Metro $2400 after being found guilty in the Melbourne Magistrates Court of spraying graffiti murals on six carriages.
In 2014, there were 1078 graffiti strikes on Metro's trains – 631 of those incidents were in rail sidings and 448 on trains in service. There have been 112 attacks this year. There were 1600 attacks in 2013.
Some vandals have learned how to tamper with signals to force passenger trains to stop, or used stolen Metro uniforms to impersonate staff.
Metro chief executive Andrew Lezala said last month after a man was critically injured while train surfing that Melbourne had a pernicious subculture that celebrates invading the rail network.
"It's a terrible culture, it's something that we really need to eradicate, we need much tougher penalties," Mr Lezala said.
But European rail operators have begun investigating a different approach, and are developing an international database of graffiti strikes on public transport.
The EU-funded Graffolution project, launched last year, seeks to better understand the psychology of offenders, who view graffiti as self-expression, in contrast to transport operators who view it as a costly problem.
This perspective leads to "repressive prevention strategies in contrast to legal alternatives such as 'free walls' ", the Graffolution site states.
This article first appeared on www.theage.com.au
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