Our July edition marks the 200th issue of RailStaff – the magazine set up to run good news stories about railways and support the people who work on them. Andy Milne looks back as the presses prepare to roll.

Train driver Ron Gooch was an orphan. Brought up for a time by his grandmother in Suffolk, when she died he was placed in a home. During the Second World War, the children’s home was evacuated to Derbyshire. On arrival the children were taken from the train to a church hall to await placement with host families. Numbers dwindled as the day wore on until only Ron and another little boy were left. Downhearted, Ron waited with the organisers as they dismantled the tables and stacked up the chairs. A childhood sense of rejection can hobble later development, damaging the adult and leaving a legacy of lost confidence and opportunities.

Then the door flew open and a cheerful woman bustled in. She looked at both boys and straightaway guessed their distress. ‘Ah, I see you have saved the best till last,’ she said and took them both in. Ron spent several happy years in rural Derbyshire as an evacuee. Aged 14 he tried to join the railway but was turned down for not being tall enough. Ron briefly considered a job in coal mining. But he persevered with the railway and was eventually hired as a cleaner in Suffolk. In the railway Ron built an exemplary 50-year career, working hard and moving up to become an engine driver. This was followed by a memorable finale as a station-adopter at Shelford in Cambridgeshire.

Plug hole of history

It is a small story but in its way, along with a few more mentioned here, it symbolises both the rise and persistence of the industry. When RailStaff started 17 years and 200 editions ago most people thought the railway was gurgling around the plug hole of history. ‘A newspaper full of good news stories about railways?’ One rail manager scoffed, ‘Blimey! Won’t be a very thick publication will it?’ Another said, who and what is it for? The truth is it’s for people like Ron Gooch, the engineering apprentice, graduate trainee, new clerk, cleaner, guard and track worker. It’s readership spans transport ministers and railway chaplains.

It’s the elbow nudge of encouragement we all need from time to time and it is a continuing celebration of an industry that came back from the brink and continues to expand and prosper. No one doubts the railway still has problems but the conventional media gleefully report all them in great detail. RailStaff is an antidote, a soothing serum of anecdote and encouragement.

Events like Rail Live 2014, the RailStaff Awards and ACoRP’s Community Rail Partnership Awards point to an industry confident and at ease with itself. Perhaps the most remarkable change in fortunes is political perception of railways. Nowadays the three major parties back rail and are right behind High Speed Two. New tram links, a better deal for rail freight and constant search for extra capacity means the rail industry is a great place to develop a worthwhile career or build a business. To join the new rail industry is to make a positive contribution to the economic and environmental health of a country still struggling to unite, define and advance a common purpose.

Do not resuscitate

Back in 1997, the picture for the railways was very different. In that bleak mid-winter, quite senior politicians and civil servants let it be known that the era of the railway was over. Politically no one wanted to know about railways in the 1990s. The system was put on a sort of Liverpool Pathway.

In the event of an unscheduled stop, do not attempt to resuscitate. The whole idea of John Major’s railway privatisation was to get the railways, with their huge subsidy requirement, off the treasury books. Weed grown oblivion beckoned.

However, one advantage the railways have always enjoyed is the dedication of the people who work for them, routinely delivering over and above the stipulations of the job description. In fact it has long been known that people joining the railway go native if left there too long.

Andrew Lezala, erstwhile head of Bombardier and now running Metro Trains Melbourne, has a theory. If you serve over two years you’re stuck with the industry for life. Better still is the ability of railway people to rise through the ranks. The message of RailStaff is that you can join this industry as a cleaner or a clerk and go right to the top.

People like David Franks, head of Irish Railways and Tim Shoveller, running the SWT/Network Rail Alliance, joined the industry at ballast level and worked their way up. Quite often RailStaff runs interviews with industry leaders who are judged sympathetic to the cause. Last month Tim Casterton interviewed David Franks – who started life working on the platforms at Salisbury. Alistair Dormer, interviewinAugustissue, whojoinedlater, started off as an apprentice engineer in the Royal Navy and was blown up on his ship, HMS Sheffield, during the Falklands War.

Human Touch

An early interview was with Bill Green, a Bletchley driver, who was first on the scene of the Great Train Robbery. Green recalled talking to Jack Mills, the driver of the ill-fated mail train, as he, his wife Delia and I sat talking one autumn evening in Bletchley BRSA club almost 40 years later. Bill Green knew Mills quite well. On the night of the robbery both men had stopped their trains at Bletchley whilst postal staff loaded on more mail. ‘We stood on the platform and passed the time of day,’

Bill said. Mills set off first. It was later that Bill, arriving with his train at Leighton Buzzard, decided, after consultation with a puzzled signalman, to walk forward along the track. ‘We could see the mail train carriages stopped on the up fast,’ said Bill, who courageously rescued Jack Mills – bloodied and dazed – and raised the alarm. Bill Green was an exemplary driver and according to colleagues at Bletchley never had a SPAD. Delia, his wife, wrote for local papers and had material published in RailStaff.

Other interviews could be rather more formal, but RailStaff has always believed in, as Bruce Springsteen puts it, a little of that human touch.

One day walking into the Strategic Rail Authority on Victoria Street for a farewell interview with SRA chief, Richard Bowker, I met Chris Austin coming out. ‘What brings you here?’ I told him and added, ‘Not sure about this – as we’re all about good news stories about railways and closing down the SRA….’ Austin said, ‘I wouldn’t worry, he’s on fine form today. Just became a father – late last  night.’ Austin bowled off down the road. Ushered into Bowker’s room, I shook hands and said, ‘Congratulations on the arrival of young William.’ Bowker looked startled. ‘How did you know? I mean, I haven’t told hardly anyone.’ We sat down. ‘I can’t reveal my sources, you know that, but RailStaff always prides itself on being first with good news!’

Inner Anakin

Iain Coucher, one time chief executive of Network Rail, had a fearsome reputation among railway staff and cabinet ministers alike. A no-nonsense Yorkshireman he created in Network Rail a financially competent railway administration which has attracted billions in public investment. Coucher had a habit of fixing people with an unblinking stare and tapping the table at two second intervals with his index finger. Point by point, he’d drive home his arguments. All good stuff but after 30 minutes of this, I pushed back the papers and asked him for a few personal details.

How do you spend your leisure time, keep fit, you know; let’s have a look at the man behind… ‘The Darth Vader mask?’ Coucher said, who had more sense of humour than perhaps his colleagues gave him credit for. Where else could you ask the virtual head of the rail industry to reveal his inner Anakin?

The industry has suffered its share of tragedy, lives wasted, crashes and accidents. This month marks the ninth anniversary of the London July bombings. Shelley Mather, a New Zealander, worked for ATOC and was on her way to work travelling on the Piccadilly line when she lost her life in an explosion that morning. What was doubly sad was that she had planned on returning to New Zealand and had been preparing to hand over much of what she did. A violent death leaves an enduring wound. Time is not a great healer and we still remember Shelley Mather and her family, as we do all those who mourn.

Back into icy water

One theme of RailStaff has been the acts of heroism and courage that are a remarkable feature of railway life. This has been further enhanced by the huge success of the RailStaff Awards, which continues to celebrate the achievements of our readers – the people who do the work. Many of the stories are quite extra- ordinary. For example one bitterly cold morning in February 2013, two railway divers from Bridgeway Consulting were checking the submerged pilings of a bridge over the River Arun near Littlehampton on the south coast.
Unbeknown to them, a girl had tried to commit suicide up stream. Police arrived and were dashing back and forth along the bank. The two divers, told what had happened, looked out across the water and saw the body floating down stream. David Kitchen and Mick Hill dived back into the icy water and struck out for the body. Despite the current, a dangerous rip tide and the extreme cold they rescued the girl. She was resuscitated and taken to hospital. They saved her life.

Train for Life, a relief train a mile long which took aid to Kosovo ahead of that first desperate winter in 1999, was organised by two railwaymen – Neil Howard and John Morris. Direct Rail Services provided the engines.Despite being held up at gunpoint in Macedonia, the train made it and it is fair to say saved lives of many that winter.

Of the hundreds of Railway Children and charity fund raising stories the one that best illustrates railway generosity concerns Harry Boyce. Almost all the staff at Heathrow Express were involved in raising money to send Harry Boyce – the son of two of their train drivers – to America for a special operation to mitigate the effects of cerebral palsy.

These are just token stories representative of the hundreds received and published. When it comes to thanks, the readers who send them in and contact us deserve a big thank you first.

Into the North Sea

I’d also like to thank all our contributors – there are many of them – but in particular Neil Johnson, the original editor, who set it up and writes with enviable wit and elegance. Colin Garratt has been a mainstay of RailStaff right from day one, not only with pictures which capture the ethereal, elegiac, beauty of railways around the world but also with sound advice and a depth of knowledge that defies equal. Colin Wheeler has become a phenomenon in his own right. To read Colin Wheeler month by month is to expand your knowledge of railway safety and safe practice. The industry is the safer for his efforts. If this has saved just one life then it has all been worth it. Tim Casterton has filed stories and interviews on Irish Railways down the years, expanding the breadth and scope of RailStaff. David Shirres has done a similar exercise for Russia. Even as we go to press Shirres is filing stories from a samovar-burping restaurant car aboard the Trans-Siberian Express. Paula Sargent, Matt Hill, John Brown, Jonathan Webb, Graeme Bickerdike, Delia Green, Roger Viggers and, more recently, Marc Johnson and, the superbly named, Nigel Wordsworth have all made excellent contributions.

Adam O’Connor puts it all together bringing a welcome élan to design and layout. The sales team deserve a special thank you, particularly Asif Ahmed – always cheerful and one of the best culinary companions you could wish for. Paul Curtis and Keith Darlison bring a fresh blast of enthusiasm and new ideas to sales. Tom O’Connor, deserves a special thanks for building a successful business – Rail Media – which quite unwittingly now parallels the wider, rising fortunes of theindustry we serve.

We also depend for many ideas and stories on an invisible army of backroom PRs at almost every railway organisation. The heroes of this secret service are far too numerous to list, so I have chosen two to illustrate the rest. John Yellowlees at ScotRail and Ellen Rossiter at Greater Anglia. Both have provided funds of stories down the years. John has an encyclopaedic knowledge of railways and has always been generous with compendious background information, introductions and ideas. Ellen Rossiter produces excellent stories and plenty of them. In fact if we ran a third of Ellen’s material, RailStaff’s level playing field would tilt up and slide into the North Sea.

Unshakable conviction

Most anniversaries look back but with RailStaff the past is already another country. It is to the future we should look. We were once thought naive back in 1997. Rather immature wasn’t it predicting Crossrail would be built and high-speed rail accepted? How childish to imagine trams in Sheffield and freight trains in Mossend. Now imagination and daring is openly encouraged as we witness the emergence of a reborn industry sprouting new stations
and freight depots, fleets and locomotives.

Passengers board new carriages as freight forwarders load taller, longer, trains. In major cities we see trams swishing through markets and universities. Another tranche of freight locos is being unloaded at Newport Docks in south Wales as we print. International rail terminals, like Daventry, link Britain with mainland Europe in a rail web of trade and opportunity.

Far from scaling down the industry, rail companies are desperately trying to recruit school leavers, apprentices, students, young people, service personnel and second careerists.

Please think of joining the railway if you’re reading this in the hot flush of a middle age job crisis.

Although Ron Gooch planted those poppies as a tribute to the millions of servicemen and women who gave their lives for our continued freedom, in a way their blooming this summer is also a tribute to him and the industry he served.

The message of his benefactor that the best is saved until last could equally well apply to the railways. The fact is the best is yet to come and it needs determination and perseverance to bring it about. Ron might have been turned down by the railway in Derby for being too short, but he had the good sense to reapply in Suffolk. Of course we still have much work to do on loading gauge enhancement, but prospective rail staff will be relieved to know there is no minimum height requirement for working in the rail industry.

The railways we are building now will be cleaner, safer and faster. The people working on them, professional, well trained and inspired.

Like our readers and advertisers, they will be guided by good sense, camaraderie and the unshakable conviction that this is the greatest industry in the world.