Barry Brown, Railway Mission Trustee for People issues, describes how Railway Chaplains are trained

Being a Railway Chaplain is a tough job and, in fact, it’s better described as a ‘Calling.’ The Railway Mission has 20, or so, chaplains strategically placed around the network to meet the needs of railway people and their families, or aptly put in our strapline, ‘being there on life’s journey.’ Our chaplains come from a Christian background, backed up by theological training, which inspires their compassion and desire to make a difference to people’s lives. They are there for all, no matter who they are, whatever their background, ethnicity, abilities, sex, sexual orientation, gender, age, religion, marital or partnership status, pregnancy, and maternity status. All means all!

On any given day or night, chaplains can be confronted a wide range of challenges – a call to a suicide scene, counselling individuals facing redundancy, broken relationships, health, financial difficulties, etc or just being there to come alongside people. Recently one of our chaplains received a call at 03:30 from a BTP duty sergeant, requesting help for officers, following a particular fatality, where they had made the distressing discovery, while recovering the remains of the victim, that this individual was a serving police officer with the local Home Office force. Almost daily there is a railway tragedy where someone has used the railway as a means to end their own life, but every day there are also personal tragedies where chaplains are asked to help; tragedies of bereavement, marriage breakdown or of family problems and more; so many personal issues that affect the health and wellbeing of railway staff and shift their focus from the job.

A special kind of person

Being there for people 24/7 is a tall order and requires more than a mechanistic commitment but rather, a solid devotion to the role of chaplain, driven by a strong personal values and a desire provide support for individual mental health and well-being in times of stress and anxiety. The kind of person we look for requires special attributes, as our chaplains need to possess, compassion and empathy, resilience and endurance, sound judgement and leadership, insight and wisdom backed up by appropriate skills and competence.

It’s not all bad! Indeed, there are many needs out there that Chaplains seek to help but, equally, there are those times, whether on a station concourse, a depot, an office, etc where our chaplains meet with railway staff, at all levels and share a laugh and joke, a cup of coffee and a biscuit, a chat, and a mutual moan about the weather, or whatever it is! Having that rapport with people and being familiar faces is all important to build trust, confidence, and relationships.

Where do they come from?

Looking at what it takes to be a chaplain raises the question of where do such people come from and how are they trained and skilled for this exacting role? Alongside the compassion there needs to be essential professional chaplaincy skills and experience.

Whilst we do, on occasions engage and develop those who have considerable potential to fulfil the role, we do, to a large extent, need candidates to come ‘readymade’ with a considerable depth of experience, training, and qualifications in essential areas, often gained in other sectors of industry. Chaplain Christopher Henley is the prime example of this, having worked for Kenyon International Emergency Services, specialising in the ‘Repatriation of Human Remains, Identification and Disaster Management.’

Christopher worked in Banda Aceh following the Boxing Day tsunami as well as other international disasters such as plane crashes. Of course, not all the chaplains have such an in-depth knowledge of disaster recovery as Christopher, but they all come with a wealth of other life experience that help equip them for the role. To find such people our recruitment and selection process needs to be fit for purpose! We need to probe and find evidence that candidates possess the necessary attributes. We do this in four ways – through the application documentation, evidence-based interviews, representative work[1]based scenarios and time given for social interaction.

 Getting up to speed

Often, new chaplains are not just new to the Railway Mission but new to the Railway. As part of their induction and probationary period, therefore, time must be spent getting to know the unique rail environment, its people and how it operates. No mean task! A new chaplain will need to ‘learn their patch,’ and plan to cover it on a regular basis. This is the given area that he/she is responsible for as chaplain – usually around 5000 staff across a multitude of organisations that include TOCS, Network Rail and the British Transport Police.

The difficulties are that we only have a small team due to financial constraints and some of the areas are difficult to negotiate due to the geography of the network. Derek Grant, who covers the north of Scotland has a huge geographical area, but fewer staff than most, while others in the south of England have a large number of manned stations, offices, and depots.

Those whose areas come into a major London terminal, also have a large part of the TfL Underground network to cover too. To help in this daunting task the new chaplain will be paired up with a ‘buddy’ for a period of time to get to know who is who, and what is what! Help is always at hand until they grow into the role.

Additionally, as the Railway Mission serves the UK TOCS, NR, the BTP and many other rail organisations it is important chaplains meet and maintain the essential training requirements of these organisations, such as:

  • Personal track safety.
  • Equality and diversity.
  • Safeguarding.
  • General safety awareness.
  • Suicide prevention.
  • Trauma Management.
  • Psychological First Aid.
  • Incident site management processes.

Naturally, Chaplains are appraised on an annual basis, plus monthly pulse checks to review progress and to see if chaplains need further support, training, or development to enhance their performance in the role.

 Being a team

In the Mission, whilst Chaplains are scattered throughout the UK, they are in fact a strong team, learning from, and watching out for each other; developing synergy and best practice, plus enjoying that camaraderie amongst them that is so vital.

Being a chaplain can be stressful and traumatic at times so they too, need pastoral support to maintain their mental health and well-being. We encourage our chaplains to be open about any mental health concerns and provide space to talk about these in different ways. This could be with a colleague, a member of the Mission management team, specific Trustees with pastoral oversight or with our external welfare provider. It is so important that we keep short accounts on these mental health issues.

Going on from here

Yes, Chaplains in the Railway Mission have a unique blend of passion, compassion, people skills and specialist mental health experience but the ever-changing scene within the industry and increasing demand from rail staff for help in times of stress, mean we need to ‘up our game’ too.

Our approach to this is two[1]fold. First, we want to be able to fund more chaplains and be increasingly accessible to staff and their families. Second, we want to see more accredited learning made available to chaplains to strengthen and enhance their skills and be fully recognised as professionals in their role. We are working to provide such opportunities for the future this will be via new training and refresher training in aspects of the role and support provided, but we are also keen not to overburden the team, balancing the needs of rail staff with the emotional and psychological needs of the chaplaincy team.

We will continue to play our part in helping rail employees combat all that life throws at them as well as celebrating all that they are and achieve. Maybe, the next time you bump into a chaplain you will remember it’s a tough call to be what they are!

Barry Brown is Railway Mission Trustee for People issues and was Stations & HR Director for the former Midland Mainline Train Operating Company. A career Railwayman for over 38 years, Barry has spent recent years working for parent transport companies on Franchise renewal bid teams. He is largely retired now, supporting his church and a local charity mentoring young people.