RAILWAY chaplains have found themselves at the front of the fallout from the chaos created by the timetable change this year.
Chaplains from Railway Mission say that they have had to help staff who have been spat at and abused by customers, after they bore the brunt of train delays and cancellations in May and June.
Thameslink, Southern, Great Northern, and Northern Rail were all particularly affected by the timetable changes, and South Western Railway faced disruption, owing to strike action. Northern Rail cancelled 168 services in June.
Railway Mission has recruited five new full-time chaplains to help respond to the needs of the railway industry, particularly after the pressures of the past few months.
Angela Levitt-Harwood, chaplain for the North East and to Great Northern, said: “It has impacted the staff down there all the time: they have been hassled a lot by the public.
“Passengers took their frustration out on Great Northern staff. I’ve spoken to people that have been spat at, shouted at, and some have had to take time off for anxiety. People who have worked here for a number of years have told me that it has never been so bad, in terms of abuse.”
The Revd Christopher Henley, chaplain to South Western Railway, said that he had also helped staff who had been abused.
“Passengers are basically blaming them — people who work on the information desks at the stations get things thrown at them and they get spat at,” he said. “When it gets really confrontational, I tend to stand with them on the gate line, so they have someone to speak to as soon as it has happened.”
John Robinson, chaplain to Southern and Southeastern, said that staff were “having to deal with a lot of vitriol. We are just trying to offer emotional support for staff, because it has been very tough for them, and sometimes staff feel like they can’t win. The staff on the ground couldn’t really do anything about the situation; so we are there to listen, encourage, and support them.”
Mr Henley agreed that the most important part of his job was listening to and supporting staff.
“I have spent more time with the team members: I just listen to what they have to say,” he said. “People always think that the frontline staff are at fault for the strike action and train delays. It is usually that they have received abuse; so it is really important for us to be there as a listening ear.”
Mrs Levitt-Harwood agreed: “It is all about being there, offering my support, and listening to people’s concerns; they enjoy having someone impartial to speak to, and I’m that listening ear. It is being Jesus in that situation, and I look to be God’s presence in the secular world.”
Mr Robinson also spoke of the work of railway chaplains in dealing with other incidents on the railways, including helping those affected by fatalities. “There are lots of unintended victims with railways fatalities — friends, families, loved ones, and then those involved in the railways, from drivers to station staff, as well as eyewitnesses.
“I just try to work on the teaching of love your neighbour as yourself, through loving everyone you come across on the railways no matter their beliefs. I try to work with care, love, and compassion first and foremost.”