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An insight into the crucial work of railway chaplains

2 July, 2018

British Transport
Police Federation
July 4, 2018

An insight into the crucial work of railway chaplains

The Railway Mission Chaplains were declared "BTP Community Volunteers of the Year" at the recent Make The Difference Awards for the support they gave during last year's terror attacks.

Their excellent work supporting colleagues in the most testing of circumstances has won them praise throughout the railway industry, and beyond. But the assistance they provide in the event of a major incident is just one aspect of their work. For more than 100 years, the Railway Mission (a registered charity) has supported passengers, railway staff and the BTP family with the curveballs work and home life throw our way.

Fresh from receiving the Make The Difference Award we spoke to Liam Johnson, Executive Director of Railway Mission and a senior railway and BTP chaplain. He talked to us about what prompted him to become a chaplain and the difference he feels he and his team make, as well as dispelling a few myths about the role.

"Since my late teens I have felt called into what one would term pastoral ministry, although chaplaincy was never part of my thinking as I only really considered church-based ministry," Liam said. "While I had worked in retail management for many years my focus was always on the well-being of both my staff and customers; I suppose in many ways I was acting as a chaplain even then."

In 1996, Liam and his wife decided it was time to enter full-time education and study for a BA Hons Degree and a Diploma in Christian Ministry. He completed his studies in 2000 and was accepted to work as Railway Mission Chaplain in the West Midlands. But what does a Railway Chaplain do?

The role of a chaplain

"For the general public travelling on the railways, the chaplain is there as a help; someone to talk to in passing about their issues and problems, someone with whom they can leave their cares and worries," Liam explained. "We also give support to those affected by railway fatalities. Working with BTP's Fatality Investigation Team at Baker Street (B-FIT) and the Suicide Prevention Mental Health team (SPMH) In Birmingham, as well as other BTP stations, the chaplains are asked to support bereaved families as well as witnesses."

At the time of talking with us, Liam was aware that chaplains had been requested to support three families in the previous week alone, including one where the youngest witness to a fatality was just 10 years old.

Liam feels the support he and his team provide families and individuals helps BTP officers to deliver their service: "If we are supporting bereaved families and traumatised witnesses, they are less likely to be looking for that support from the police officers who are conducting the investigation into the tragic circumstances surrounding the death of an individual."

Support for BTP officers and staff

As well as this indirect assistance, the chaplains offer services directly to BTP officers and staff. We asked Liam how chaplaincy fits in to the overall welfare and wellbeing support structure. He said:

"The welfare provision has improved tremendously over the years since I became a Railway Mission Chaplain. The introduction of TRiM and the Employee Support Networks has been a tremendous step forward. Indeed, there are some who think with the introduction of such support mechanisms there would be no need for a chaplaincy service to the police. However, chaplaincy is not there to replace the support mechanisms but to supplement them - we fill the gap between the support processes, engaging with individuals and responding to need as required."

Liam describes chaplaincy as a proactive and reactive support service that can act as a signpost to other services such as the GP, NHS or TRiM, or as a foundation helping to build resilience into the lives of individuals. The support is confidential, impartial and independent, and is available to officers and staff and their families. Regardless of faith, a person's position in the organisation, their own background or lifestyle, the Railway and BTP chaplains are there to support everyone in times of difficulty.

"Difficulties are not just what officers and staff experience at work, but it may also be issues around home life with relationships, bereavement, financial or family worries," Liam explained. "For a manager or supervisor to say to a member of staff 'leave your problems at home' fails to take into account the individual as a whole human being. Our problems and anxieties become part of who we are and affect every aspect of our lives including our work. Therefore, as chaplains we bring that stability to individuals through our pastoral support which gives them the resilience and ability to operate as effective members of British Transport Police."

The impact of chaplaincy

Liam believes the difference chaplains make is as varied as the situations in which they find themselves, and it's certainly about being more than just 'a listening ear':

"Railway chaplaincy is somewhat different to other forms of chaplaincy," he said. "Yes, chaplains are there to listen, but the chaplaincy service we provide to the rail industry has three distinct components: prevent, detect, and respond.

"As chaplains we are helping to 'prevent' individuals from experiencing mental health issues, issues of depression, PTSD and anxiety and for that reason our chaplains are out and about meeting railway staff and police officers. Building relationships with individuals helps us to 'detect' when something may not be right; this might be through body language, or the words or actions of an individual.

"As the chaplaincy is a trusted part of the wider railway family, we have the opportunity to 'respond' and gently explore what might be the underlying issues that have caused a change of behaviour."

Who cares for the carers?

As police officers we know only too well the impact of trauma, so given the distress chaplains are exposed to, who looks after their welfare? Liam explained:

"Dealing with trauma, even in a second-hand sense, can cause emotional turmoil so it's important we have a mechanism for being able to cope with events, both personally and corporately. It is easy to understand major incidents such as terrorist attacks as being traumatic, but every day there are traumatic incidents on the railway that our chaplains respond to so it's important that we care for the carers."

The first line of care is peer to peer support; chaplains regularly meet to share their thoughts and experiences with one another. Two of the trustees on the board of the Railway Mission have years of pastoral and counselling experience between them and they are called upon to offer counsel and advice when needed. There have also been a couple of occasions in the past after a major incident when a chaplain has been put through independent counselling through BTP.

Liam Johnson is supported by two line managers, Andrew Hall based in Birmingham and Stephen Rowe, in London. There are currently 22 chaplains across the network and interviews are being held to increase that number.

The Railway Mission is a registered charity and relies on donations and grants to provide its services. You can find out more about the organisation and its work here.