The Railway Family

John Yellowlees

Whatever the name to which they may happen to answer this week, Britain’s railways are world experts in restructuring, and successive waves of new kids on the track have hurled themselves into leaving their mark, often with limited long-term success. Asked how she would like First ScotRail to be remembered, MD Mary Grant replied “with affection”, but for many it was little wonder that their own time might not always have been so.

Great as their merits are for proving high-volume environmentally-friendly transport, the railways are also possessed of what another ScotRail MD Alastair McPherson called the “glorious inflexibilities”. Infrastructure is mostly old, goes to places where people used to want to go and is sometimes enshrined in the nation’s heritage. Rolling-stock investment also lasts what might sometimes seem an inconveniently long time, with payback achieved over decades and best performance arriving sometimes many years after introduction. Industrial relations were fashioned down long years of mutual suspicion, and may have stayed that way. There is an at times impenetrable wall of jargon, and emotion sometimes points to a grand age that may never have existed.

Railway careers may be driven by political or economic forces that reflect fluctuations in the regard in which their industry is held, and railway folk have therefore built themselves a cushion to protect against the blows of external forces. There is of necessity little movement between specialisms such as stations or fleet. Pride can be expressed in the time that one has spent in a job just as much as how far one has risen up the ranks. Senior roles in train companies such as finance, commercial or communications directors may be filled by people who do such a stint in one business, part company amicably, then wait by the phone for someone to put in a word for them regarding a similar role elsewhere.

Your Railway Family is the term for the loose entity that binds everyone together. People on their way up know to retain a sense of regard for each other that may be needed if they are encountered again on their way down. As in any other family, awkward members are tolerated with a knowing respect that retains their commitment while minimising the harm to which they or anyone else might come. People who in daily contact could not stand the sight of each other become best buddies on nights out. The language used for the turgid depths of project management may be elevated to the rosy heights of policy formulation. And onetime colleagues who fell out over competing claims for priority resources become old friends in the golden glow of reminiscence.

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