Rail pastors: the volunteers saving lives on the UK rail network

Chris Lo 4 March 2020 (Last Updated March 4th, 2020 14:56)

Preventing rising rates of suicide on the UK’s sprawling rail network is a huge challenge for police, charities and train operators. Since 2014, volunteer ‘rail pastors’ have been patrolling sections of the railway looking for vulnerable people who may need care. Phil Norton, a rail pastor from Essex, describes the role and its challenges.

Rail pastors: the volunteers saving lives on the UK rail network
Rail pastors alongside police officers at Cardiff train station. Credit: Ascension Trust

For any rail network, the safety of passengers, staff and the general public should always be the top priority. In the UK, co-ordination between industry stakeholders through the Rail Safety and Standards Board has helped make the country’s railway one of the safest in Europe, although a report published last year by the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) warned that the rate of improvement is showing signs of slowing down.

“It is vital that lessons are learned when tragic accidents occur,” said ORR director of safety Ian Prosser.

But what about those who come to rail stations or trespass on to train tracks with the intention of taking their own lives? The UK industry’s most recent statistics show that while non-suicide fatalities have been trending downward in the last decade (from 62 in 2008-09 to 27 in 2018-19), the occurrence of suicides on the network has grown. There were 302 suicides on the UK’s railways in 2018-19, up from 245 a decade ago; this category accounts for the overwhelming majority of the 329 total fatalities recorded by the industry last year.

Preventing railway suicides – which take an immense emotional toll on the families of those lost, as well as the railway staff who may witness them – is a huge challenge, given the expanse of rail infrastructure across the country. Tackling the issue requires training, collaboration with key charities such as Samaritans and, perhaps most importantly, boots on the ground to help identify and care for those who may be at risk.

It was in this spirit that the Ascension Trust, a faith-based community service organisation, established the Rail Pastors scheme in August 2014 as a joint initiative with the British Transport Police, Network Rail, train operating company and Samaritans. Rail pastors are trained volunteers who patrol areas of the network looking for those who may be in need of support – not to preach, but to offer an ear and a friendly presence to those in a time of need. Since the first rail pastor group was set up in Barnet – saving three lives in its first year – the network has expanded to nine areas in the UK: Barnet, Basildon, Billericay, Birmingham, Cardiff, Fife, Harlow, Havering and Reading.

Phil Norton, rail pastor co-ordinator for the Billericay group in Essex – covering the Greater Anglia route from Colchester to Shenfield – explains more about the role and the mental health issues that can come to a head on the railways.

Chris Lo: how did you become involved with the rail pastors?

Phil Norton: I’ve been a street pastor for over seven years now. During that time I’ve really enjoyed being out and about and being available for people, to help them, listen to them or care for them when most other things are closed for the night. Then I heard that the Ascension Trust was doing a similar project with similar volunteers on the rail network.

Our main ethos is to try and support the different agencies in managing suicidal issues. We are part of – only a part, because the industry is taking it very seriously – the intervention for people who come to the railway line, or along the line, to end their life. It’s a very sensitive thing, a very emotive thing for many people who have been touched by suicide. But we try to do it in a very gentle, non-judgemental way, just by coming alongside people in that time of crisis to try and be a friendly face, an ear to listen. But also maybe we can signpost people back to some other agencies that might take care of them in the long-term. We’re trying to join in, as volunteers, in the whole process of helping people on the rail network.

CL: What kind of training did you receive in preparation for the role?

PN: We do the street pastors training; all our rail pastors are experienced street pastors. That involves ten weeks of training in many different subjects to bring them up to speed with some of the things that might be impacting and influencing people in their lives now, as many of our volunteers are from the older generations.

Then once you’ve done that for a period of time and it’s felt that you’re suitable for the [rail pastor] role, then you go on the Samaritans’ Managing Suicidal Contacts course, which is an excellent course. It’s quite emotional, but it deals with some of the issues you might find, where people are in emotional crisis. And then we do training with the train operating companies. We want to be safe on the rail network, because it can be quite a dangerous place. We do a day with them, where they show us around the stations, they teach us some of the things to look out for, and some of the ways they behave in and around stations so as not to increase any potential problems.

CL: How do you and the other rail pastors in Essex organise your shifts and the route you cover?

PN: We’ve got three projects running in Essex. The Havering street pastors run the project from Shenfield to Colchester, and at Billericay we run the project from Harlow to Cambridge and from Shenfield to Southend Victoria [station]. Our hope is that by the end of next year, possibly the following year, the whole of the Greater Anglia network will be covered by rail pastors. We have people that do our rotas and our co-ordination, and we also go to the internal rail meetings where they discuss different issues at different stations, or different times when they think it would be useful for us to out and about on the network. We try to be there for people when it’s appropriate for them rather than convenient for us.

CL: Were you surprised by the number of people who needed help on the network?

PN: This is where the Catch-22 comes – do you become more aware of issues because you’re more involved in it, or are the issues increasing? When it’s reported that there seems to be an increasing mental health crisis, yes, we can confirm that. Whether that translates into the amount of people actually seeking an end-of-life course – we’re undecided at the moment, because we haven’t done it long enough to cast our minds back to five, six or seven years ago and how many incidents we were dealing with then.

We’ve recorded four interventions in the last 18 months at various locations, at various times, where we believe because of our presence, a person has had their life saved at that moment. As far as we know, the people we’ve intervened with are still alive and are now getting onward care. We’ve brought people back from the side of the tracks and encouraged them to come with us to a place of safety, and then we hand them over to the British Transport Police and the care industry. If people are in that position where they’re thinking this is their only course of action, they need some proper help.

CL: Are there common factors that you’ve spotted when it comes to the distressed people you’ve helped in this role?

PN: In extreme circumstances where people are contemplating harming themselves, it tends to be more around mental health, low self-esteem and a lack of hope in life. Quite often, it’s people who are managing a lot of situations in their lives but then something happens that just pushes them over the edge. Something that would normally be fairly innocuous can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, and it sends people into a pit of, ‘I’ve got no hope, I’m of no worth, everybody’s better off without me’.

CL: Can the role be dangerous at times?

PN: It’s not dangerous because we’re a very non-confrontational, non-judgemental group of people, and we always act in teams. Our training for street pastors and rail pastors is that our first means of protection is to back off. We are from the older generation, so the likelihood is if we were to get involved, maybe one of our members would get hurt themselves, and therefore they’ve become an issue and somebody we need to deal with, which adds to the problem. We’re not the police, the rail industry or security guards, so we’re not there to pull people apart or get involved in scuffles.

CL: Do you think there’s anything that Network Rail and the train operators could be doing to improve passenger safety at stations and on trains?

PN: What they do is incredible – we’ve seen it now from behind the scenes. We see all the work, and they genuinely do care about people. They care about safety, they’re engaged with the Samaritans, with us as volunteers, with rail chaplains, with the land sheriffs. With all their staff they’re constantly reviewing their processes and encouraging staff to be vigilant and caring. Until there’s some other idea that comes from them or from us because we’re watching – they are doing absolutely everything they can to keep people safe.