When RailStaff was launched at the tail end of the last millennium, it wasn’t just the beginning of a new age for Britain’s railways. The print media landscape was also shifting, as newspaper editors – unimpressed by the thought of giving their content away for free – embraced new online platforms with suspicion. Few could have predicted the dominance of social media and the fog of fake news that is now challenging the integrity of honest reporting.
Issue one of RailStaff came out in the spring of 1997 carrying a lead story about ADtranz securing the contract to supply new trains for Prism Rail, which had been awarded the newly created London, Tilbury & Southend franchise. The headline read “Jobs boost for ADtranz”. Here was a magazine that wanted to help industry staff succeed.
For this, the magazine’s 250th issue, we’re looking back at how this family owned publication, with its distinctive green motif, came to be and how it has changed over the years.
Like so many things, the magazine owes its existence to a chance encounter.
Before entering the world of print publishing, owner Tom O’Connor (pictured right) was a pioneer of digital publishing systems, selling software to publishing houses around the world in an era before wireless networking and desktop publishing.
The idea that he could actually make the news came through a chat with a friend of a friend: British Rail public affairs manager Neil Johnson. The pair shook hands over a drink at a pub in Nottingham and a few months later the first issue was rolling off the presses.
It was a soft launch for the railway’s new positive periodical. Around a thousand copies were printed and hand delivered by Tom to stations and depots around the network.
“People loved it because they were good stories,” said Tom, who still makes time to read each new issue cover to cover.
While Neil was unable to commit to the project long term, he knew someone with an affinity for the industry and a flair for creative writing who could. Andy Milne later took over as editor – a role he would hold for the best part of two decades.
Some things never change
More than 20 years on, the distribution has grown and the RailStaff name has become part of the railway vernacular. It has helped keep the industry informed and it has even launched one of the most prestigious awards events in the railway calendar in the RailStaff Awards.
The look and feel of the magazine has also been reworked and remodelled over the years. From its original newspaper format, RailStaff switched to a magazine finish in its 15th year and in 2016 revealed its most radical redesign to date.
But some things haven’t changed. In his welcome editorial for issue one, Neil Johnson described RailStaff as “a medium to help you both achieve your aims and air your views”. Though features and formats have come and gone those core values have been maintained and added to.
Health and safety has shifted perceptions and risen in stature. But while the message appears to be reaching the men and women with ballast-scratched boots, the railway is far from a risk-free environment. In Colin Wheeler, we are fortunate to have one of the most-respected voices in railway safety. His monthly track safety features have provided insightful commentary for RailStaff readers since 1999, keeping the consequences of complacency at the forefront of everyone’s minds.
RailStaff has also always celebrated and sought to develop those who work in the industry but, as more and more colleagues leave the action through retirement, the need to simply retain and attract new skills has become a priority.
Like the industry we report on, the focus of RailStaff is changing. Conversations about wellbeing have grown louder and the risks understood with greater clarity. Over the past few years in particular, we’ve run several feature series and campaigns to highlight many of these issues.
In February this year, we focussed on mental health and the industry’s attempts to understand and support those who are struggling – not only because employers ought to feel a moral obligation to help but because inaction can have tragic consequences.
Over the course of 250 issues we’ve revelled in the best of human nature. We’ve backed the great work of charities such as the Railway Children and Samaritans, and interviewed countless enthusiastic individuals who have found their calling.
But we’ve also watched in horror as the railway has become the setting for terror and destruction. The July 2005 issue featured a sombre cover in remembrance of those killed during the 7/7 terror attacks. The events of 7/7 were brought back into focus last year as BTP officers and railway staff were again caught up in deadly attacks in Manchester and London.
As an industry, the only saving grace was to hear about the exceptional bravery of staff whose sense of duty and responsibility to their customers and colleagues thrust them into harm’s way to protect others.
This month, we have reported on PC Wayne Marques’ return to work following his intervention on the night of the attack at London Bridge. Wayne was left critically injured after taking on the heavily armed attackers with only his police baton in hand. It’s also almost a year since members of the London Bridge station team picked up two honours at the RailStaff Awards – one of the most clearly deserving wins in the history of the event.
Supporting the industry doesn’t simply mean telling people what they want to hear. At times RailStaff has been there to offer a positive boost to offset misdirected media scrutiny, but it has not been averse to acknowledging its failings. Any criticism is of course made in good faith to further debate, but it may not have always been comfortable reading for senior management.
Graeme Bickerdike’s informed and often piercing opinion pieces were not afraid to call out the ineffectual bureaucracy inhibiting the sound judgement of competent operatives. Though they will probably be best remembered for the tongue-in-cheek photography which aptly illustrated each issue. Anyone who picked up the June 2007 issue may remember the image of Graeme in a dress holding a placard bearing the slogan “Don’t honk if you support us” – a reference to a successful campaign by residents in Tunbridge Wells to introduce a curfew on train horn sounding. Some of you may be unable to forget it.
Views at all levels
As the voice of the industry, the magazine will also always endeavour to represent the views of the industry at all levels. The opinions of apprentices still finding their feet sit comfortably alongside the musings of chief executives. That has always been part of its charm.
But it’s difficult to predict how the industry may change in another 250 issues’ time. Will the same narratives repeat themselves as they often have? Will the industry continue to prosper?
What we can say is that the railway is one of our most venerable of British exports and part of the country’s heritage and national identity. It’s right up there with our sense of irony and natural cynicism. Since the Liverpool to Manchester Railway – the first passenger steam railway – opened in 1830 it has become one of our greatest industrial success stories. As we move into a new technological era for the railway, the next chapter of that story will be written, and RailStaff will be there to write it.