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John Dennis: Knight in White Satin

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The enduring popularity of rail hero, John Dennis, was amply testified by the huge crowd packing into All Saints Church, Kemble to the strains of the Moody Blues for a Service of Thanksgiving on one of the hottest days of the year.

John died of cancer on the 8th July, aged 65. Originally from Newcastle upon Tyne he read Geography and Economics at Bedford College, London. In 1970 John Dennis joined British Rail as a graduate trainee on the London Midland Region.

Later he worked in Stoke on Trent and was instrumental in setting up TOPS – the Train Operating Processing System. As BR moved to sectorisation – a series of rail businesses – John was appointed customer services director of the newly formed Regional Railways.

Switching from the passenger sector John moved to Railfreight Distribution, BR’s international freighting arm charged with running freight trains through the Channel Tunnel as soon as it was opened. Later John joined BR’s privatisation unit.

By now his knowledge of the emerging railway was much sought after and he went to work for the newly created Railway Forum. The object was to give the industry a unified voice. The Railway Forum really hit its stride under Adrian Lyons, ably supported with facts, figures and dark detail by John.

In December 2003, he was tempted away to ATOC as Communications Manager where his deep knowledge of the railway was much appreciated and deployed in the development of initiatives to promote the industry’s success and growth.

It was John who worked out the industry was carrying over one billion passengers a year and gave RailStaff one of its most memorable front pages. John Dennis was a firm supporter of the RailStaff Awards from their inception.

Away from work John was a committed family man. Together with his wife Sue he raised three fine daughters, Rachel, Sarah and Rebecca. In Kemble he was a strong supporter of the local Rotary Club and deeply involved in village life.

John was a keen traveller. He quartered Europe annually using his railway priv-passes and later travelled on the Trans Siberian Express pushing on across China to Hong Kong. Family holidays were planned meticulously and John was a keen walker and cyclist.

At his retirement Diana Lucas of RSSB spoke for many when she said, ‘People like John make up the backbone of the industry. He was there to offer a considered judgement and professional eye on proceedings while maintaining a sense of humour. I speak for all when I say we will miss him a great deal.’

Adds RailStaff editor, Andy Milne, ‘Many of us drew upon his knowledge and wise counsel down the years. Whatever mystery he unravelled was always tempered with humour and laughter. He had a true Geordie sense of the ridiculous. I think I shall miss that most of all.’

Rachel and Ian’s wedding was brought forward and staged in the hospice just a few days before he died. The Wedding Service itself went ahead at All Saints as planned the following week.

Quite by chance on leaving the church, family and friends were comforted to hear a steam train thundering through Kemble. As it cleared the station the engine let go a long shrill whistle, seemingly in salute.


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