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Big top sensation sweeps rail

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‘I must thank Pat Tollar in the Rail Media office,’ said Sally Ralston of Merseyrail at the RailStaff Awards 2014. Sally had nominated several people for awards, blissfully unaware that she herself was about to win the David Maidment Award for Charity.

‘She’s here, I’ve seen her, but she’s dressed as acat.’

Pat, office manager and general fixer, is a mainstay of the RailStaff Awards and, an accomplished runner, comes into her own the night of the RailStaff Awards. An annoyed looking lion padded by. ‘No, no, he’s a rail engineer writer, Sally.’

The RailStaff Awards grows bigger and more colourful year by year and is fast becoming a big green light for railways. Fancy dress, pioneered by Rail Media director Lianne O’Connor, has become another hit aspect of the RailStaff Awards. According to events manager Karen Payne, this year’s circus theme was eagerly taken up by over three quarters of the 1,000 people attending.

Bar code zebras

Many people dressed as animals, many more as clowns. Several turned up in top hats and evening dress – ringmasters who‘d cut their skills on all night possessions, lion tamers fresh from duty at customer relations centres, acrobats who performed wonders of re-rostering and blockade management. High wire performers, well versed in the intricacies of overhead line electrification, compared notes with bar code zebras from civil engineering outfits. Fancy dress makes for good conversation.

‘What part of the railway are you with?’

‘I’m not. I work for the Northumbria Police,’ said a clown.


‘No, I’m here with my partner from Newcastle Travel Centre – she’s up for an award.’

Colin Flack, chief executive of the Rail Alliance, hosted the proceedings and he started the evening with an odd request. ‘Put your hands up,’ he said, ‘if you nominated somebody for an award.’ Many people did so and Flack said, ‘Be proud of what you have accomplished.’ The nomination writers, often modest to a fault, looked around and took a bow. This simple gesture exemplifies what the RailStaff Awards stands for. It is a testimony to an industry-wide conspiracy to support and encourage the men and women we work with, to thank them, tell them they’re valued and that they can achieve anything in life.

Devotion and passion

Jim Syddall of Network Rail re-iterated this in his opening speech, ‘Tonight we recognise and celebrate the railway’s most valuable resource; its people. It’s your devotion, your passion, that make it what it is today.’

Tall claims though these might be we at RailStaff have the facts to back them up. Quite often senior railway managers will point out that they started on the ballast and worked their way up. Just a few days later it was our sad duty to record the death of Michael Sata, former porter at London Victoria and a worker on Zambian railways. Sata rose to become president of Zambia. The lesson is: be mindful of whoever you work with. Encourage them, be supportive of them, for they might be the next president of your country, the future leader of a company or life changing charity.

Many at the RailStaff Awards talk of the railway family, a community that includes Graduate of the Year Antoine Mailfert, from Quimper in Brittany, and Gordon Reed from Bishop Auckland in County Durham who joined the railways in 1948 and received this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award. It’s a massive industry that despite the safety critical nature of the job and the attendant tragedy of any transport system, doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Railway humour

Talk of family and community may sound old hat in some quarters but it’s for real in railways.

After receiving their award, winners are whisked away by Karen Payne and the person giving the award, spirited across the arena to a secret bar for a glass or two of champagne and a brief chat with RailStaff reporters Andy Milne and Marc Johnson. The sudden change of events often completely unsettles the winners. Railway humour comes to the rescue of even the most dumbstruck.

‘I never thought I’d win a thing like this,’ a typical winner said.

‘I know, I wrote your nomination, mate,’ his colleague quipped. ‘A right dog’s breakfast.’

‘Well anyway it’s a fine effort, very well deserved,’ said the sponsor who presented the award. Everyone raised glasses and drank deeply.

‘Every dog has its day,’ Pat ‘Catwoman’ Tollar observed passing round more champagne, ‘But you know what? The nights belong to us cats.’

It is worth recording that without our backers the RailStaff Awards would not exist. Less well known is the welcome service they render back stage to shell shocked winners. Our sponsors are the men and women at the cutting edge of our industry, their ingenuity and initiative threading the industry’s future. Despite hard-nosed commercial success and high tech ingenuity these backers retain a deft human touch. Good that they do otherwise winners would be left to the tender mercies of the press – Johnson and Milne and Amy the photographer. The men and women from our backers really make the event what it is – a family affair.

A Brill Name

Towards the end of the evening the last category – Train Driver of the Year – came through. ‘I’m so thrilled you won!’ Pat said. ‘Oh really why?’ said Ersan Sokmen, with the broadest grin of the night, surely a reassuring sight from end to end of the Hammersmith and City Line.

‘The name, it’s such a brill name…’

Ersan and his three colleagues fell about laughing at this. The other winners and the photographer had left by now, but Ersan and his drivers lingered over a drink.

They wanted a photo taking and one of them had a camera. Happily the guy from the Ricoh Arena, serving the fizz, Colin, is studying to be a professional photographer and he offered to take the shot.

‘Come on Pat. We want you both in this.’ The four drivers and Pat set off to stand in front of the white back screen. ‘You too, Andy…’ one of the LU drivers said. ‘You sure you want me in this,’ said Milne, mindful that a good journalist should never really be part of the story. ‘Yeah, yeah, get over here,’ he said. ‘You’re both family…’

Thank you to all who contributed to the RailStaff Awards. Next year we will have our own station at the Ricoh Arena – bigger, better and with even more green lights for railways.

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