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Electra Heart

Later this year, RBF plans to launch a comprehensive range of new and better services for the rail industry, expanding the ways in which it can help. Writes Andy Milne.

The new RBF will be able to help existing and former rail staff and their dependents pick their way through the tangle of welfare benefits, grants and allowances with clear, succinct, advice and discretionary financial help.

Dating back 150 years, RBF, the Railway Benefit Fund, is almost as old as the railway itself. Restructuring and reforms at RBF have been designed to create an organisation better able to serve those most in need.

RBF is presided over by the ever cheerful Tim Shoveller, who somehow manages to find time whilst running the SWT/Network Rail Alliance at Waterloo to chair RBF. Shoveller is building on foundations set out by his forerunner, the widely respected Dominic Booth and the many railway people and staff who have been involved with RBF at every level from board members to fundraisers.

However, running the charity is a genial former luxury hotel sales manager, Yorkshire-born Abi Smith, who joined RBF in February 2014 after nine years with Claire House, a children’s hospice. Abi was confirmed as chief executive in May this year.

Abi Smith runs RBF from airy offices on an industrial estate east of Crewe station on Electra Way. The area is a vibrant grid of railway drama and legend. Crossing the road I see a huge lorry with two sets of new rail bogies skirt the roundabout with measured grace.

Down on the station Virgin Trains staff help a confused man with a courtesy and patience which is a privilege to witness. Over in the car park of the Crewe Arms that afternoon two BTP constables were walking a distraught woman back to where she thought she’d left her car.

Courageous HR

RBF has been helping railway staff and their dependents since 1858. ‘We have very strong links with the rail industry,’ says Smith. These persisted right through the British Rail era. ‘We always enjoyed union support and payroll deductions. At privatisation, we had lots in reserve.’

The post-privatisation railway posed an existential challenge for RBF. How would BR’s 400 successor companies view an organisation with a long and distinguished history? Who needed a benevolent fund anyway when staff, according to the disapproving media, were now magnificently overpaid?

In fact in a world of zero hours contracts, easy credit, a housing squeeze and rapidly changing technologies, the need for RBF has never been greater. To their credit rail bosses in the main realise what a worthwhile resource the new RBF represents. This is evidenced by the enthusiastic support given RBF by railway Human Resources departments who do a courageous job of keeping track of legislation and employee welfare.

Bonnie Dundee

‘In the new railway it was hard to see where the RBF fitted. Over the last five years, we have really had to try to take steps to improve what we do and develop good relationships. The message is we are here not just for ex-railway people, but for working staff as well.’ Examples include discrete help with funeral expenses for a Merseyrail station retailer whose wife died very suddenly on holiday. A Network Rail cable jointer, paralysed from the chest down after a motorcycle accident, needed financial help to install an access ramp, widen three doors, raise floors and take down walls to adapt the house for his wheelchair. RBF stepped in to help.

One story illustrates the full reach of RBF. Last year Jane ‘Bonnie Jean’ Ewan celebrated her 100th birthday. Mrs Ewan was formerly a Goods Depot clerk for the London Midland Scottish Railway at Dundee. As a young woman, she met her husband, Bob Ewan, at Dundee Yard. The two married and although Bonnie Jean, as she is still known, left the railway Mr Ewan went on to serve 44 years rising through the ranks to achieve a number of managerial positions. Sadly Bob died in 1969.

At her centenary party, RBF Scottish committee member, Mark Quin, turned up to pay his respects and join in the celebrations. Bonnie Jean’s daughter, Ann Smith, was delighted that the RBF remembered her mum. ‘I would like to thank the Railway Benefit Fund for their kindness in remembering my mum’s 100th birthday with such generosity and attention,’ she said. Mrs Ewan may be 100 years old but she’s still part of the railway family. Perhaps that’s where RBF fits – in a thousand thank-yous rendered down the years.

Root Cause

RBF’s soul-searching continued. The solution to every problem is not always a cash hand-out but accessing appropriate help. The great problem is so many do not know where to look or who to ask. Try the Internet and Google crashes back with hundreds of information pixies – people in excess of capacity.

‘Last year we discussed RBF’s future and talked to other funds and people in the industry. One thing became very clear, more people come to us with problems than before. Often the people have underlying issues – like housing or debt. Clearly we only have a limited amount of money. If we are to help we must look elsewhere. Many of the people we help are on benefits. 70 per cent of them are on the wrong benefits.’

Despite much vaunted attempts to simplify the system, it is anything but. Advice from over worked officials can be poor and there are cracks in welfare – sadly all too many people fall through them. Searching for the root cause of the predicament is the cornerstone of RBF’s new approach. New skills are needed and a strong group of people to deliver them.

New Team

RBF has been quietly recruiting a new team to take forward a charity better equipped for the challenges railway staff face this century. The team includes:

• Simmy Akhtar, welfare manager. Simi formerly worked for the Citzens Advice Bureau and is a trained solicitor.

• Ruth Wilson is the new fundraising manager with a wide experience of the field.

• Paula McArdle is the donor development/ marketing officer charged with maximising exposure.

• Julia Swancott finance officer reconciles the mathematics of RBF’s burgeoning role in the industry.

RBF is currently completing the last stages of recruitment for a welfare support officer, who will replace the current grants officer who is retiring in September.

‘All our staff will spend time with a railway company working on platforms and depots,’ says Abi. ‘We want to get to know what goes on, what the job involves and understand the vast array of job titles.’

Abi Smith is clearly enthusiastic about her team. ‘They are hugely committed and motivated, very knowledgeable and very passionate about supporting people.’

The life of a charity worker makes unique demands. ‘You work because you want to help.’ Detached professionalism meets an emotional involvement that poses its own set of challenges. Abi Smith is no stranger to this; she spent nine years at Claire House in Cheshire.

Swimming with Harry

‘I thought I’d give it six months,’ says Abi. She’d been working at Craxton Wood, a luxury hotel and spa on the Wirral. ‘I think people often do a new job for a few weeks and then give up on it too soon. Best stay six months and then decide, that’s my view.’

The Children’s Hospice, Claire House, is named after Claire Louise Cain, 1979 -1989. Claire’s parents set it up at Bebington on the Wirral. Claire died of a brain tumour just short of her 10th birthday.

‘I didn’t know how I’d deal with it that first day but I stayed 10 years. Within four weeks it became very clear to me how to handle life at Claire House,’ says Abi.

‘I was in the office one morning dealing with a fundraising event and getting rather bogged down when I found out we’d lost a child. Our building was separate to the actual hospice. Even so we would be able to see the little white coffin leaving. Blinds were drawn on the hospice itself.’

Smith relates all this in a matter of fact, no nonsense tone as I hiccup and attempt to keep up. ‘Then one of the children came in to the office. We were always told to drop everything and be there for the children. A funeral makes you feel pretty sick but anyway this little boy says, ‘I’ve drawn a picture. Can I have a picture frame?’ Unfazed, my colleague says, pardon? He repeats the question; pardon, she says again.

The boy rolls his eyes and says, ‘Please can I have a picture frame.’ Anyway we get this frame and help him with the picture – he’s in a wheelchair this boy. ‘Good,’ he says, ‘My Mum will like that because it’ll probably be my last one.’ Then he goes on his way.’

The point the child made, however unconsciously, was that life as it is, life in the moment, can be improved. A coffin might be leaving by the back gate. Even so, ’We know what’s going to happen in the end, but what we can do is make his life and that of his family a happy life full of good memories. It’s that involvement that drove me. Families have no choice and have to face it. We could be there to make that difference.’

One family had never been swimming together. Two brothers – one of whom, Harry, was at the hospice – wanted to go for a swim and do it as a family. The staff and a health and safety officer set up a swimming session that very night. Harry’s family hit the water at 10 o’clock.

Security Clearance

Abi Smith is originally from Yorkshire. Her family moved over to Cheshire when she was 16. At her father’s emphatic behest she studied accountancy and marketing at West Cheshire College rather than hairdressing – her preferred choice.

Later Abi worked for a local college in the finance department. She then became a secretary at Business Support and Energy at Remsdaq – a global security systems company. The job involved stand management at the National Exhibition Centre. Better still Remsdaq has a global sweep and Abi was also asked to look after overseas staff on visits to the UK. This meant structuring an itinerary and adding value to their visit. Accountancy and marketing came into their own.

‘I liked this and wanted to do more of it.’ Remsdaq’s real bonus was that she met her husband there. Peter Smith is a respected security specialist. However his defences were down the day he met Abi and the pair went on to get married. They have a daughter, Chloe, 6.

The Remsdaq experience inspired her to work at Craxton Hall organising huge events – weddings for showbiz celebs and a get together for Arsenal FC. Business ramped up from August to Christmas, with long hours planning as well as meeting and greeting.

Wrong Door

Although based in Crewe and often away in London, the family still live on the Wirral – an hour’s commute from Crewe. ‘The good thing is we can be walking along New Brighton sea front eating fish and chips on a Friday night after a week away in an office. Can’t beat it.’ Abi relaxes with friends and family. All of them piled off to a beer festival at Eastham on the Wirral organised by the local rugby club.

‘It’s important to keep up friendships, text a joke or a tweet. Weekends are important. It is essential to manage stress.’

Quite often that’s the root cause of a problem that lands on her desk. ‘Stress makes you do strange things,’ says Abi. ‘The hotel job involved looking at peaks and troughs of revenue. This regional director would ring at 12 noon and say he’d like a revenue meeting that afternoon. Two hours later he turned up. This one meeting things didn’t go very well. Losing his temper he snapped his brief case shut and wagging a finger at us girls, yanked open the door and crashed out.’ Smith pauses…’Except it wasn’t the right door, it was the stationery cupboard.’

The director reappeared skidding onto his back side in an avalanche of Post-it pads and staplers. ‘We tried desperately not to laugh.’ The story is still a centre piece of hotel staff reunions.

Advice

‘There’s this very British idea that ‘I don’t need help’. We hope people, perhaps in denial, will look at our web site and make the call.’ Sound advice is at the centre of RBF reform.

‘We’re launching fact sheets on the website. There will also be an advice help line to call. We’ll have a benefit calculator and we can run various scenarios. For example a woman going back to work – after injury or after having kids – wants to know what position she’s in. We can key in your circumstances. Where do you stand with 10 hours work or 20? We don’t want people working it out incorrectly and not taking that job because they think they’ll lose benefits. We can work out exactly where you stand and what your are entitled to.’

With debt RBF can ask for a repayment plan. ‘Some cases are quite complex so we have a partnership with Manchester Citizens Advice Bureau. We can refer our people there and be seen within 48 hours. We have a contract with them. This is especially helpful with debt. If you hit rock bottom and can’t cope, we’re there. Your case will be looked at within 48 hours not two or three weeks.’

Rail Backing

The industry looks like it is getting behind RBF. The Spring Ball held at York NRM raised £7,000. IMechE raised over £9,000 at its Railway Division Annual Luncheon, last year. People stumped up £4,500 at the RailStaff Awards. However, the key to this is payroll giving. The percentage of rail staff involved in payroll giving is less than 1 per cent. Smith is under no illusions about what lies ahead. ‘If we want more funding from the current industry we have to start working with them to support our people.’

‘The next stage is piloting what we do. Pilot schemes go live on 22 June at Merseyrail and SWT.’ Jane English, the HR director at Merseyrail, will help with the pilot until the end of August. Tim Shoveller and his team will be undertaking a similar exercise at SWT.

The new RBF offers a lot of scope for help and Tim Shoveller has said repeatedly he and Abi want to hear from staff, past and present. People can help with ideas as well as fund raising.

‘We plan to learn from the pilot and factor that into what we do before launching RBF to the whole industry this autumn.’ It’s the first in a series of steps aimed at modernisation. SWT and Merseyrail operate in very different regions and this will be valuable. The new team will log all calls and assess regional differences.

Change here for…

Change can be hard to accept but the aims and values of RBF remain the same: To help past and present rail staff and their dependents when they face illness, injury, bereavement, or financial adversity. RBF helps disabled people with the costs of powered vehicles and mobility aids, covers the shortfalls in funeral expenses and gets involved with legal advice and welfare – a service that is hard to put a price on. RBF’s grants and support amounted to almost £325,000 in 2010, and supported over 560 people.

After 150 years, the charity sits close to the beating heart of the rail industry – a sort of staff welfare pace maker. ‘Change is always challenging,’ says Abi. ‘But we need to update and improve what we do as we look to the next 150 years.’ As HR people are fond of saying when one door closes another door opens. ‘Just make sure it’s not a stationery cupboard,’ says Abi Smith.

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