In times of need they are there without hesitation, offering a listening ear and confidential support. But now, in its time of difficulty, the Railway Mission is in need of help itself.
From remote areas of the network in Scotland to the busiest hubs in London, the Mission’s band of specially trained chaplains provide ‘psychological first aid’ to staff going through dark times.
In 2017, the charity supported rail staff on 15,925 occasions during visits to stations, signal boxes, depots and offices. This includes following up 253 suicides or suicide attempts with chaplaincy support. It also deployed 2 chaplains to help those affected by the recent worker fatalities at Margam.
Like all charitable organisations, fundraising is an ongoing challenge for the Railway Mission. Following the removal of two major sources of funding, it was left with a financial black hole of £120,000 a year in 2018.
The situation forced the charity’s hand and led it to making two members of staff redundant, a figure that would have been higher had another not resigned.
Executive director Liam Johnston said: “We’re a dedicated, professional charity service. With the exception of a couple of volunteers, we employee our chaplains because we want to employe the best we can get.
“Unfortunately that squeeze on the finances has meant that we’ve had to reduce the numbers of staff so we’re really struggling in some areas.”
Currently there is no dedicated chaplain for the London Underground – the nearest support is now located at the major London terminals – the equivalent of only one full-time chaplain covering Scotland and the chaplains in the north of England are having to cover large patches. At its peak there were 27 chaplains, now there are 20.
Without finding additional sources of income, the Railway Mission will be unable to bolster its staff, meaning its capability will continue to be reduced.
Liam said there is a three-year plan to prevent the charity from eating further into its reserves, but this will mean being less flexible with its support and helping less people.
He added: “We can cope as long as we’re not hit by anything major. Our capacity to cope with those events is majorly reduced.
“What we really need is an increase in funding to not only decrease the deficit but allow us to go back to the level of chaplaincy that we have had in the past.”
Liam is determined to establish the backing of major funders but the Railway Mission also wants to encourage more members of staff to donate via payroll giving.
“What we’ve seen is the amount of money people give on a regular basis has gone down, and that causes a knock-on effect.
“I think that’s typical for the times that we’re in. Everybody’s a bit concerned about their financial future whether it’s to do with Brexit, whether it’s to do with prices, whatever the reason.
“With payroll giving, if someone gives £5 or even £1 a week that continues through their career and over time adds up to a significant amount of money. If you get lots of people giving small amounts, as people retire or move jobs, it doesn’t have that big effect of one major funder stopping giving thousands of pounds because you’ve got lots of smaller supporters, there’s lots of flexibility in that. It’s a more sustainable income stream in the long term.”
Liam added: “The work of the Railway Mission doesn’t pull on people’s heart strings as much as other causes.
“Everybody knows somebody that’s been effected by cancer, everybody knows someone who has children, so charities that deal with children, charities that deal with cancer, they really pull on the heart strings.
“We’re here to support people who are in employment, generally, who are seen as being well paid but everybody who goes through a difficulty in their life, whether it’s ill health, divorce, whether it’s problems with their family in some way, all of those people need support.”