Great Northern workers turn to God under new timetable strain

PUBLISHED: 09:10 17 September 2018 | UPDATED: 11:01 17 September 2018

London chaplain Joshua Shinhmar. Picture: William Johnston

London chaplain Joshua Shinhmar. Picture: William Johnston

Soft Tones Photography

A Christian support service has seen a rise in demand from Great Northern rail workers facing public abuse since the company’s botched timetable rollout of May 20.

Railway chaplain Angela Harwood, who looks after the Great Northern line between King's Cross and Stevenage. Picture: William JohnstonRailway chaplain Angela Harwood, who looks after the Great Northern line between King's Cross and Stevenage. Picture: William Johnston

Angela Levitt-Harwood is a chaplain in the Railway Mission, a Christian organisation devoted to giving spiritual and emotional support to people on the railways.

She’s one of a team of specialist chaplains who work full-time to ease the woes of rail workers, including those at operators, Network Rail and British Transport Police.

It’s been a busy summer for Angela, as her patch includes the Great Northern-operated line between King’s Cross St Pancras and Stevenage.

Since May 20, when a new timetable roll-out was infamously botched, the resulting stresses have heavily impacted Great Northern workers facing implacable travellers on the platforms and behind the ticket desks.

Chaplain Richard Cook at a dedication for soldiers fallen in the First World War. Picture: William JohnstonChaplain Richard Cook at a dedication for soldiers fallen in the First World War. Picture: William Johnston

“Over recent months the staff on the Great Northern line have been subjected to a great deal of abuse,” said the mum-of-two.

“Some employees stop wearing their uniform when they come into and leave their place of work because they look like a target.

“Stress levels have risen and some people have had time away from the railway as a result of the disruption and the timetable changes,” she added.

Few people seem to be aware that there is a small, 23-strong army of chaplains on our railways, meting out comfort and support to those who need it.

London chaplain Dylis George (picture posed by models). Picture: William JohnstonLondon chaplain Dylis George (picture posed by models). Picture: William Johnston

The Railway Ministry is part of a chain of support that joins up with the provision given by railway companies.

They can provide a listening ear by phone and email to “people of faith, of no faith, or in between,” as Angela put it.

But much of their work is done face-to-face, and Angela spends a lot of time on trains, travelling to meet people running the service at stops like WGC, Potters Bar and Stevenage.

“Most of our time is spent out and about,” she said. “The main way we provide support on the railway is by building relationships, trying to be that friendly face so that when life hits that bump in the road we’re not just a stranger.”

Railway chaplain Angela Harwood, who looks after the Great Northern line between King's Cross and Stevenage. Picture: William JohnstonRailway chaplain Angela Harwood, who looks after the Great Northern line between King's Cross and Stevenage. Picture: William Johnston

Having been an ordained minister for ten years, and having also worked in funeral services, she brings her unique skills to the role, which is paid for by charitable donations and rail company contributions.

As well as tending to rail workers, chaplains also support the public in the event of what is often delicately called a “person hit by a train”.

Whether the tragedy is a suicide or an accident, here Angela’s experience of working with the bereaved comes to the fore.

“We meet with families and loved ones, and also just people who happened to be there.

The Railway Mission has been supporting rail staff and transport police for over 100 years. Picture: William JohnstonThe Railway Mission has been supporting rail staff and transport police for over 100 years. Picture: William Johnston

“We also see people who survive such an awful thing, and often end up with life-changing injuries.”

She rarely wears her clerical robes, preferring to have a more casual look.

But did she did don her more formal wear recently at a ceremony for the anniversary of the Manchester Arena terror attack, which was partially above the railway station.

For rail workers, she emphasised that much of her work was about being a friendly face up and down the lines.

Railway chaplain Angela Harwood, who looks after the Great Northern line between King's Cross and Stevenage. Picture: William JohnstonRailway chaplain Angela Harwood, who looks after the Great Northern line between King's Cross and Stevenage. Picture: William Johnston

“Sometimes all that’s needed is someone to come in and have a good chat with someone who understands the work on the railways but isn’t necessarily directly close to their job.”

Perhaps ironically, Angela herself has been impacted plenty by the botched Great Northern timetable roll-out.

“I’ve been late three times this week!” she said. “I can understand the frustration.”

But she’s the one who has to soothe the workers who get the brunt of public anger.

Asked what she would say to exasperated passengers, she pleaded for them to remember that frontline Great Northern workers are not personally responsible for the chaos.

“They should never have to receive that treatment,” she said.

But her job is easing slightly as things improve at Great Northern.

“Over the last few weeks it’s been my observation, and the observation of the staff, that this has become a lot better.

“A lot of work has gone on behind the scenes at Great Northern.

“I’m sure these aren’t perfect but it’s better than it was.

“Our railways do need to change and do need to modernise. It’s just unfortunate that so many timetable changes came in at the same time.”

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