In 2019, just before we were in the grips of Covid Pandemic, I alighted my train at Platform 2 in Manchester Oxford Road station, and immediately noticed some wonderful art work on the wall beyond the tracks in front of me. I began my research to find the artist, Dez, his work known as ‘Loveart Pix’. Dez has since become a family friend.
I believe that nothing in life is coincidence and during my original research to find Dez I contacted Reverend Mike Roberts, Railway Chaplain whom I had met at a Remembrance Sunday service some months before, and I had been moved by his prayers. Some years later Mike and I were to embark of a special journey of our own, but more of that later!
Even though I am proud to say that I am a railway man’s daughter I had to admit I knew nothing about the role of a Railway Chaplain. I now know that Railway Mission is a British mission devoted to the rail industry. It was founded in 1881 based in mission halls, and now operates a chaplaincy service. In the early days of the Railway Mission there were a number of mission halls at railway stations throughout the country.
These days the Railway Chaplains cover hundreds of miles by train to provide their ministry. Mike works under the auspices of the Railway Mission. He covers a vast area in the North West from Stafford to Carlisle, Blackpool to the Pennines. This includes 11 Passenger and Freight Operators; Network Rail; 11 depots; over a hundred stations and 50 signal boxes. He is also a chaplain to the British Transport Police.
So, what does a Railway Chaplain do?
The introduction of railway chaplains in the United Kingdom has been a significant development in the provision of spiritual and emotional support to both railway employees and passengers. These dedicated individuals serve a crucial role in an industry that operates around the clock, often under stressful and challenging conditions.
One of the primary attributes of railway chaplains is their ability to provide emotional support to railway employees. Working in the railway industry can be physically and mentally demanding, with long hours and often unpredictable schedules. Railway chaplains offer a listening ear and a supportive presence, helping employees cope with the stresses and challenges of their jobs. They provide a safe space for employees to discuss their concerns, anxieties, and personal issues, which can have a positive impact on mental health and job satisfaction.
Railway chaplains are often key responders in times of crisis. Whether it’s a tragic accident, a medical emergency, or a natural disaster, chaplains are trained to provide immediate emotional and spiritual support to those affected. Their presence helps mitigate the traumatic effects of such events and ensures that individuals receive the care and compassion they need during difficult times. Rev Mike Roberts has spent an immeasurable amount of time supporting hundreds of railway staff and commuters in the traumatic aftermath of suicides that take place at railways stations or on the tracks.
For many people, faith and spirituality are essential aspects of their lives. Railway chaplains offer spiritual guidance and counselling to those who seek it. They provide religious services, prayer rooms, and pastoral care to passengers and employees of diverse backgrounds and beliefs. This inclusivity ensures that everyone has access to the spiritual support they need while traveling or working within the railway system and working with people of any and all faiths or no faith at all.
Railway chaplains also play a role in promoting the overall well-being of railway personnel. They offer wellness programs, stress management workshops, and training in dealing with workplace issues. By addressing physical, mental, and emotional health, chaplains contribute to a healthier and happier workforce, ultimately improving the efficiency and safety of the railway industry.
Conflicts are inevitable in any workplace, and the railway industry is no exception. Railway chaplains are skilled in conflict resolution and mediation. They help employees and management find constructive solutions to disputes, preventing escalation and fostering a more harmonious work environment.
In my opinion, the merits of railway chaplains in the United Kingdom cannot be overstated. As well as their contributions to the well-being of railway employees and passengers, their role includes crisis intervention, and conflict resolution. I have also witnessed how they are extremely effective at community engagement.
Perhaps this is the perfect moment to talk about the very special journey that Mike and I took together from April 2022 to April 2023.
In 2020, I was given the wonderful news that I had been chosen for the Royal Appointment of High Sheriff of Greater Manchester.
The Office of High Sheriff is an independent non-political, unpaid, Royal appointment for a single year. The origins of the Office date back to Saxon times, when the ‘Shire Reeve’ was responsible to the king for the maintenance of law and order within the shire, or county, and for the collection and return of taxes due to the Crown. Today, there are 55 High Sheriffs serving the counties of England and Wales each year.
Whilst the duties of the role have evolved over time, welcoming the members of the royal family to their County, supporting the Crown and the judiciary remain central elements of the role today. In addition, High Sheriffs actively lend support and encouragement to crime prevention agencies, the emergency services and to the voluntary sector. In recent years High Sheriffs in many parts of England and Wales have been particularly active in encouraging crime reduction initiatives, especially amongst young people. High Sheriffs also assist local charities working with vulnerable and other people both in endorsing and helping to raise the profile of their valuable work.
High Sheriffs receive no remuneration and no part of the expense of a High Sheriff’s year falls on the public purse.
One of the many honours bestowed upon us as incumbent High Sheriffs is to choose our Chaplain/s. I instantly knew who I would chose for the role.
My first call was to Mike Roberts, As my father had worked ‘on the railways’ for most of his adult life, I knew Mike was the perfect person for the role. We were still in lockdown, so our meeting was almost clandestine – not from a health and safety point of view, but because of keeping the request a secret. In 2020, we stood, eight feet apart, on Manchester Oxford Road where I invited Mike to be my Chaplain, endeavouring not to shout too loudly over the noise of the city traffic. Once Mike had accepted, I then advised him that he couldn’t tell anyone until March 2022!
During my year in office, Mike was a huge support to me, starting with him leading the prayers at my Installation, the ceremony to become High Sheriff. It was held at the Lowry Theatre in the presence of the Lord Lieutenant, His Honour Judge John Potter, the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester, the Acting Superintendent for the Pennine district of the British Transport Police, my under Sheriff, and 200 invited guests. Outside were Mounted Police Horses and Police Dog handlers with their charges.
I chose my second, but equally revered chaplain , my dear friend, Elizabeth (Liz) Whimpanny. About 20 years ago, Liz, a nurse, was told that one of her patients, 18-year-old Adam, was being moved to a nursing home for the elderly due to his complex health needs and disabilities. Liz applied for a mortgage and opened a young people’s home – and Adam was her first resident. With three sites now, Liz is also taking her Minister in the Making studies.
During my year as High Sheriff, Mike and I shared much together; we laughed, prayed and cried together. Indeed, who could not shed a tear at one of the most poignant moments, when Mike led the prayers at Manchester Victoria Station, commemorating five years since the bombing at Manchester Arena when 22 people lost their lives. Days later I stood with the now Their Highnesses the Prince and Princess of Wales, alongside the Dean of Manchester and the bereaved families as the Glade of Light was officially opened at Manchester Cathedral. He helped me when I was writing a speech for the Windrush anniversary. I too had been a stranger to someone else’s shores as a child when, as a £10 family we emigrated to Australia, returning home to UK some years later to a country I had no knowledge of. I could not have penned those heartfelt words without him. He counselled me when our Sovereign died and in my role as High Sheriff, on Sunday 11 September 2022 in St Peter’s Square Manchester, I proclaimed to the County of Greater Manchester, the Accession of King Charles III.
His face was a picture when I told him that I needed him to lead the prayers at my ‘Hanging.’ The ceremony sees the current High Sheriff of Greater Manchester sign the Roll of High Sheriffs in the presence of the High Court Judge and other judiciary, presently sitting at Crown Court, Manchester. The High Sheriff’s portrait is then ceremonially hung and, later, is moved to hang permanently alongside predecessors and the Monarch in the court building.
Mike was also my chaplain at the High Sheriff’s Service for the beginning of the Legal Year. Standing in Manchester Cathedral addressing a 500 congregation of Clergy, High Court Judges, people from all walks of the legal profession, Consuls, and guests.
Mike received no financial gain for the support he so generously gave to me, as, like the High Sheriff role, High Sheriff Chaplains are unpaid. Only now I have come to realise that the cost to his work life balance must have been immense, and I will be forever thankful to him.
I saw firsthand how the Railway Chaplaincy is such a crucial role in community cohesion with the railways. Mike introduced me to the Railway Children charity, and I spent time understanding the amount of the work they do. Every year thousands of children across the UK, India and East Africa run away or are forced to leave homes that have become unbearable through poverty, abuse, violence and neglect.
Children run away or are forced to leave homes where they suffer poverty, violence, abuse and neglect. They find themselves homeless because there is nowhere else to go and nobody to turn to. The charity works to reach children as soon as they arrive on the streets and intervene before an abuser can.
Mike is a thoroughly ‘good egg’ however his sense of humour is rye. For instance, telling me that he was Mr July in a 2023 calendar led me to worry for a moment if I might be sent to the Tower of London for my bad judgement on Chaplain suitability and what would his wife, the Reverend Rebecca Roberts think of this? All was well when he later told me it was for the Railway mission and his head and shoulders wearing a blue jumper were really an addition to main picture of an RAF Tribute Train in the Railway Mission calendar.
Now that my year in office is completed, Mike and I still meet to chat about community initiatives and last week he invited my husband and I to Chester Cathedral. On this occasion, not for worship per se, but to visit Making Tracks 3; a 19.5 metre long and 4.26 metre wide model rail track. The installation, which features scale models of iconic stretches of the UK’s railways, is curated by record producer and songwriter Pete Waterman OBE, alongside Railnuts modelling group. Making Tracks 3 was based upon a stretch of the West Coast Main Line – the approach to Rugby station from Kilsby Tunnel in the south, to Hillmorton Junction at the north end of the model.
Not surprising really, that during a conversation with Pete Waterman, when he was telling me how Making Tracks 3, in Chester Cathedral, was already record breaking visitor numbers, he suddenly spied Mike and uttered, “ I know him!”
So, there is never a dull moment with my friendship with Railway Chaplain Rev Michael Roberts, the somewhat quiet unassuming Railway Chaplain who won a National Rail Award in October 2022, recognised by a panel of industry judges to win Outstanding Personal Contribution to the railway at a ceremony at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London.
I have seen firsthand, that by providing emotional and spiritual support, chaplains not only improve the lives of individuals but also enhance the overall efficiency and safety of the railway system. Their work reflects a commitment to compassion, understanding, and unity in an industry that serves millions of people every day. Their contributions to the well-being of railway personnel and the broader community.