The Train Brain Drain
By Alan Road

This piece appeared in  The Guardian two weeks before  I emigrated to Canada.  It explains some of my thinking about leaving British Railways.

FORTY YEARS before be should be presented with his gold watch, Colin Churcher is turning his back on Britain's railways. At 26, Mr Churcher has been British Railways' area manager at Haverfordwest in Pembrokeshire. He is going to Ottawa to take up a post as an economist with the Canadian Public Service Commission's Department of Transportation.

Behind him he is leaving an Industry in which, he says, morale is low, men are shunted about like rolling stock, and consultations between men and management are often a formality. His own frustration, he believes, demonstrates that discontent is not confined to the lower grades or concerned only with cash, although in Canada he will make double his present 1.500 salary More important to him is the fact that be may be helping to open up new railways rather than presiding over their closure.

Railways are in Mr Churcher's blood. " I've been interested in them since I was 10," he said The boy who wanted to be an engine driver like his grandfather—a veteran with the old Southern Railway—grew up with an interest in the economics of transport. Not that his brief career has been entirely chairborne.  During his vacations from Reading University he worked as a fireman. " I know what it's like to clean a dirty boiler," he says with relish. As a management trainee he gained experience of goods and passenger stations, humped mail at night, and spent time at marshalling yards and in signal boxes. He thinks it significant that of the seven members of his course only two are still with British Rail.

It did not take him long, he recalls, to discover that management's attitude to employees was "almost feudal." While he was still in training someone advised him against getting married. "It was as though one had to choose between the railway and a wife." As an area manager he has had a chance to see things from the other side. " We had a system of joint consultation," he says.

"We had to go along, but we didn't have to take much notice."

But even an area manager is entitled to scant consideration when a move is involved. "We expected to have to move about," said  his  wife  Pat, a  school teacher "That's part of the attraction and we looked forward to it. But you do expect consideration, even if it's only reasonable notice. Superiors tended to keep everything a dark secret, even when they knew quite well what was to happen."

The end of the line for Colin Churcher was a potato train that never ran. A colleague had been working on a plan for a " block train " to take 500 tons of early potatoes from the Pembrokeshire growers to the North of England. There were difficulties, he admits, among them the problem of guaranteeing a full load.  Mr Churcher had the idea of dealing direct with the National Farmers' Union who would, in turn, provide British Rail with the neeessary guarantees " All we had to do was provide the train and move it." By good fortune there were even empty ammunition trucks available at Milford Haven for the journey.

"News of the project leaked to the press and I was dragged out of bed by a call from a sales manager at Cardiff, who told me to take the steam out of the story He would not even let me explain what I had in mind." 

Later, he was told by his superiors that if the wagons from Milford Haven had been used as he suggested the region would not have been able to fulfil its regular contract to return empty wagons to the Midlands.

Cuts already made In lower grades will soon, he thinks, be matched by a contraction among management. "I've got the impression that it's all cut, cut, cut, without much attempt to build up. Nobody's job is safe. In the next ten years it's going to be a case of moving from 'one redundancy to the next.'"

Mr Churcher's greatest regret is the feeling that he has let down his staff. "But I haven't come across anyone who thinks that I am not doing the right thing. The railway is a way of life But I couldn't see it was going to keep me employed for the next 40 vears."


The Guardian, 6 July 1968



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