Chris Lo: how did you become involved with the rail pastors?
Phil Norton: I’ve been a street pastor for over seven years now. During that time I’ve really enjoyed being out and about and being available for people, to help them, listen to them or care for them when most other things are closed for the night. Then I heard that the Ascension Trust was doing a similar project with similar volunteers on the rail network.
Our main ethos is to try and support the different agencies in managing suicidal issues. We are part of – only a part, because the industry is taking it very seriously – the intervention for people who come to the railway line, or along the line, to end their life. It’s a very sensitive thing, a very emotive thing for many people who have been touched by suicide. But we try to do it in a very gentle, non-judgemental way, just by coming alongside people in that time of crisis to try and be a friendly face, an ear to listen. But also maybe we can signpost people back to some other agencies that might take care of them in the long-term. We’re trying to join in, as volunteers, in the whole process of helping people on the rail network.
CL: What kind of training did you receive in preparation for the role?
PN: We do the street pastors training; all our rail pastors are experienced street pastors. That involves ten weeks of training in many different subjects to bring them up to speed with some of the things that might be impacting and influencing people in their lives now, as many of our volunteers are from the older generations.
Then once you’ve done that for a period of time and it’s felt that you’re suitable for the [rail pastor] role, then you go on the Samaritans’ Managing Suicidal Contacts course, which is an excellent course. It’s quite emotional, but it deals with some of the issues you might find, where people are in emotional crisis. And then we do training with the train operating companies. We want to be safe on the rail network, because it can be quite a dangerous place. We do a day with them, where they show us around the stations, they teach us some of the things to look out for, and some of the ways they behave in and around stations so as not to increase any potential problems.
Interior of London King’s Cross. Image: Dmitry Tkachenko Photo | Shutterstock.com
CL: How do you and the other rail pastors in Essex organise your shifts and the route you cover?
PN: We’ve got three projects running in Essex. The Havering street pastors run the project from Shenfield to Colchester, and at Billericay we run the project from Harlow to Cambridge and from Shenfield to Southend Victoria [station]. Our hope is that by the end of next year, possibly the following year, the whole of the Greater Anglia network will be covered by rail pastors. We have people that do our rotas and our co-ordination, and we also go to the internal rail meetings where they discuss different issues at different stations, or different times when they think it would be useful for us to out and about on the network. We try to be there for people when it’s appropriate for them rather than convenient for us.
CL: Were you surprised by the number of people who needed help on the network?
PN: This is where the Catch-22 comes – do you become more aware of issues because you’re more involved in it, or are the issues increasing? When it’s reported that there seems to be an increasing mental health crisis, yes, we can confirm that. Whether that translates into the amount of people actually seeking an end-of-life course – we’re undecided at the moment, because we haven’t done it long enough to cast our minds back to five, six or seven years ago and how many incidents we were dealing with then.
We’ve recorded four interventions in the last 18 months at various locations, at various times, where we believe because of our presence, a person has had their life saved at that moment. As far as we know, the people we’ve intervened with are still alive and are now getting onward care. We’ve brought people back from the side of the tracks and encouraged them to come with us to a place of safety, and then we hand them over to the British Transport Police and the care industry. If people are in that position where they’re thinking this is their only course of action, they need some proper help.
CL: Are there common factors that you’ve spotted when it comes to the distressed people you’ve helped in this role?
PN: In extreme circumstances where people are contemplating harming themselves, it tends to be more around mental health, low self-esteem and a lack of hope in life. Quite often, it’s people who are managing a lot of situations in their lives but then something happens that just pushes them over the edge. Something that would normally be fairly innocuous can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, and it sends people into a pit of, ‘I’ve got no hope, I’m of no worth, everybody’s better off without me’.
CL: Can the role be dangerous at times?
PN: It’s not dangerous because we’re a very non-confrontational, non-judgemental group of people, and we always act in teams. Our training for street pastors and rail pastors is that our first means of protection is to back off. We are from the older generation, so the likelihood is if we were to get involved, maybe one of our members would get hurt themselves, and therefore they’ve become an issue and somebody we need to deal with, which adds to the problem. We’re not the police, the rail industry or security guards, so we’re not there to pull people apart or get involved in scuffles.
CL: Do you think there’s anything that Network Rail and the train operators could be doing to improve passenger safety at stations and on trains?
PN: What they do is incredible – we’ve seen it now from behind the scenes. We see all the work, and they genuinely do care about people. They care about safety, they’re engaged with the Samaritans, with us as volunteers, with rail chaplains, with the land sheriffs. With all their staff they’re constantly reviewing their processes and encouraging staff to be vigilant and caring. Until there’s some other idea that comes from them or from us because we’re watching – they are doing absolutely everything they can to keep people safe.