Rail 769: diversity is weak point in rail industry

I’ve got a confession to make. In the 500 or so columns I have written for Rail, I have not ever addressed the question of equality and I am rather embarrassed by that failure. This was brought home to me when Railfuture organised a very well attended meeting in November that featured only women as the principal speakers. It was noticeable that the organisers had no difficulty persuading the various high profile women (which included Rail’s own Stefanie Brown) to spend a precious Saturday addressing a group of rail supporters (although a couple had to drop out and were replaced by men).

One of them was Karen Boswell, who is just leaving her job as managing director of East Coast Trains as the franchise is passing to Stagecoach (disguised as Virgin) and when I had a meeting with her a few weeks later, she mentioned how she felt that one of the problems of the rail industry was its failure to address the issue of diversity. Therefore, just before she left her job, we had an hour’s discussion in the pleasantly refurbished offices in Kings Cross to discuss diversity and to say she is passionate about the issue is rather like suggesting that the Welsh are quite keen on rugby.

I found her with a pile of documents that, she said, prove that diversity is not just a matter of equality or a desire to show feminist credentials, but rather good business practice. She says she has always worked in male environments such as prisons and the railways, and has obviously progressed well in them but that is a reflection on her tenacity rather than help she received in breaking through barriers.

She points to a mass of evidence from Mckinsey’s, the consultants, showing that firms which embrace diversity are more profitable than those which do not. Of a study of 360 companies in North America the performance was demonstrably better. Every 10 per cent increase in gender equality, led to a 3.5 per cent increase in profits. Boswell thinks she knows why: ‘When you don’t have balance teams, you get what you have always got – hard for people to break out and think differently. Diversity keeps people on their mettle.’

This has important ramifications: ‘The issue, therefore, is that people across industry are beginning to say that we need to have balanced diverse teams not just because it is nice or political correct, but because there is a strong business case for it’. The rail industry has a lot of distance to make up. Boswell sighs: ‘When I look around the industry at a senior level, we appear nothing like the make up of the four million passengers we serve daily. I was the only woman at a meeting of 50 senior people discussing safety the other day. ‘

There was a period a few years ago when several TOCs were run by women but Boswell’s departure following the take over of the franchise by Virgin means that there are now none. However, she is convinced that things are getting better: ‘A few years ago, I don’t think the few senior women in the industry necessarily supported each other to get on – they tended to pull up the ladder; I think that in last few years, there has been a noticeable change and women are helping each other but what is really needed are role models to understand how you break through these things’. She points to the recent creation of Women in Rail as an important step forward to help get women into more senior jobs.

She emphasises that this is not just about getting in more women but is also about race, sexual orientation and even age: ‘Our recruitment has been homogenous as we go for what we know and miss out large chunks of opportunity. High performing teams are not made up of just men, and not just middle aged white people. For instance, the board discusses social media and we need young whipper snappers who understand it’.

She reckons that there is no choice but to adopt a policy of diversity because otherwise the railways will lose out: ‘There are fabulous things happening such as electrification, growth, HS2 but we have skills gaps and it is no good just looking in the same place. We have to understand why we are not attracting people from a more diverse background, both in terms of gender and race.’

She is delighted that Network Rail has cottoned on to this agenda. Late last year the company issued an internal consultation document, Diversity which addresses this issue. The publication, is very forthright in highlighting the scale of the problem. In 2006, the company had 12 per cent female staff and that has now increased marginally to 14 per cent: ‘That means, at our current rate of recruitment and with our low turnover, it would take almost 65 years for 30 per cent of our workforce to be female, which is seen as the tipping point in benefitting from gender diversity’.

The document commits Network Rail to ‘review recruitment practices across different parts of the business because we know that unconscious and conscious biases can affect how we interact or make decisions’. The results will be interesting.

Under Boswell, East Coast Trains began to address the agenda. It held a women’s conference, with more than 50 women from all parts of the business to discuss how to increase their skills and consequently their prospects: ‘They discussed matters like how do you, as a woman, push yourself forward in an engineering depot, or how do you assert yourself without being criticised as pushy.’ She reckons, too, that the Rail Delivery Group must get behind this agenda and push it forward.

Boswell suggests that for companies which are anxious to boost diversity, one starting point would be to ensure that every short list has people from different backgrounds – something that happens in some industries in the States including American Football. She even would like to see the Department for Transport making diversity part of the franchise requirement and, indeed, when one thinks about that, it appears strange that this is not happening already.

With the publication of the Diversity document later in the year, and the growth of Women in Rail, at least the cat is out of the bag. However, there is a long way for the industry to go. From my experience, I would suggest that there is even more space to make up in terms of race than gender. The industry, as can be seen at the Rail awards, is shockingly white at the higher levels given that many of its major employment bases are in the large cities where at times the ethnic minorities are no longer minorities.



Lost property needs sorting


A friend of mine, Gary Parker, recently left his phone in a café in Bath station and did not realise he had forgotten it until he was on the train back to London where he lives. He thought it would be a simple matter to get it back – but it proved not to be.

He got through to Bath station who were very helpful but said they could not send it, even by registered post, GWR do not accept liability even though he offered to sign a waiver and pay for postage. Instead, they said that they would hold it for three days, and then send it to the GWR lost property office in Bristol. The process would then take, according to what Gary was told by was the rather unhelpful Paddington lost property office, 7 days, and therefore he would be without a phone for more than a week. The result, he said, ‘was I had to take a morning off work- I am self employed so this cost me money due to time off work and I had to pay £70 for a return fare to collect the phone in person from Bath as well as £12 for a travel card to  get across London’

The press office responded that they have 20,000 lost property items per year: ‘We advise to allow up to 5 working days as a maximum. In reality items are likely to make their way to our lost property department a lot sooner. This allows for items to be collected, transported, sorted, logged etc’

Well, 20,000 may sound a lot, but say most end up at half a dozen big stations, and many have little value or are not needed urgently, and the likelihood is that somewhere like Bath may have one or two to deal with a day – surely perfectly feasible, rather than centralising the whole process. Or else, why could there not be several points to collect items so that items could be sent to the nearest point? If Paddington has a lost property department, then surely the phone could have been sent there, and in a few hours rather than several days? However the website says specifically items cannot be sent by train – so a major rail company does not use its own resources to despatch property back to its owners? You could not make it up.

There must be better and more customer focussed solutions for urgent items like mobiles or business briefcases that Great Western could devise. Sending everything to one place is definitely not the most helpful method – although at least it was not Penzance. As Gary put it, ‘so much for the flexibility and customer service of the private sector rail companies. If this had been done by public railway service provider, I am sure there would be a big outcry on issues like this.





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