The railway industry needs diversity to embrace the decades of change ahead
Workforce diversity is increasingly being recognised as a social good for employers but there’s also a compelling case that diversity is an essential driver of innovation. Rail’s own history of diversity helps show the way to the innovative future we need.
Have you heard of Asquith Xavier and his significant impact on rail culture and wider society? His name might not roll off the tip of everyone’s tongue but there’s a strong argument that it should.
In the 1960s, Asquith Xavier became the first Black guard at London Euston station. This employment was only achieved after prolonged struggle against an unwritten ‘colour bar’ at London Euston. You might imagine that perhaps there were justified concerns about his employment as a guard at Euston, but no he was already an experienced guard at London Marylebone station.
Xavier’s case is often described as a strong contributor to the necessary improvements in employment law and practices that followed. The unjust challenges he faced, and his successful overcoming of them, provided a spur to innovations that have subsequently benefitted everyone. In 1968, the Race Relations Act made it illegal to refuse employment to a person on the basis of their ethnic background. It is right and fitting that there are now plaques in his honour at both Euston station and Chatham, Kent, and that the Windrush generation are honoured in an annual ceremony at Waterloo station.
Asquith Xavier can be understood in many ways. From an innovation perspective, he’s a classic case of innovators solving societal problems by ‘scratching their own itch’.
However, he’s not the only one in rail. Another famous rail example comes from Olive Wetzel Dennis who was the first woman to join the American Railway Engineering Association.
A civil engineer, she introduced several innovations in rail carriages that significantly improved passenger comfort, and hence the commercial viability of the industry. Her innovations included such shocking things as reclining seats, stain-resistant upholstery, overhead lighting, and improved cradles and bottle warmers for very young infants. These all look quite obvious now, especially for a rail network covering very long distances, but before her work they didn’t even exist in rail. We needed the combination of someone with the relevant technical skill and personal life experience to see not only that improvements were needed, but how they could be done.
Again, Olive scratched her own itch, and we have all benefitted as a result.
So now we come to the present post-pandemic period, which presents us with many itches that need scratching: the change in commuter habits, the turbulent economic outlook for the industry, not to mention decarbonisation and the need to increase freight.
The post-pandemic period should be an ideal opportunity for innovation, because society has recent experience of having to change what it does in very significant ways and often with little time to prepare. A similar thing happened in the post-WW1 period, with women joining men in many previously ‘males only’ roles in rail, such as operating and maintaining signals, oiling points, and track maintenance, because they’d already done so in other roles during the war.
However, there’s a snag. It can be difficult to see what the itches are or work out how to scratch them, especially in teams or organisations that tend to think alike. This is why workforce diversity is so important for innovation, not just social and economic justice.
On this basis, it’s really good that Network Rail has set an ambitious target for increasing the female proportion of its workforce by 50% in Control Period 6, from a base of just 16%. This will put it on a stronger footing to help the industry innovate to meet the challenges in the decades ahead.
The RISQS supplier assurance scheme is fully committed to a diverse and inclusive railway industry. A diverse workforce can draw on a wide range of skills and experiences to step-back from operational activity and seek continual best practice improvements. A diverse skillset can also listen and interpret customer needs in different ways to bring a new dimension to conversations, which can help to address complex problems.
Within your business, is there a systematic, one-size fits all approach, or is there an ad-hoc turnkey flavour to proceedings? Do approaches differ based on the job undertaken? Is there a culture of complacency or high vigilance when it comes to safety?
The RM3 module within the RISQS scheme is there to help the supply chain identify what level of approach they take to operational decision making, and the necessary improvements (if) required to keep the railways safe for everyone.
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