The Transport Benevolent Fund has celebrated its 100th birthday. Like frontline staff, it should not be seen as a relic of of the past

A train has been named ‘Transport Benevolent Fund CIO’

With the ludicrous proposals to close ticket offices and the obsession with de-staffing across transport, it’s unnerving to imagine what it will be like working in the sector in a decade or more. Many of today’s up and coming managers wax lyrical, as if to be clever and impactful, about the joys of technology. You see and hear them in meetings acting as though they are whizz innovators and they go quiet when the debate turns to less exciting subject matter such as staff morale, accidents or assaults on duty, terms and conditions, recruitment, retention and development. Staff are a nuisance to them. I’ve seen many newcomers to the sector, and they literally have to be forced to venture out on the patch and hang around a depot meeting staff, watching engineers and cleaners at work. If they do, they generally talk to them in a patronising way.

Those of us who care about customer service and see the presence of well-managed, motivated, engaged and healthy staff as the key driver of customer satisfaction, patronage and revenue, must resist the stupidity of ticket office closures alongside doing our best to encourage a focus on the well-being of employees. For this reason, I’ve been delighted in recent times to stumble across the Transport Benevolent Fund CIO (TBF), which celebrated its 100th birthday a few weeks ago. SWR marked the occasion, naming a train ‘Transport Benevolent Fund CIO’ at a fabulous ceremony, hosted at Waterloo. Lord Hendy and SWR managing director Claire Mann dropped everything in their diaries to spend around an hour and half at the event alongside the crème de la crème of the transport industry – testimony to the very relevant place that TBF and other similar transport charities still play in these days of diminished focus on employees.

The TBF model is a beacon of simplicity in a world of opaque complexity and seems almost too good to be true

The TBF model is a beacon of simplicity in a world of opaque complexity and seems almost too good to be true. Anyone working in the public transport sector can pay £1.25 a week into the fund and they and their dependents can benefit from support in hardship and distress – be it health or finance related. Its 60,000 members derive from a range of transport companies, be it train, coach, bus, aviation and ferry companies – large, medium and small, Network Rail and a range of suppliers. Subscriptions are deducted at source from an employee’s pay, though 42 companies fund these as a benefit to their people.

TBF is a ‘not-for-profit’ organisation and is easily affordable and accessible for frontline employees and anyone in transport. TBF chief executive John Sheehy explains that almost all requests for support from members in adversity are granted and there are stories of life-changing financial, medical or counselling support being provided for folk across the UK.

Unlike most other transport charities, the TBF’s sustainability is based around membership subscriptions, and they don’t actively court donations. However, donations are welcome and the transport executive search company I co-founded, Lost Group, donates 2% of all revenue to TBF. To drive member numbers, it has a team of six membership officers and eight organisers who attend depots and induction training courses, trying to encourage employees to sign up.

Sheehy concedes that there are challenges ahead for employees and indeed organisations like the TBF going forward. Covid ratcheted up the mental health issues among transport folk and this has been reflected in the number of treatments provided for its members. So too, transport has seen a post pandemic increase in the hot-headedness and anti-social behaviour that frontline staff have to deal with. This has again been reflected in the requests for help dealt with by the TBF.

When I joined London Underground, we were one big family, but now that’s gone

From a mental health perspective, Sheehy believes that the automation and general de-staffing of the transport environment has been in tandem with the decline in the sense of community across the sector. “When I joined London Underground, we were one big family, but now that’s gone.”

I can relate to this as I am a member on Facebook of a group for former London Transport employees and there are memories and pictures of social clubs, company sports teams, and a bar above the depot canteen at Camden Town. They are from an era that seems so alien from today, you have to wonder whether it really existed! There were real characters back then – extroverts whose force of personality was actively encouraged by management because, where channelled positively, it helped support colleagues, particularly younger ones. I benefitted from this in the early stages of my career. On the Facebook group, there are recollections aplenty of staff Christmas parties, day-trip excursions in mini-buses or after work nights in the pub where camaraderie would be built as well as vital tutelage and problem-sharing. There certainly seemed to be a more collegiate and supportive environment back then. It’s hard to do this in a workplace with Teams calls replacing daily face-to-face interactions, and folk rushing home the moment the working day finishes – their only outlet to communicate being on social media, including LinkedIn.

I know I’m a renowned cynic of transport awards events, but I think they are now almost the only outlet for work-based socialising. Whilst I’m no fan of the drink and banter culture of old, I fear that a more sanitised working environment means that many folk naturally retreat from socialising with work colleagues, for fear of saying the wrong thing. I also believe that, if anything, HR departments have become overly prescriptive with ‘tick-box’ style processes for one-to-ones, reviews, appraisals and career development sessions, insisting also that these are written up online on some constraining, automated system, that has stultified managers, destroying the art of meaningful, deep, supportive and engaging conversations with employees.
Arsenal-supporting Sheehy can relate to my mix of nostalgia and lamenting. He joined London Underground in 1989, the year his beloved Gunners famously won the title in dramatic fashion at Liverpool. Like me, John also started on the Northern line. He was initially a guard then driver, based at Golders Green depot – “happy days” – before moving to the TBF in the mid-1990s when it was initially just part of London Transport, before taking on the nationwide role it has held since 1996.


He observes: “Whilst we take mental health far more seriously than ever before, which is a good thing, in my 25 years at TBF, I’ve definitely seen, across the industry, people feeling lonelier or experiencing psychological conditions which might have been alleviated had they had the kind of community-based environment that we enjoyed back at London Transport in the early years of our careers.

“Even the sacrosanct staff canteens, where people used to chew the fat, enjoy others’ company and also offer and provide pastoral support to colleagues are in a spiral towards becoming obsolete. Staff just book on and off now, they are just ships passing in the night.”

Challenges in managing personal finances have also been reflected in the types and numbers of requests for help dealt with by the TBF. Sheehy is despondent about what he sees as us “living in a credit society, where there’s an acceptance of building up debt, as if it’s just the norm”. This, coupled with the cost-of-living crisis, is having a real impact on frontline staff.

“The burden of increased costs in the past couple of years, combined with situations where members might have suffered loss of pay due to sickness, bereavement or the loss of employment by a family member, has led to a number of claims for support, which we have paid out,” says Sheehy.

If someone comes to us with really serious problems, that need a bigger commitment, then we speak to our trustees (who range from bus drivers to company directors) and see if we can offer more for them. This year we will spend £3m in direct benefits to our members

He explains that TBF benefits also include convalescing where staff have suffered on-the-job trauma, or alternative therapies, adding: “If someone comes to us with really serious problems, that need a bigger commitment, then we speak to our trustees (who range from bus drivers to company directors) and see if we can offer more for them. This year we will spend £3m in direct benefits to our members.”

Sheehy believes that there also needs to be greater advice to transport employees around how to manage their finances sensibly.

“Everyone lives to their means, at whatever level that is, and it can take one thing to unbalance that, and it tips things over the edge,” he says. “That’s where we can help, contributing towards priority arrears.” Earlier in the day, a member fell on hard times through sickness and the TBF paid for his wife’s mobility scooter so she could be independent again.

The TBF continues to thrive with the vast majority of transport organisations encouraging their employees to sign up as members, some more audibly than others

The TBF continues to thrive with the vast majority of transport organisations encouraging their employees to sign up as members, some more audibly than others. There continues to be a job to be done to ensure that younger managers are aware of the TBF and like-minded organisations. Across society, co-operative-style, subscription-based organisations and trusts, aren’t as visible or integral to the landscape as they perhaps were a few decades ago. The success of the TBF depends on first-level managers encouraging their membership organisers into their depots and offices to showcase the benefits to frontline employees.

There is, of course, a big lever the TBF can also employ, particularly during this era of workplace reform and where pay and conditions discussions and negotiations are in play between staff and management. If stalemates are ensuing and where increasing baseline pay might set a precedent or be unaffordable and other staff benefits are being sought as a compromise, then a company offering to fund the cost of its employees being members of the TBF is a useful alternative tool. It’s a ‘win-win’ for both parties too as it’s a truism that if staff are able to benefit from medical and other support, then they will be fitter and in a better frame of mind.

If we are to predict a decade or two henceforth of a scenario where the value and presence of staff in transport has been relegated to the lowest of priorities, then there is a scenario, where the TBF might not be as vital as it is now. Sheehy concedes: “If there are fewer transport employees, then there will be fewer subscriptions and a smaller pot to fund benefits. We’re also finding that with increasing staff cuts, our members are suffering more stress and ailments as they are spread more thinly.”

A century on from its birth, the TBF model isn’t a relic of the past but can play an increasingly vibrant role going forward. At the same time, maybe the industry can just reflect on, rather than denigrate, some of the more positive aspects of yesteryear’s working life, before HR departments and automation took over – canteens, avuncular old pros giving ‘a word in your ear’, the depot’s cricket team getting bowled out for under 50, the bank holiday Beano to Southend Pier or the ‘station foreman’s leaving do’. This was a world where staff were the heartbeat of public transport and made or broke customer perceptions – not a peripheral, ‘nice to have’ after-thought. They were the past, present and future and a community that created lifelong memories and looked out for you just like the Transport Benevolent Fund CIO still does today, as much as ever in its centenary year.

This story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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