Chaplain to keep BR staff on the right tracks: Passengers bemused as joyous singing greets one arrival at Birmingham station. Will Bennett reports

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The Independent Online
BRITISH RAIL passengers have wearily grown used to almost anything, but the sight of a congregation lustily singing the hymn Praise with Joy at Birmingham New Street station raised a few eyebrows.

The occasion was the first induction of a British Rail chaplain to take place on a railway station in full view of those suffering the eternal hell of regular train travel.

The Rev John Bassett is the latest recruit to the small band of ministers working for the Railway Mission, a charity which encourages Christianity among rail workers and provides help and counselling to the distressed.

Whether the sight of senior BR executives and their subordinates singing on the concourse brought joy to troubled passengers is not known, but Mr Bassett, 58, is looking forward to his ministry.

He has personal experience of the problems of the staff, having joined the railways as a porter at New Street in 1950 before leaving to train as a teacher. He is also a qualified social worker and counsellor and has worked at the station as a lay preacher.

Now that he is a minister of the United Reformed Church, he has joined four other full-time Railway Mission chaplains, based at York, Glasgow, Crewe and Bristol, who are backed up by a team of 15 lay assistants.

Although his salary is paid by the Railway Mission, British Rail provides him with an office and free train travel. Distressed passengers are not his responsibility but inevitably he does come across them.

He said: 'I tend to meet them when I am travelling on trains. If people do nobble me and ask questions, I listen to them and then perhaps I may be able to give them a wider interpretation of why trains are late.'

Such explanations do not include divine intervention but he encounters less hostility than the railway staff who bear the brunt of commuters' wrath. However, even when he was a lay preacher, some passengers treated him like a porter.

He said: 'One woman asked me to carry her bags and was very apologetic when she realised her mistake, although I didn't mind doing it at all. My job is to bring a Christian perspective into the railway industry.'

He needs this for services at New Street. In the past, when chairs have been set out on the concourse for prayers some passengers have found them a comfortable refuge where they can sit and eat their chips.

(Photograph omitted)