Valuing diversity

The experience of black, Asian and minority ethnic people working in the British Railway industry is a history that has been little explored.

From its earliest days, the railway in this country has employed migrant workers and in a general sense their experience of working for the railway will have mirrored the experience of black, Asian and minority people in society. The experience of minority communities working on the railway in the nineteenth century is a story largely lost; but there are many personal recollections still to be told about experiences in the 20th and 21st centuries for the railway record. 

The first migrant workers in the railway industry

The first migrant workers in the railway industry were Irish ‘navvies’ whose skill and hard manual labour contributed significantly to the building of the railway network, particularly in Scotland and the north of England. In the mid nineteenth century the Irish railway navvy had a fierce reputation; on some projects particularly in the towns and cities they were segregated from their English and Scottish colleagues by the contractors in charge.  However on the smaller lines there is plenty of evidence that all nationalities worked, lived and socialised together.

There is evidence that black, Asian and minority ethnic workers were employed on the railway throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, their numbers were small and reflected the make-up of British society at this time.

Increase in wages and improved prospects in the employment market

It wasn’t until after World War Two that there was a significant change in patterns of migration to Britain.  An increase in wages and improved prospects in the employment market meant that there were many jobs that British workers considered unattractive because of low pay and poor conditions.  In the 1940s eastern European workers were taken on by the railway to fill these roles before larger recruitment drives took place.  British Railways were just one of a number of employers who actively recruited from the West Indies post World War Two.

Officially there was no colour bar operating within British Railways

By the 1950s, there were several thousand black men working of British Railways. However, their experience was generally a poor one once they arrived to work in the UK.  There was little introduction to values, culture and geography, in an industry that for over 100 years had developed a lifestyle and culture all of its own.  For many decades the stereotypes of black and ethnic minority workers often held firm.  Officially there was no colour bar operating within British Railways, but there are many accounts of applications and promotions being blocked because of an individual’s colour or background.

Railway trade unionism

Railway trade unionism played a large part in changing attitudes towards black, Asian and minority people in the railway industry.  The unions encouraged solidarity amongst all workers and there are accounts of racial tensions in the workplace being alleviated as black, Asian and minority ethnic people stood together with colleagues in support of ballots and strikes.  The rise of the National Front in the 1970s resulted in the railway trade unions taking a stand against all forms of racism, which is still strong.

Today the industry is coming together to actively promote the railway as an employer of choice for people from a black, Asian and minority ethnic background

Network Rail is committed to being a company where each individual is valued, respected and encouraged to reach their full potential.  Our five year diversity and inclusion strategy, ‘Everyone – building a more open, diverse and inclusive organisation’, published this month makes this a conscious and prominent part of our business.

Read more about Network Rail’s commitment to diversity and inclusion