We sit down with Loraine Martins, Network Rail’s Director of Diversity and Inclusion, to discuss the importance of acknowledging the past and how the rail industry can use it to help create a better future.
Whatever the past relationship between slavery, race and the railways, it is clear that Network Rail, as guardian of the national railway infrastructure, have an enormous role to play in building a better future.
No one is better placed to understand and comment on that future role than Loraine Martins, Network Rail’s Director of Diversity and Inclusion. Yet as she points out when we sit down to talk to her, it begins with the railways, and other industries, accepting their collective past.
“I think it’s crucial,” she says, “As crucial as it is for us as a nation, and us as a wider global society, to really understand the history of slavery.
“We have to understand its long term impacts and also those institutions that have ‘benefited’ from it.” She continues, placing inverted commas around the word ‘benefited’ with her hands.
This includes thinking about the indirect benefits, she makes clear, as much as the direct ones.
“Understanding what the profits [of slavery] have kind of delivered can lead us to a place where we can own that history.”
“It’s good and it’s bad.” She explains, but stresses that it is also critical and that this is why writing and talking about the subject is something that needs to happen more.
“[It’s] a helpful pointer to the need for us as an industry and as a society to begin to have these conversations in a much more open and in a less apologetic way.” She says. “But it also paves the path to ‘and so what?’ as a consequence of that. That is: ‘what do we do in the future?”
We point out that one of the criticisms sometimes faced by those exploring the impact of race and slavery on British history, has been the argument that if those connections existed, they would be present in the common historical narrative already. Especially in an area as well-traveled in popular and academic study as the history of the railways.
It’s an approach, we suggest, that fails to acknowledge that the absence of obvious sources and existing writing doesn’t automatically mean that the history isn’t there. Simply that it is only now that historians are beginning to look.
“I think there’s a historical blindspot.” She says. “And it is more about the invisibility, so yes you’re right. It’s about what we don’t know or what we choose to ignore, and I think they might be in equal measure.”
“I think the invisibility of the contributions of African people, of Asian people to British society is something we need to attend to.” She continues. “And I think the specifics of slavery are very uncomfortable.”
“I think it’s a lot easier to either turn a blind eye or not join the dots.” She says on railways, and their financing in particular. “And they are very firm dots, or in some cases, it’s a solid line. You know, it’s something inferred by the owners or the connections.”
“ I think we should be more displaced to be…” She pauses to think, before continuing, “Receptive, I guess to those connections.”
Accepting those connections is a stepping stone to a better railway she stresses, not an end goal in itself.
“I think as an industry we could do a lot better.” She explains. “I think the fact that there are very few leaders in our industry from a BAME background speaks volumes.”
“I guess if we put our collective brainpower together,” she says, asking a question of ourselves, “then we would struggle to name five.”
“And that’s not because there’s a dearth of talent or expertise/skills. For whatever reason in our industry, some very important people just haven’t attained those positions necessarily.
“I think we have a way to go, as does British society. We’re no different. And I think we’re at an opportune moment really for focusing much more on what we can do, both to level the playing field, but also create those opportunities to redress the balance, or rather the imbalance, to make sure talent is treated on merit as opposed to the kind of biases or systemic racism that exists.”
We ask whether she feels Network Rail are doing enough in this area themselves. Better than many, she acknowledges, but that doesn’t mean they can afford to be complacent.
“We can always do more.” She states. “I think our challenge is about consistency. So I’m proud of the efforts that we have made, and when we are very deliberate we really get some great results.”
Thinking and acting deliberately, she says, is something that they’ve realised is critical when you’re trying to embed a fairer culture and more diverse workplace.
“We could be more consistent and deliberate in our approach.” She explains. “I think we have begun to appreciate that now, and are putting in place some interventions that will yield more positive and consistent results across our business.”
We ask her what she thinks stand out as good examples of interventions. Particularly those that might be relevant to others in the industry.
“We have six employee networks which are really important to us because they do a multiplicity of things.” Martins explains.
“They hold a mirror up to the organisation, so that we are clear on the areas we need to improve and also the areas where we’re doing well.” She says, ticking off some of the benefits they’ve seen.
“They are a site for consultation on our policy development or project development which is really important, and they also serve to identify talent which we may not necessarily identify over the general course of how we conduct our work.
“So because people in the employee networks get opportunities to be more visible, that’s a really great thing.”
We ask what else.
“Our Executive Committee has embarked on reverse mentoring. In National Inclusion Week, our execs will be working with someone who’s different to them – that is, from a very different background – really to learn more about what it’s like to be from that background and to be in Network Rail.”
“That’s been quite an important development.” She explains. “We’ve begun to regularly have conversations about diversity inclusion at our board and Exec level, which gives it prominence and focus.That’s really, really important.”
Finding ways to address workplace imbalance that don’t compromise, but improve, the business is also critical.
“By the end of 2024 we want to have a workforce that matches the communities that we serve in terms of race and gender, as well as our LGBT staff, our disabled staff.
“We’ve got in the pipeline a development program for BAME colleagues as well,” She continues, “Because we’ve identified through a project we have called ‘Race Matters’ that there are disparities in our organisation. So we want to redress those things and we also want to give confidence to our BAME staff – that they are competent, capable and have the capacity to do what they want to do. And we want to retain them because that’s a good recipe to recruit somebody new.”
It’s not just about new schemes, however. She also stresses the importance of taking a long look at existing processes.
“By having a systematic review of our approaches to recruitment, to performance management, to disciplinaries and procedures, by doing that we want to weed out any barriers, or disproportionate impacts.”
These exist in Network Rail she explains, and do in many other organizations. A lot of improvement starts by acknowledging them.
“Adverse impacts occur as a consequence of our own bias,” she says, matter-of-factly, “Of our own behaviours.”
Martins adds that acknowledging and highlighting previously hidden history is also important.
“We’ve been working on a project called ‘Capturing Our Histories’ which is really going back into the annals of time, looking at our records and seeing how we can be better at promoting the different contributions to the railway from black people, disabled people, LGBT+ colleagues and women right the way through our history.
“It’s quite exciting, as it’s not something that we’ve done before. It’s a chance both to use our archives as a source for some of that and also to develop modern, expanded archives as well. Asquith Xavier was the first black man to work on a station – Euston station – in 1966. There’s a plaque to him. That’s not that long ago. Let’s start talking about that.
“It’s about making sure we give greater visibility and prominence to the wider and more diverse contributions to the railway.” She says of the project. “We’ll talk about some of the historic elements of slavery and its prevalence in our railway.”
She stresses that moving forward also means acknowledging that the rail industry does not exist in a bubble, and that real-world events have to be addressed.
“In the context of the death of George Floyd, we’ve had a series of conversations in our organisation about race which I think have been very positive.” She says. “We’ve had over a thousand people participate in them, and they are rolling out across the organisation.
“I think it’s helped to create a much more open environment in which people can talk about both their own experience and the things that we need to do better.”
We ask whether Network Rail have looked, or are looking, beyond the simple statistical imbalance in the workforce to consider regional imbalances, or office vs trackside.
“Rather than say ‘imbalance’ I think we need to take the demographics quite seriously.” She replies. “So in terms of the targets that we’ve set, which is an overarching 13% for BAME people and is commensurate with the last census – that figure may well go up with next years census – there’s no point in us requiring 13% in Scotland if you’ve got 4% of your population coming from that background.
“So whilst we have an overarching target, we’ve got a proportional approach relative to your demographic. I feel that’s the fairest way to approach it and doesn’t set bits of our business up to fail.
“Our routes are quite long.” She continues. “So if you have a route that can go from Scotland to the centre of London, you’ll have different demographics along there. We want to make sure that we are accommodating that.”
She stresses that they’re not seeing the 13% target as a hard number, either.
“As a minimum that’s where we should be. We’re confident in both how we attract people and retain people. We see much more diversity.
“And I do think our systems interventions are yielding some interesting results,” she adds, “Around the way in which we describe the roles, revising where we go to attract people… all those things make us a more urban organisation. They give us a potential to attract both more, and a more diverse range of people.”
We ask whether Network Rail could do more to encourage the wider supply chain to improve the diversity of its workforce. Could tenders and contracts be written to encourage suppliers to have strong diversity initiatives?
“Yeah, we’re having this conversation as we speak.” Martins says. “The short answer is ‘of course’, and we need to understand where those opportunities lie. We already have requirements of our supply chain, as a pre-qualification, questions that we ask, and also in terms of the invitation to tender. In that process we do lightly interrogate our supply chain, but it’s not a dealbreaker.
“We’re looking at introducing potentially a balanced scorecard,” she continues, “Which would make diversity and inclusion an element of that scorecard and therefore drive a different type of engagement within our supply chain.
“I think it’s also incumbent upon us to monitor that a bit more rigorously so that it doesn’t feel like it’s a tick box exercise, but is an actual tool to shape our industry and shape both the workforce of our wider sector.”
To finish, we ask Martins to tell us what question she feels we should be asking her. What is the issue the rail industry faces in this area, but which we, and the railway media in general, fail to ask about?
“I think there are questions of our leadership in the industry and their personal commitments.” She says, bluntly. “I’ll use a corollary: we are all personally committed to safety in our railway and recent events in Stonehaven will be a testament to that. But what level is our personal commitment to diversity and inclusion as an industry and as leaders?
“I think when we see that increase and improve, or be more visible, then that’s when I think we see a step change in how organisations and businesses operate in our sector.
“Because the tone is set, really, from the top, and where leaders give time, airspace and visibility to particular topics, then those become the topics that both drive the organisation and behaviours in our sector.”
“I think those are the questions that, at the top of our industry, we don’t ask ourselves.” Martins concludes. “‘How committed am I as a white man, leader of the rail industry to make the changes happen?’ and: ‘What support do I need in order to help deliver that change?’”
This is the second part of our short series exploring the historical relationship between Britain’s railways and slavery. You can read the first part of our slavery series here.
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