Millions of lives slip past each other every week on London’s sprawling rail network.
1.8 billion journeys were made last year with more than a million passengers travelling to central London by train on any given weekday.
Most have places to get to on time. The crush of people during the mornings reveal the lucky ones who have secured employment. Office workers, professionals in white collar jobs, needing to get to their next meeting or start their working day.
They walk with purpose. They don’t hesitate or linger on platforms. Hardly taking in their surroundings, their minds are on the day ahead, the next thing.
Paul Lewis, Rail Pastor Coordinator with the Ascension Trust, is there for them should they need him. But they’re not the only reason why he patrols the stations at night or during the day.
“We look out for the still ones,” Paul explains.
“The solitary person staring at the tracks or off into space. We also keep an eye out for the highly agitated. People who pace in circles, missing train after train.”
There were more than 270 railway fatalities caused by suicide in Britain last year. That number could have been far higher without the 2,200 times rail employees, the police and the public intervened.
Since their founding in 2014, Rail Pastors have played a key part in some of those interventions, making a difference in the lives of others.
In groups of four, Paul and other trained volunteers, walk the platforms of two northern train routes – the Great Northern Route and the Thameslink Route – looking for anything out of the ordinary.
A typical patrol is like the weather, according to Paul. You never know what it’s going to be like until you turn up on the day.
“Sometimes it can be very quiet, and other times it can be quite intense. I still remember the exact time and date of one particular person we saved.
“It was on December 19, 2014 at 9:25pm. He was quite drunk and determined to end his life. Our team caught him just as he was about to fall onto the tracks. I sat him down somewhere safe, called the police and ambulance and did everything I could to talk to him, to break the ice, until they arrived.”
Other times it’s just a matter of being present when people come to them to talk.
“We have one volunteer who is in his sixties. One night a 16 year old youth sought him out on the platform and began talking to him. It ended up being a 45 minute conversation while the young man poured his heart out about what was going on in his life. He missed two trains to talk to our Rail Pastor.”
Paul has found their presence can deter someone as well. There have been many times when people spot their blue Rail Pastor uniforms and turn away from the tracks without even speaking to them.
In 2006, Paul had set up a network of Street Pastors in Barnet with the Ascension Trust. They were a group of trained volunteers who patrolled the streets looking out for people who might need some help. That experience led him to help form and coordinate Britain’s first Rail Pastors seven years later.
All it took was a phone call from the local police inspector to change his life.
“I was a teacher,” Paul recalls. “I was teaching a class at the time and received a message saying the police wanted me.”
He was a little nervous when he called back thinking of all the possible things that could have warranted this phone call. The police informed him of a spate of suicides on the rail network around North London. They had seen his work with Street Pastors and wondered if Paul could raise a team of people to patrol the station platforms around Barnet.
“Deep down I knew straight away that this was a calling from God,” says Paul. “I wasn’t sure I could do it, but I had to trust in God’s will and say yes. I could not ignore the cries of these people weighing on my heart.”
In their first year, the Rail Pastors in Barnet conducted about 30 patrols, directly saved three lives and indirectly reduced crime by 27%.
Since then, Paul has been instrumental in setting up Rail Pastors all across Britain. Working closely with rail companies, the Ascension Trust, British Transport Police, and the Samaritans, he has helped recruit more than 100 people across the country to ride the rails in search of people who might need support.
According to Paul, these volunteers would have prevented, directly and indirectly, hundreds of fatalities by suicide.
“I feel that now, more than ever, it is important to listen to those who need to talk. We can make a massive difference just by being present for others.”
While Jesus is the reason why they care, the Rail Pastors do not patrol the station platforms to evangelise. They are there to be a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on when things are desperate. And in a city of about 9 million strangers, these volunteers provide vital, life saving, human connection at a time when it is most needed.
For every life is precious when we’re made in the image of God.