Home General Interest Past lives: Chris White (1942-2020)

Past lives: Chris White (1942-2020)

Chris White was the epitome of the dedicated railwayman. Born in 1942, his parents ran a market gardening business in the Devon village of Budleigh Salterton. He loved trains from an early age and on leaving school, he became a probationer (nowadays a trainee technician) based at Exeter on the Western Region of British Rail (BR). Chris soon got to grips with the rudiments of basic signalling and telecoms but learned more modern technology as part of the Bristol Power Box project.

On completion of his apprenticeship, Chris chose to specialise in telecoms and moved to Slough as a maintenance technician. He later became a telecoms works engineer and was involved in the provision of the Bristol-Paddington 4MHz transmission system.

In 1976, he became the telecoms maintenance engineer for the Southern Region based in Croydon. Chris soon realised that failures of main station indicators or public address equipment could cause chaos in rush hour, so set about creating a regional telecoms fault control based in Croydon. Staffed around the clock, it quickly revolutionised how telecoms was managed with the control room staff being able to prioritise faults and direct the telecoms technicians around the region.

In recognition of his achievements, he was promoted to the top telecom maintenance post at BR HQ, where he set about introducing the same standards for fault controls on a national basis.

During the mid-1980s, Mercury Communications became a competitor to BT (the public telecoms operator) with Mercury installing its own fibre cable network located on the railway and maintained by BR. The maintenance regime stipulated strict times for the repair of faults and financial penalties imposed if these times were not met. Chris and his team had to significantly improve the response times, and he was instrumental in the telecom group being BS 5750 (a quality management standard) registered.

With BR being privatised, a new division was created – BRT (British Rail Telecoms). The managing board was populated by people recruited from the wider telecom industry, but Chris was transferred to keep the railway communication networks functioning. Chris was never comfortable with the new arrangements, where safety and quality within BRT was initially only given lip service, and the continuity of providing telecom services to the new rail companies was never high on the agenda.

He retired from BRT before its sale to Racal Electronics, but Chris took the opportunity to use his undoubted skills in other ways. Working for Atkins, one of his first tasks was to assist Railtrack with the Year 2000 millennium data problems. Other projects included provision of a quality management system for Irish Rail, telecom documentation for the Channel Tunnel route from Waterloo, support to Metronet for the design of new telecom systems on LUL, advice to Network Rail in Scotland on migrating the track-to-train radio system to GSM-R, telecom systems for a major rail upgrade project in Denmark and, lastly, assistance and advice to Crossrail on telecom issues.

British Railways 2-6-4T Class Standard Four No. 80151 and train are seen at Horsted Keynes Station on the Bluebell Railway. Author PeterSkuce.

Alongside all of this, Chris pursued his love of railways and steam engines. Joining the Bluebell Railway (a heritage steam railway) as a volunteer, he became first a fireman and then a driver, enjoying a regular shift at weekends and a whole week of footplate work during the summer. The Bluebell soon realised he had other talents and Chris became the safety director, where introducing a safety management system was a challenge for a largely volunteer work force, but his personality and persuasive powers won through.

The Bluebell needed an infrastructure director to complete the extension northwards from Kingscote to East Grinstead and Chris rose to the challenge. The main obstacle was the excavation of rubbish from a filled-in cutting. Whilst the logistics of removing the waste material was hard enough, the planning, environmental and financial elements were equally difficult. Removing the rubbish by train was a nice touch and the extension duly opened on 23 March 2013.

Thereafter, Chris set to work on other projects, principally the carriage shed at Sheffield Park station and the even bigger OP4 (Operation Undercover 4) at Horsted Keynes, which includes a Heritage Skill Centre.

In 2017, Chris stepped back from infrastructure and reverted to safety director, only to be persuaded to take up infrastructure again in 2019 when it became vacant. During this time, he still worked for Atkins, supporting the main railway telecoms function.

From humble beginnings, Chris achieved much during his career and was an inspirational leader to those who worked for him. His ‘can do’ ethos will leave a legacy of successful projects and a fitting tribute to his memory. Chris died recently after a short illness and will be sorely missed.

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