Published at 10:34 on Friday 28th April 2023
Tags: East Lancashire Railway

A happy Joanne Crompton is pictured at Bury, while awaiting her next duty. After making two complaints to the Railway over her treatment in terms of footplate progression and sexual harassment from another member of the Steam Department, one being upheld, the other 'inconclusive', Mrs Crompton has been asked not to volunteer any longer, with the Railway telling her she was a 'drain on resources'. Eddie Bobowski

The East Lancashire Railway (ELR) has come under fire after allegedly dismissing one of its most experienced female members of footplate crew, after she complained about unfair treatment and sexual harassment.

Joanne Crompton is well known to enthusiasts as a popular advocate for women on the footplate, having given a series of talks about her life on the footplate at a number of heritage railways and on the main line. She has already been recognised as one of the most influential women in the heritage rail sector, and was recently shortlisted for the Women in Rail Award, the winners for which will be announced on 18th May.

Mrs Crompton has been involved with steam for well over a decade, volunteering at the Ribble Steam Railway in Preston before moving on to the ELR. Her enthusiasm and willingness to learn and ‘muck in’, together with a natural talent for steam locomotive management, allowed her to move rapidly from cleaner to fireman, and until very recently she was undertaking training to become a driver.

Unfortunately, and disappointingly, being a woman in a male-dominated arena has not proved to be hassle free for Mrs Crompton, who despite receiving a lot of support from most of her footplate colleagues, has admitted that in the past, she has had to overcome scepticism from a small number of staff, something she accomplished with relative ease in most cases. However, more recently, things took a more worrying turn when, she alleges, she became the target of sexual harassment. She raised two complaints to the Railway, one regarding alleged discriminatory issues that she experienced during driver training, and the second after she received a number of lewd comments and unsolicited WhatsApp messages that were distinctly sexual in nature, from a member of the ELR’s steam department. After having made the complaints, the Railway subsequently decided not to select Mrs Crompton to represent it at its International Women’s Day event with the NRM's 'A3' No. 60103 Flying Scotsman, despite her influence in this area.

On 4th April, Mrs Crompton attended a meeting with the Railway’s General Manager, Tracey Parkinson. In a statement issued subsequently on Facebook, Mrs Crompton commented: “After my complaint concerning unfair treatment and unacceptable behaviour was successfully upheld, I was immediately 'sacked' as a volunteer from the East Lancashire Railway by the General Manager 'to protect the reputation of the Railway' as she felt that I was bringing the Railway into disrepute through social media and that by complaining through the proper channels and highlighting the toxic culture and failures that are affecting areas of the organisation, I was a 'drain on resources'. Rather than tackle the issues of unfair and discriminatory treatment and sexual harassment, she chose to get rid of 'the problem'.”

Mrs Crompton continued: “Naturally, I was absolutely devastated; I'd worked so hard to positively support the Railway and the people in it, to help them thrive and survive. I so wanted them to change and be an industry leader. Through my dedication to the Railway and determination to get through the ranks I'd paved the way for other women to follow. I had hoped to be the Railway’s first ever female steam driver before my health deteriorated. Sadly that's not to be now; that chance has been cruelly taken away. As a result of this action taken I also cannot fully fulfil my roles as a Trustee of the Society or for the Bury Standard 4 Group and sadly will have to let these roles go too.”

Like many heritage railways, various organisations are involved in its operation, in the case of the ELR, the East Lancashire Light Railway Company (ELLRC) is the operating company which manages the line on a day-to-day basis, while the East Lancashire Railway Preservation Society is the volunteer supporting arm. The latter organisation has sought to distance itself from the ongoing situation issuing a statement through Social Media in which it says the decision relating to its Director and member, Joanne Crompton, "has been made by the East Lancashire Light Railway Company, not the Preservation Society". The statement also says that it is the role of the society to "look after the interests of its volunteers", but when asked what action it had taken in this respect over Mrs Crompton, the Society did not respond to our query.

The Chairman of the Railway Company, Mike Kelly, said in a short statement: “We concluded two independent investigations as a result of grievances raised by Joanne Crompton and have just received an appeal, which means we are limited in what we can share. The first was about our processes used for all volunteers going through steam driver training. The investigation highlighted a deficiency in the steam driver training assessment and is subject to a review. We are now in the process of doing this, however, this was not a case of discrimination against Joanne, but a general problem that needed fixing.”

Mr Kelly concluded: “Our exhaustive independent investigation into Joanne’s second grievance was inconclusive. We understand that this has been difficult for Joanne – this has also taken an emotional toll on our volunteer community. We’ve asked Joanne to no longer actively volunteer at the railway. We share her sadness that it has come to this but wish her all the best for the future.”

Railway Herald asked the East Lancashire Railway to advise why, in view of the fact that its investigation into Mrs Crompton’s complaint of sexual harassment proved “inconclusive”, she was subsequently asked to cease to be an active volunteer? The Railway refused to answer this question.

Following the publication of her statement through Twitter, which has been viewed over one million times and shared widely on forums, blogs and social media, and resulted in the story trending in the top 10 topics on Twitter for over two days, rail industry professionals suddenly found themselves reportedly blocked from ELR Chairman Mike Kelly’s Twitter feed. When questioned about this by Railway Herald, Mr Kelly stated that he had “not directly blocked any Twitter accounts” and that he could “only assume it’s either a glitch or [his] account has been hacked”. However, this conflicts with a message that was e-mailed to the Railway’s staff and volunteers that was subsequently shared on Facebook, which blamed the issue on a “simple user error on [his] part and not connected with Joanne Crompton’s statement”.

Mrs Crompton was approached for comment by Railway Herald, and said: “While I can’t comment further than my statement due to my appeal, I wish to thank the footplate crews, staff and volunteers at the ELR, the vast majority of whom have been very supportive during my 10-year career on the Railway.”

Whatever the outcome of Mrs Crompton’s appeal, the 'sacking' of a leading and inspirational female member of volunteer footplate staff after she has spoken out about discrimination and sexual harassment with one complaint upheld and one investigation found “inconclusive” is a cause for concern, and at the same time could be a 'wake up call' for other heritage organisations to review their own procedures and processes for dealing with such queries and complaints should they arise.

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