Until 1917 there were several different railway companies in the Netherlands. In that year, the shortage of materials due to the First World War compelled the two largest of them to join forces as a single national railway company, ‘Nederlandsche Spoorwegen’ (NS). It was not until 1938 however that a full-scale merger took place, with NS turning into a public limited company and the State of the Netherlands as its sole shareholder. The railways had always been strictly regimented, as reflected in a variety of official uniforms, caps and insignia - one for every position. The nature of the work meant that accuracy and punctuality were key. Employees had long working days, their work was heavy and could actually be dangerous. Following the great railway strike of 1903, many employees joined one of the trade unions to demand better working conditions. From 1926, the unions were represented on the Staff Council, which developed into an important consultation partner of the management board of NS. As the world teetered on the brink of the Second World War, NS was grappling with the consequences of the economic crisis. Losses were accumulating, forcing redundancies of both employees and railway lines. The appointment of professor Jan Goudriaan as the company's new President was to reverse this situation. In 1938, Goudriaan was given the task of modernising NS into a profitable business.

Strict hierarchy

In terms of hierarchy, NS was little short of a military organisation with chief supervisors, deputy supervisors and assistant deputy supervisors communicating with each other through a system of instructions, rules and procedures. There was no appeal against a decision by the boss. Even though it was to take a fairly long time after the railway strike of 1903 before working conditions actually improved, NS did provide a high degree of job security. In fact, many employees remained with NS for their entire working lives and, in the course of time, families depended on NS for generations.

A new managing director

In 1938, the search was on for a new managing director for NS. True to tradition, the NS supervisory board wanted to appoint somebody from within the railway sector, but the government eventually selected an outsider - for the first time in the company's history. This was professor Jan Goudriaan, who had already proved his worth with his recovery plan to steer Philips through the crisis. Goudriaan was expressly instructed to modernise NS and turn it once again into a profitable enterprise.

The Staff Council

Since the end of the 19th century there had been several trade unions in the railway sector, each catering to its own specific target group. There was a Roman Catholic union, a Protestant union and a socialist workers' union, as well as a non-affiliated union that remained politically neutral. A Staff Council was established in 1926 to streamline consultations between the management board and the unions. Made up of representatives of the various unions, the Staff Council was to become an important consultation partner for the board.