COVID-19: meet the railway heroes

There’s no doubt about it - we are living in exceptional times. Faced with the most significant public health crisis in a century, the population has largely embraced the strict but essential government instructions on social distancing that have been carefully designed to protect lives and to curb the spread of COVID-19.

For most of us, that has meant learning how to live, how to work (where possible), and how to remain safe from within the confines of our own homes.

As part of this unprecedented lockdown, the message has been loud and clear: people should only leave their homes under a limited number of circumstances - to buy essential items, to take exercise, to fulfil medical or care needs, or to travel to and from work if this is absolutely necessary and cannot be done from home.

To help establish who should and shouldn’t be travelling to work, the Government has published a list of key workers whose jobs are deemed vital to public health and safety.

The most obvious example of these key workers are NHS and social care staff, who continue to bravely perform their duties and provide essential healthcare under the strain of ever-mounting numbers of hospital admissions, and often at great personal risk to themselves.

However, the list of key workers also extends to several other sectors - including security, utilities, education, the food chain, public administration and (of course) transport.

After all, without the latter, key workers might not be able to attend their places of work. And consignments of freight would remain undelivered - threatening key flows such as the supply of goods to supermarkets and the delivery of fuel to power stations.

To provide a flavour of how the railway is continuing to keep vital goods moving and train services running for essential workers, we asked a selection of rail organisations to nominate employees to speak on behalf of all railway colleagues.

These individuals are by no means the only railway heroes prepared to leave the relative safety of their homes in the line of duty, but they provide a snapshot of how life on the frontline has dramatically changed since the start of the UK lockdown on March 23.

While all have been modest about their own contributions to the national effort to combat Coronavirus, each interviewee was keen to emphasise the shared nature of their experiences.

They demonstrate how an entire workforce has flexed and adapted amid a nationwide backdrop of nervousness and uncertainty, and how many thousands of people in the sector have uncomplainingly cast aside self-interest in support of a common cause.

While each of these heart-warming stories fully deserve individual recognition, they are also testament to the unity of a workforce that is pulling through together, and of the special bond that exists between all those in the railway family.

Tales from the gateline

With passenger numbers down by more than 90% in many cases across the network (RAIL 902), Brighton station gateline assistant Liam Connelly has never experienced anything like it during his 25-year career on the railways.

Employed by Govia Thameslink Railway to check tickets and provide assistance, he says the role feels very different to any previous scenarios - when peak flows have traditionally been heavy with commuters travelling to and from London, and holidaymakers heading to the south coast in high season.

“Passenger footfall is much lighter than usual. But most of the ones we do see are being courteous to us and often taking the time to thank us for providing the service that enables their commute,” he says.

“In a regular situation, working the Brighton gateline is often intense and frequent high-tension situations can occur, so the recent change is a positive thing in that sense.”

Liam says that all GTR staff are keeping a minimum of two metres apart and will often ask after each other’s welfare when passing one another.

He says that morale remains high, as positivity “is the key to us working well”. And he feels proud to be assisting other key workers such as doctors and nurses get to work.

Cleaning in progress

Ian Johnson manages a team of 80 cleaners who are responsible for the West Midlands Trains fleet at Siemens Mobility’s Kings Heath depot in Northampton.

As a 24-hour operation, an average night will mean approximately 26-27 trains that need cleaning at the depot, plus a further 35 at various outstations.

Although he doesn’t directly clean any of the trains himself, Ian has made a firm promise to his team that he will remain on site every day to support them for however long the pandemic continues.

He says this is not just to show solidarity, but also to ensure consistent and effective communication, although an instant messaging tool is also being used to communicate as a group.

To make sure everyone is fit to work and to reduce the risk of contamination, all staff are checked for the most common symptoms of Coronavirus (using an infra-red thermometer) when they arrive for work.

“We’ve also put into place rules to avoid mass car sharing, which was common in ‘normal’ times,” Ian adds.

“We’ve also made sure that everybody has appropriate PPE for the job they are doing, including goggles and gloves. But we won’t use excessive masks, as we wouldn’t want to take them away from doctors and nurses on the frontline who really need them.”

With deep cleaning one of the most effective means of preventing the transmission of Coronavirus, the King’s Heath cleaning team are sanitising and disinfecting all hard surfaces - including those which the maintenance crew are due to touch.

“This means the interaction between the cleaners and technicians has never been greater, and it has really lifted the understanding of how important that process is,” says Ian.

“We know that most of the travelling public at the moment are key workers and we are all proud to know that we are making a difference, however small that might be. I can’t say it strongly enough - the whole team is amazing and for me personally it’s like having a giant family.

“I’ve never witnessed anything like it. And when this is all over, we will celebrate - that’s another promise.”

Feeding the frontlines

Since joining DB Cargo UK as an apprentice in July 2012, Kate Turner has been involved in a variety of management roles at the company.

Currently on secondment as the Contract Delivery Manager for Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire, Kate is responsible for 210 members of staff - including train drivers, ground staff and frontline operational managers.

Her duties include directly leading a team of safety assurance and service delivery managers, ensuring both the safety and compliance of DB’s employees and sites and that a reliable service is delivered to DB’s clients.

Among the key contracts she works on is the supply of coal and biomass to Drax power station and extensive rail operations for British Steel.

“We have adapted well to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic,” she says.

“We have implemented robust continuity plans to segregate and protect critical functions within the business, and enabled home working where possible.”

For colleagues who cannot work from home, Kate says that guidance has been issued on social distancing, personal hygiene and self-isolation.

Operations that would usually require two-man working have been suspended unless safe workarounds can be implemented, and the two-metre social distancing rule is being strictly enforced.

Kate has been able to work from home at times, although she must still visit the yards and depots where she is responsible for site safety.

“The pandemic has led the organisation to use various forms of technology that it most likely wouldn’t have done previously. Microsoft Teams has been a fantastic way to ensure team meetings and customer meetings can be as normal as possible.

“Important freight flows must continue. And we are being relied on to deliver services on time and in full to our customers - to ensure electricity is on, shops are stocked, petrol pumps are full, and all other essential commodities are delivered to keep Britain going.”

According to Kate, very few DB services have been cancelled as a direct result of the pandemic, although she admits that obtaining sufficient amounts of personal protective equipment, hand sanitiser and masks for staff is proving incredibly difficult.

Around 10% of the DB Cargo UK workforce was in self-isolation at the time this issue of RAIL went to press, but Kate says this number is manageable due to the “extraordinary” resilience of the team.

“Our trade unions have been fantastic, working with us to ensure we can continue to operate a good service, safely. People are understandably anxious, but our HR department regularly communicates key mental health and supporting information, and line managers have been available at whatever time to ensure there is always someone to talk to.

“I’m extremely proud to be a key worker, and DB is proud that rail freight has been recognised as a national asset with a critical role to play in the UK’s emergency response to the Coronavirus.”

Scotland’s Railways

ScotRail driver Darrel Hendrie is playing a vital part in defeating the spread and effects of Coronavirus.

That’s because although it’s normally a busy commuter route, Darrel’s patch on the North Clyde line also serves eight large hospitals between Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Now in his 24th year as a driver, Darrel says he is “amazed” by the visual impact of the lockdown, as passengers heed the message from government not to travel unless absolutely necessary.

“We live in the strangest of times, and I was amazed at how quiet the trains were when I came into Glasgow Queen Street at 1900 last night. Normally the station would be very busy with office workers and shoppers going home, but there were just two people waiting for the train and only one getting off.”

Darrel adds: “Another busy commuter station at Bathgate has a car park which can hold 500 cars and it’s always full and overflowing. Now there are less than 30 cars - and it’s like this all over the network with empty trains and deserted stations.”

Darrel says ScotRail staff are being well looked after, with hand sanitiser issued to all frontline employees, ticket examiners and conductors instructed not to sell tickets directly to the public, and station staff even asked not to use their whistles in case of contamination.

Trains are subject to an enhanced cleaning regime, and trainee drivers have been sent home where there is not enough room in cabs to maintain social distancing.

“I’ve never seen the driving cabs so clean. Spare drivers who would normally sit in the mess room waiting for the phone to ring are told to sit spare at home, and trains have been stabled at some stations as additional capacity for messrooms so that we can all stay at least two metres apart.

“I do wonder how long it will be until this is all over, but right now we have to concentrate on giving our all to keep the trains running. Despite all the changes and challenges, the railway family has pulled together the same as always - and in the same way it always will.”

Policing a crisis

The British Transport Police has a vital presence on the railways at the best of times, but its officers have a particularly important role during the Coronavirus crisis in enforcing the government restrictions on who should and shouldn’t be travelling.

According to Sergeant Jay Bibby, who is based at Benfleet station in Essex as part of the c2c team, this means striking a careful balance by seeking to deter unnecessary travel as a starting point, before considering other options.

He explains: “Fortunately, we’ve found incidents of unnecessary travel to be very limited. There’s been a lot written in the press recently about enforcing the lockdown measures at a national level, but our boss (BTP Chief Constable Paul Crowther) has made it very clear that enforcement is the last option, and that we are to try and engage with the public where possible.”

Before the lockdown started in March, Jay says that most of his team’s work revolved around policing the ‘county lines’ organised crime networks that transport drugs and weapons all over the country. Working closely with colleagues from Essex Police’s Operation Raptor teams, BTP officers would help gather intelligence and make arrests where necessary.

The temporary cessation of this illegal ‘county lines’ trafficking seems to have been a pleasant side-effect of the Coronavirus pandemic, with even the criminals (it seems) opting to reduce their potential exposure.

“That sort of work has all but dried up,” adds Jay. “Hardly anyone is using the trains at the moment, so that’s a small positive in what is otherwise a massively negative situation. In fact, we’re not doing many train patrols at all because passengers, understandably, would rather not be having any close-up conversations or contact with other people.

“We are mindful that people are feeling quite nervous at the moment, so we are mainly providing a visual presence and staying mobile to respond to anything that comes up.”

Inevitably, there is still a small level of crime taking place around the country, and so Jay and his colleagues are required to make arrests if persons are known to be wanted by the police or are witnessed committing an offence.

This poses an unknown level of risk to officers who face possible transmission of the disease, although Jay considers this an “occupational hazard” which is difficult (if not impossible) to avoid.

Although all practical measures are being taken to mitigate the risks, by supplying officers with gloves and other personal protective equipment, there is an acceptance that apprehending suspected criminals and upholding the law remains of paramount concern.

“The BTP is looking after us well and obviously want us to stay fit and healthy. There is some concern about interaction with the public and then going home to our families, but it is a fact that when you sign up as a police officer there will be risks attached.

“On the plus side, we’re not in a position of losing our jobs like some other people have. And there’s some semblance of normality for us, so it’s not all doom and gloom.

“There’s a lot of pride among officers that we’re doing our bit to help the country, and I’m finally catching up with my paperwork - I don’t think I’ve been so up-to-date!”

Strength in numbers

As one of Britain’s biggest builders, Network Rail has been forced to recalibrate its infrastructure and engineering functions, in order to keep worksites open and to ensure that essential maintenance and renewals can continue uninterrupted.

One of several thousand people affected by these necessary changes is Natalie Whitehead, an area depot manager for NR’s Whitemoor and Toton materials and aggregates yards.

Managing a combined staff of 32 people, Natalie is responsible for all operations at the sites - including the loading and unloading of wagons needed to support NR’s construction activities across the network.

During a typical week, the workload can range from 20 wagons to more than 100. And the Easter Bank Holiday weekend is a particularly busy time, given the number of engineering possessions that have historically been taken during holiday periods.

Says Natalie: “Our main priority is to make sure that the wagons are loaded and returned on time, which we’re largely still able to do as normal. Staff are going into self-isolation if required, vulnerable people have been sent home, and we’ve split the workforce into two teams to ensure social distancing can be observed without affecting our output too much.

“This also helps with keeping people separated when they’re taking breaks or getting changed at the start or end of shifts, and we make sure that the cleaners are following close behind them to disinfect things.”

Natalie says that staff have been issued with extra masks and personal protective equipment, although this is not always comfortable to wear on top of the high levels of PPE they would already be expected to wear when dealing with aggregates and other materials in the yard.

Having recently had a baby, Natalie is also acutely aware of the increased risks being taken by all colleagues who are unable to work from home. But she has been impressed by the robust response of her team and their collective strength that she has been able to draw from.

“When the Prime Minister announced the lockdown on the telly (on March 23), I remember coming in to work the next day and seeing fully grown men look to me for guidance and support. Understandably people are worried, but we’re all looking out for one another and everybody’s been great. It feels like we’ve become a lot closer metaphorically - even if we’re having to stay further apart physically.

“I’m only 27 years old and I’m trying to manage having recently had a baby and then being responsible for my staff, but you just go with it and I’ve had a lot of support and help from management.

“All of this has taught me a lot and I have such a strong team which has made it much easier for me. They’re making the best of a bad situation and you can’t help but feel proud to be part of a national movement to keep key workers and vital freight moving.”

All by Myself

In common with all train operating companies, LNER is running much quieter services than usual on its route between London King’s Cross, Yorkshire, the North East and Scotland.

It was on one particularly empty service that LNER Train Manager Davey Glover struck on a novel way to keep up both his own and other colleagues’ spirits, by creating a video parody to Celine Dion’s 1996 hit single All by Myself (originally written and recorded by Eric Carmen in the 1970s).

Davey, who also volunteers for the BloodFast blood delivery service on his days off, says his video also has a more serious purpose - to remind people that they should only be making absolutely essential journeys in line with government guidance.

He adds: “I was walking through a carriage and started singing the song to myself. My singing isn’t the best, so I decided to make a little lip-syncing video in the style of Celine Dion. And if you watch her video from the time, you’ll see what I’m attempting to achieve.

“I just wanted to put a smile on my colleagues’ faces and anybody else that wants to watch really, while also getting across that key message that at the moment the trains are for essential travel only.”

Davey’s parody of All by Myself can be viewed online at:

Signalling change

There can be no movement of key workers and vital goods by rail without signallers to control the passage of trains on the network.

Homeworking is not an option for signaller John Doyle, who joined Network Rail some 18 months ago as a signaller at Hammerton signal box on the York-Harrogate line.

John is now based at NR’s Rail Operating Centre in York, where he says it is largely business as usual despite the significant reductions to normal running and the emergency timetables that have been put in place across the network.

“As you can imagine, the ROC is a much calmer place at the moment, which has taken some of the pressure off us,” he says.

“We remain fully staffed and no workstations have been closed, but it has enabled us to plan ahead more efficiently and has had a definite impact on the number of delays.

“It’s also fair to say that there have been far fewer incidents of trespass, which is good news for passengers and makes for a far less stressful day. Long may that continue.”

With some members of staff currently self-isolating, John says that workloads have largely been absorbed by providing the remaining staff with additional opportunities to work overtime.

NR has also recruited more than 200 retired signalmen from across the Eastern Region to return to their former roles if necessary, although at the time this issue of RAIL went to press it remained a contingency measure that had not yet been used.

John adds: “The good thing about being at the ROC instead of a signal box is that you feel part of a team, and we can exchange ideas and generally support each other. NR has also been very proactive in that their door is always open if we have any problems or anxieties.

“The Coronavirus has posed a bit of a challenge for signallers, but I’ve no doubt we’ll get through this together and out the other side.”

Keeping London moving

As a London Overground employee of approximately five years, Roxana Diana Maxim is well versed in the value of excellent communication.

After switching to her current role as Dispatch Supervisor at Seven Sisters nine months ago, she oversees the efficient movement and safe dispatch of some of the busiest services in the country.

Roxana is required to maintain contact with managers, the control room and all other company stakeholders, while also providing assistance and customer service to passengers at a station which was used by 8.4 million people in 2018-19.

Since the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic, Roxana reports that communication between employees and health and safety has become an even greater focus.

The dispatch procedure remains unchanged, although it has become increasingly difficult since social distancing measures were applied.

“My job is to make sure that all the activities on our station are carried out safely and securely in accordance with the measures set out. We must also follow the same safety rules to ensure that the train is dispatched safely while maintaining a social distance of two metres.

“The most challenging thing is that these measures also apply to colleagues - and this can be quite difficult, especially as we as a team are like a big family. We make sure we wash our hands often, especially when using communication equipment, and use video surveillance systems as much as possible at busier times to avoid exposure and maintain our vigilance from a safe distance.”

Further measures have also been taken - including the introduction of a temporary roster to reduce the number of employees on shift at a single time, and the start of daily staff briefings.

Passenger information has also come into sharper focus in recent weeks, with announcements continually made on the station asking for members of the public to keep as much distance apart as possible and to only travel if it’s essential or if you are a key worker.

Roxana adds: “I think that now, more than ever, the support received from Arriva Rail London , TfL and my colleagues has mattered a lot. My colleagues have been extraordinary right across London Overground - including drivers, dispatchers, customer service representatives, engineers, train care teams and all other employees working behind the scenes.

“I think that staying positive is an essential ingredient in overcoming the crisis. I have seen a united nation with the determination to fight together for the same purpose, and the same can be said for my team. It makes me proud to see everyone supporting each other and to play such an important role in keeping London moving for key workers.”

The right processes

HM Inspector of Railways Sarah Cairns is used to no two days being the same.

Now in her 20th year involved with health and safety regulation (and her fifth at the Office of Rail and Road), her responsibilities are many and varied  - including being ORR’s lead for the TransPennine Route Upgrade, lead for construction design and management regulations, and a railway inspector in the Train Operating Company North team.

She explains: “There’s no such thing as a typical day for me, but examples would include holding liaison meetings with TOC heads of safety, inspections of welfare and maintenance facilities, new train fleets, and incident investigation.

“If you combine all those activities together, then it’s a case of providing assurance that what duty holders say they will do in safety management systems is accurate when they apply for safety certificates.”

For Sarah and her colleagues, many of these functions have now been transferred online or over the phone, so that business can be conducted as virtually as possible.   

But while some activities such as incident investigation would unavoidably involve a site visit, she says the shift away from face-to-face visits has yielded some unexpected benefits.

“It’s important that we follow government guidance, and we feel like we’re working very normally by only travelling where strictly necessary. We’re finding that the new IT systems are performing very well and that they make us feel more connected to the centre of ORR than ever before. We can do virtual inspections using online technologies, hold discussions, and view documents that would normally be put in front of us.

“After all this, we will look at what has and hasn’t worked well. But there’s no way of getting around some things that cannot be done remotely, such as evidence gathering or seeing bereaved relatives. They cannot, and you would never want to do them any other way.”

ORR is also actively supporting other rail organisations to mitigate the challenges posed by Coronavirus, by looking at contingency plans, answering questions from TOCs, and by “being an ear there to listen and offer guidance”.

Sarah’s husband is a train driver, so she is painfully aware of the increased efforts and risks being taken by all frontline staff at this time, although she is modest about her own part in that.

“We’re all going to come out of this looking very differently at things. Some of this is difficult to watch, but it needs to be done. We are key workers and I feel like a bit of a fraud saying that I’m in the front line, but should there be an incident then we would obviously do whatever it takes to fulfil that function.

“I feel that what we are doing at ORR is incredibly important, and we are here to provide knowledge and to ensure that people consistently apply processes. It’s important that we log these processes in case the virus comes in waves and there are things we can do next time to ensure we are in a better position should this happen again.

“We have seen TOCs pulling together, being flexible and helping each other out. We can see lots of people working very hard and making risk-based decisions, and we would love to repay them.”

Silence at Sevenoaks

Twenty-two miles down the line from Charing Cross, Sevenoaks is ordinarily a hive of activity with a constant flow of busy Thameslink and Southeastern commuter services running either northbound to central London or southbound to Ashford International or Ramsgate via Dover or Hastings.

But the recent sharp decline in passenger numbers and the associated timetable reductions has made managing this station a very different experience.

Station Manager Elliott Waters explains: “It’s 1530 and I’m standing on a concourse that is normally teeming with schoolchildren. But there’s only two of us here. I’ve never seen anything like it.

“All of our retail outlets are closed so there’s no tenancy management for me to do, but I’m helping out with things such as train dispatch as there’s nothing more important than being seen.”

Elliott, who is responsible for a team of 35, says much of his time is now filled with placing care calls to colleagues who are self-isolating, and with implementing new health and safety policies.

He adds: “We’re telling staff and passengers to be socially distanced, which is like a textbook on how not to deliver customer service. But the situation has brought the best out in people, and my excellent staff are being proactive and taking it all very seriously.”

Family values

As General Manager of Rail Services at GB Railfreight, Pankaj Kapoor’s remit includes managing client relationships and working with a wider team to plan and deliver different train movements for GBRf’s clients.

Because his role is largely office-based, Pankaj is now working exclusively from home, where he uses Skype and other videoconferencing platforms to communicate with clients and colleagues.

“It’s business as usual for us as we still have a number of projects going on, but we are delivering these projects by following government and World Health Organisation advice on social distancing.

“We have also carried out risk assessments for each of our flows, and we have provided our operational teams with appropriate PPE and hand sanitiser in each locomotive cab. We have also carried out in-cab cleaning and sanitisation activities across the whole locomotive fleet as a precautionary measure.”  

According to Pankaj, GBRf has shown strong support for its employees since the start of the Coronavirus pandemic by ensuring the safety of colleagues through the measures outlined above, followed by significant investment in additional IT and back office support.

Regular communication and updates on the wider implications of the lockdown on the business and wider industry have also been provided by GBRf Managing Director John Smith.

Pankaj adds: “It’s obviously a difficult time and an unprecedented situation we are facing, but as a key worker I feel proud to be able to play my part in this vital industry and to support the country.

“It’s also great to see the wider railway industry coming together and supporting each other. I have always said that the UK rail industry is a close family, but these recent events have made us even closer and appreciative of the importance of this large family.”

Comment as guest

Login  /  Register


No comments have been made yet.

RAIL is Britain's market leading modern railway magazine.

Download the app

Related content