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Thousands of railway workers helped get key workers to and from their jobs and gave back to their communities—and country—during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In this online exhibition, a handful of these railway heroes give you an insight into what they did as the world changed around them.

Following the launch of Railway Heroes on Monday 15 February, we'll add a new interview from a rail industry hero every Monday for the next 10 weeks. Don't forget to come back!

Lin Qi, LM for HS2 Ltd

Lin Qi is a Construction Planner for Laing O’Rourke and J. Murphy Joint Venture for HS2 Ltd.

Lin Qi in orange hi-vis standing on a construction site
Photo by Charlotte Graham

Being able to deliver our project on that perfect August weekend was a real high for me. I think it’s shown how innovative and flexible our industry can be.

Lin Qi

What is your role at HS2 Ltd?

I’m a construction planner for Laing O’Rourke and J. Murphy Joint Venture—part of the team that’s delivering infrastructure packages for High-Speed 2 (HS2), Britain’s new high-speed, low-carbon railway.

My role is to manage the programme of a construction build. The best way to describe the role of a planner is to think of how a bicycle is made—from the design, to sourcing the materials, agreeing a cost, making the components and then putting it together. My role ties all those parts together to deliver the ‘bicycle’ on time.

I started at Laing O’Rourke on a graduate scheme after studying architecture. Since then, I’ve been involved in major engineering works that are part of planning a new high-speed railway. For example, you might not know that preparing for HS2 required the UK’s largest ever archaeological dig, and our archaeology teams have exhumed over 10,000 human remains in Birmingham alone.

Five years ago I wouldn’t have imagined I’d be working in infrastructure, but I love being part of a big team and playing a part in an unprecedented UK railway project.

When lockdown was announced, what happened to your role? 

Very quickly, we transitioned to working more flexibly and the company put in many safety measures on site such as thermal imaging cameras, social distancing, face coverings and signage. To be honest, I felt safer coming to work than I did going to the supermarket.

We were very lucky with our supply chain too—Laing O’Rourke has a modular component factory, so we were able to keep going with much of the manufacturing, without worrying that we were putting other workers at risk.

What was life like during that first wave of the pandemic? 

To be honest, work almost continued as normal. As a team we were really focused on building and installing an enormous, complex bridge over a section of the M42, close to the National Exhibition Centre in Solihull, in August 2020.

The M42 is an incredibly busy motorway and the place where the bridge was to be installed was at one of the busiest junctions. There were so many stakeholders—from local councils to businesses to individuals. Finding the right date for the bridge installation started almost a year ahead, and we are very proud to have been able to maintain our delivery date throughout the COVID-19 pandemic—it took a lot of detailed planning to get everything aligned.

Additionally, the construction techniques we used were almost perfect for a COVID-19 world. In a traditional construction team, you often have a lot of people working closely together, and concrete poured onsite. But because so many of our components are designed, constructed and assembled off-site, we can put large structures together quicker, and with a small team. This advanced process is far more efficient and the way forward for major projects like this.

Traditional construction methods would also have required several weeks of lane closures on both carriageways, followed by additional weekend and overnight closures. However, our 900-tonne bridge was moved into place in one hour and 45 minutes and, overall, we only had to close the motorway for two days.

What were the most positive parts of your experience? 

Being able to deliver our project on that perfect August weekend was a real high for me. It was fantastic that we completed the installation 22 hours ahead of schedule. I think it’s also shown how innovative and flexible our industry can be when it needs to.

Personally, I also really appreciated the ability to work both in the office and at home, whatever was most useful to me and the project. I think this sort of working makes the industry more welcoming to join, especially to attract and retain women, and where personal circumstances require colleagues to work flexibly around the traditional 9-to-5 office hours that these jobs have traditionally entailed. If we are to become a better-rounded industry, we need to encourage more women to join.

And any negatives?

At the start of lockdown, I found it hard to be productive—so many things were uncertain. But this feeling passed as I kept myself occupied. Outside of work I am involved in a Birmingham Professional Services construction industry committee, designed to nurture and retain talent in the Midlands region. Activities like this helped to keep me busy and take my mind off the pandemic.

Are you returning to normal duties?

We’re already focused on what’s next and have already delivered three more bridges. I’m about to move into a new role as Assistant Project Manager for the next stage of the project.

What do you think the railways can offer in times of crisis like these?

Railway and infrastructure projects are about building a UK for the future. We’re now in a golden age of construction, and as Europe’s largest infrastructure project, it’s fantastic to be working on HS2.

It’s bringing new opportunities, unlocking the North and the Midlands, and creating jobs too. I’m passionate about connecting people with the built environment—and railways play a key part in that.

Hussain Master, Avanti West Coast

Hussain Master is a Train Manager for Avanti West Coast based at Preston.

Hussain Master stands in front of a train
Photo by Charlotte Graham

The community has really come together from different backgrounds and cultures, faith and no faith. That’s what has kept people going.

Hussain Master

What is your role at Avanti West Coast?

I’m a train manager based out of Preston, though I travel everywhere—North, South, Midlands, different routes on different days.

Before working on the railway, I worked in community sports, coaching kids in football and fitness. I’ve always volunteered alongside my work and I love being a part of my community. Sports coaching was my life, but it was all-consuming—so when my one-year-old daughter became unwell, I changed career to the rail industry so I could be around my family a bit more. Working on the trains suits me well because it isn’t sitting behind a desk—I like to be up and walking about, building a rapport with our customers.

I still stay in touch with some of my regular passengers. Like this lady who regularly travelled from Blackpool to London and needed assistance. I got to know her so well she would arrive early for her train just so we could have a cup of tea and a biscuit! It feels nice, helping people and sorting out something for them, especially when you don’t know what they’re going through or where they’re travelling.

When lockdown was announced, what happened to your role?

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was almost immediate. The passenger levels obviously dropped, and we were transporting lots of key workers. But there were other, sadder things, like a man who had come all the way down to London only to find out he’d lost his job. I let him travel on an earlier train, and checked he had everything he needed during his journey.

Outside of work, I increased my time volunteering at the local food bank in Preston. You could see the impact of the pandemic there, too—many more people using it, from different walks of life. Some people were a bit shy at first as they’d never had to ask for this kind of help before—so we set up some private groups and support systems so they could get the things they needed.

What was life like during that first wave of the pandemic?

Really it was everything I’d normally do—just more of it. Our food bank is in the local community centre, so we get people dropping by for advice and company, as much as for the food. I would find myself giving out tips on CV writing and job hunting at times.

During lockdown, we also did a few drop-offs for staff at the local railway station—I believe railway workers are key workers too. One day we took about 50 free lunches to share out, to thank them for being key workers. Another time we worked with Hotel Chocolat, who were getting rid of some stock. I took a load of chocolates and gave them out to the staff at every station from Preston to London. It’s the railway love, isn’t it?

What were the most positive parts of your experience? 

The high point has been seeing everyone work together so well—we’ve had such good support from the supermarkets and local businesses, and the community has really come together from different backgrounds and cultures, faith and no faith. That’s what has kept people going.

And any negatives?

The low points for me have been seeing so many families struggling. Sometimes I bring my own family to the food bank just to show them the reality of so many people’s lives.

Are you returning to normal duties? 

I take it as a blessing that I can help people. It’s been busy, but I’m still working, still doing my football and still helping my community. That’s the decent thing.

What do you think the railways can offer in times of crisis like these?

Well, money can’t buy love and support—so we have a duty to be human with those who are going through hard times. The people who work on the railways are here to help and assist, and generally we are a compassionate bunch. I’ve seen people during this time who look like they need a hug or a coffee—so talking to them and giving them a hot drink is the least I can do to show them some human compassion and help them to wherever they need to go.

Jolene Miller, Northern

Jolene Miller is a Driver for Northern. She was awarded a BEM (British Empire Medal) in the Queen’s Honours List 2020.

Jolene Miller sits in front of a roaring fire with her dog
Photo by Charlotte Graham

Lots of other healthcare workers had been reassigned to the emergency department, but I think I was the only one in Darlington Memorial Hospital to come from another role entirely.

Jolene Miller

What is your role at Northern?

I’m a driver on the routes around Darlington, Newcastle, Bishop Auckland and Whitby. My day-to-day is all about coming in, swiping on and driving up and down!

I transferred into railways in 2018 after being a paramedic. My husband is a driver, and he seemed to enjoy what he did so much with little stress. The tests were intense, but I studied really hard and loved it. However, I kept up my paramedic registration as I’d worked so hard to get it and you never know when you might be called on for extra support.

When lockdown was announced, what happened to your role?

Before the UK went into lockdown, everyone was looking at other countries around the world who were already suffering. There was talk that the railway service might be reduced, and I knew I would be needed as a paramedic more than a driver. So, I called Northern and asked them if I could temporarily return to my former role. Within 10 minutes they’d called me back to approve, and generously granted me extended paid leave to be able to do it.

As soon as I got into hospital, it became clear the situation was serious. We were ready for the Nightingale Hospital transfers and my role allowed the ambulance crews to get back out on the road and attend other emergencies.

Lots of other healthcare workers had been reassigned to the emergency department, but I think I was the only one in Darlington Memorial Hospital to come from another role entirely. Everyone was just helping out where they could.

What was life like during that first wave of the pandemic?

From March to June 2020 I was working one week on the trains and one week on the wards. It sounds intense but I didn’t find it too difficult—although at times the ‘day job’ on the trains felt like a bit of a rest, just because it was more certain.

Luckily, I wasn’t worried about my own health, but I was careful to keep everyone around me safe. When I got home, I’d strip off at the back door after already putting my uniform in a sealed bag at the hospital, put everything straight in the washing machine, take a shower and sanitise everything I’d touched along the way. To be honest, I didn’t feel like I was doing anything heroic or special. It was simply what I felt I needed to do.

What were the most positive parts of your experience?

Reconnecting with my incredible former colleagues in the NHS, many of whom I’d known for years, was amazing. And I loved working with patients again, even though the times were hard.

A funny thing happened when the Cabinet Office was trying to get in touch about the British Empire Medal (BEM). I don’t pick up calls from unrecognised numbers, so I ignored them for days. When they finally got through, I was suspicious and thought it was a scam. Thankfully, I twigged and rang back to apologise and accept—they thought it was hilarious.

In the beginning of the crisis, some of my railway colleagues gave me quite a wide berth while I was working on and off in the hospital. But since I was awarded the BEM, they’re taking the mickey, asking ‘do I call you ma’am?’ or ‘do I need to curtsey?’

And any negatives?

I did not enjoy going back to night shifts! Not doing nights is one of the benefits of being on the trains.

Are you returning to normal duties?

I’m pretty much back to a normal working pattern now, but I’ll always be there for the paramedics if they need me.

What do you think the railways can offer in times of crisis like these?

Northern kept the trains running round our area so that key workers could get to work, like the 07.00 service that runs past the James Cook hospital in Middlesbrough. And personally, I felt I got a lot of support from Northern in taking on this additional role, which meant a lot to me.

Gareth Mallion, Network Rail

Gareth Mallion is Operations Delivery Manager for Network Rail. He was awarded an MBE for his services to the country in October 2020.

Gareth Mallion
Photo by Charlotte Graham

I ended up walking about 30,000–40,000 steps each day.

Gareth Mallion

What’s your role at Network Rail?

I work for Fleet and Engineering, Route Services, in Network Rail, managing a team of operators who deliver track renewals. Our goal is to renew rail and sleepers and keep the track safe and operational. It’s a 24/7 operation to try and keep our passengers moving.

It all started when I was working as an apprentice mechanical engineer in a machine shop, and one of my colleagues showed me a railway job in the back of a newspaper. I applied to become a ballast cleaner operator at 21 and ended up at Network Rail.

The job has changed a lot in the 20 years I’ve been doing it. We used to be more about conventional renewals—big machines working whole weekends. Now we’re more of a task force, working in stealth mode. We try and get in and get out quickly in short possessions. It’s high-pressure though—if we don’t deliver on time it has a huge impact on the commuter. It keeps you interested and engaged in making sure we deliver on time.

When lockdown was announced, what happened to your role? 

Initially, we cancelled works and stood everyone down because we couldn’t get the right measures in place immediately. But as government guidance changed, we started to make adjustments, like social distancing on site and wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) when working in the cab of a big machine.

But I wanted to help more. I’d heard from our director that the army had been asked to support the creation of the new Nightingale Hospital in Manchester. An emergency request was sent out at 9.30 on a Monday morning—and by 10.30 I was at the site helping out with logistics.

It was daunting at first—it was like going into a lion’s den—but fortunately I’m reasonably fit and healthy and just knew that I needed to help. I live nearby, and I was very aware that a relative or someone I knew could end up needing that hospital.

What was life like during that first wave of the pandemic?

I took a lead role in logistics at the Nightingale Hospital, organising how we would get everything into a hospital that was still under construction. We decamped to a warehouse close by, as there wasn’t anywhere that was built yet on site. From there, we set about coordinating the medical equipment, packages and boxes that were arriving every day. At one point 750 beds arrived from Turkey and Bulgaria, and we had to get 30 soldiers to lift and shift them.

The hardest thing to manage was the arrival of medical kit—it needed a clean environment, but we were in the middle of a construction site. We also had no idea what was arriving or when, or even where it had to go to in the hospital. We would collate and send a stock list out to a wide audience daily to try and identify where everything needed to go. It was a real team effort in making sure things were getting to the right department and where they needed to be.

Physically, it was intense. I ended up walking about 30,000-40,000 steps each day.

What were the most positive parts of your experience? 

The big positive was the collaborative way in which all departments on site built the hospital in such a short timeframe—everyone worked so well together, and the camaraderie was incredible. Construction can be a bit linear—one thing after another—but we had to do everything at the same time in order to meet the Easter bank holiday deadline.

It was amazing to see the shell of a building transform into a proper hospital—you'd see an empty room in the morning, and by the afternoon a new ward had been built or shower block installed. I felt a huge sense of pride to have been a part of that.

And some of the negatives? 

Obviously building a hospital comes with a sense of reality. I remember when they were installing the oxygen tanks and the pipework to feed the hospital, I was thinking how devastating this virus is and that this oxygen is going to keep people alive. We also had to help set up and furnish a temporary morgue—and that really brought home the magnitude and reality of the pandemic. We were praying that they didn’t fill it.

Are you returning to normal duties now? 

Yes—my team is now fully back to speed and the hospital is up and running ready for whatever comes next. I was really honoured to receive an MBE for the work I did, but in reality, I feel I was just given an opportunity to make a difference and I took it. It was something anyone else would have done and I can’t emphasise enough how many others are deserving of receiving recognition for the hard work, dedication and contributions that they all made.

What do you think the railways can offer in times of crisis like these? 

What often goes unnoticed is the quantity of goods that are transported by rail. From supermarket essentials to oil and coal, the railways have kept the country moving. It’s great to see railways being recognised for their key role in keeping the country running.

Penny Bond, LNER

Penny Bond is a Travel Consultant based at Grantham for London North Eastern Railway. She received a BEM (British Empire Medal) in the Queen’s Honours List 2020 for her work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Penny Bond leans against a column with a blue sky behind her
Photo by Charlotte Graham

I kept imagining the loneliness that care home residents must be feeling without their friends and relatives visiting them.

Penny Bond

What is your role at London North Eastern Railway?

I’m a travel consultant, working in the ticket office at Grantham Station. Normally I’m helping customers plan their routes, issuing tickets, filling the machines and dealing with complaints and questions. I always thought you had to be super-qualified to work in the rail industry, but when LNER started advertising about two years ago, I realised my experience of working with people in debt was really relevant to customer service.

When lockdown was announced, what happened to your role?

Our station stayed open, but we did get stood down for a short time—you know things are serious when you’re not needed at work. I was desperate to volunteer, but the places I’d signed up for just couldn’t process the huge number of people who’d contacted them. So, I started to think: ‘What could I do to help, by myself?’

The idea for writing letters to care home residents came from watching a TV programme called Afterlife with Ricky Gervais. I kept imagining the loneliness that care home residents must be feeling without their friends and relatives visiting them. I contacted two homes that are local to me, asking them if they’d appreciate some hand-written letters to their residents, and the response was instantly ‘yes’. So, I started to write.

Each card begins ‘Dear friend’. I included all sorts of random details, like the time I made tomato soup from scratch having never tried before, what I’d been watching on TV, my hobbies, activities, my pets, my holidays, my dreams. Anything that was positive, or could put a smile on someone’s face, went into the letters. I tried to make each one a bit different so they could share them among each other.

What was life like during that first wave of the pandemic? 

It didn’t feel right to stop at just two care homes—so I rang all of them in the region.

I set up a Facebook page called ‘Letters to a Friend’ and started to recruit some other LNER colleagues. Together we wrote bags and bags of letters, which I dropped off in my car, leaving them on the doorstep so they could be carefully collected by the care staff.

Other LNER colleagues offered to run their own ‘branch’ in their area—so we had people writing in regions, from London to Edinburgh.

My house was literally filled with the cards I was using—hundreds of postcards showing lovely vintage imagery or Disney pictures that I thought they might like.

As time went on, we started to add poems, puzzles, tongue-twisters, memory quizzes, and little memory booklets with pictures of food and old-fashioned sweets. We even got donations of books, jigsaws, DVDs and felt-tip pens, which we distributed among the homes. It felt like every spare moment I was either writing or driving.

What were the most positive parts of your experience? 

One day I got a call from a care home telling me the residents had given me a huge bunch of flowers and a load of cards thanking me and telling me their own life stories—like a lady who was a professional ballet dancer in her youth, or the man who got a black eye from a frozen chicken!

Getting those thank-you cards made me so emotional, as it was the first time I realised the impact my letters were having. After I was awarded the BEM, some residents posted a picture of themselves online congratulating me with the words ‘You are our true hero’. It made me cry.

And any negatives?

None whatsoever. There’s never been a day when I’ve felt this is too much. Giving back to my local community has driven me and made me aware we need to support our care home residents more than ever.

Are you returning to normal duties?  

I went back to work in May. Luckily, my job means I can always be thinking of what to put in the next quiz or letter, and I keep a notebook with me to jot down ideas.

What do you think the railways can offer in times of crisis like these?

People might not think the railways would be getting involved in things like this, but there are loads of kind people in the rail industry. Through the LNER Reserves we have supported communities at food banks and delivered things for hospitals to name just a few examples. We offer so much to our country and communities—our people are the heart of the railways.

Rory Higgins, Network Rail

Rory Higgins is a Route Freight Manager for Network Rail.

Rory Higgins stands by a model railway
Photo by Charlotte Graham

Passenger numbers disappeared overnight. Suddenly, the most important thing on the network was freight.

Rory Higgins

What is your role at Network Rail?

I work in our Freight team on the Eastern region, which covers everything from the Scottish border down to Kings Cross, and now covers East Anglia too—it’s huge. My team’s role is to manage and look after the large number of freight vehicles that use our track.

The day-to-day work varies—it could be strategy meetings or going onsite for safety walkouts. I’m really focused on growing the business, trying to put more freight on the rails. When the coal industry collapsed four years ago, freight volumes dropped considerably across the region, but the market is adapting really quickly.

Most people don’t realise that a place like Drax power station wouldn’t be able to run without the biomass fuel supplied by rail—and Drax powers 6% of the UK’s electricity, the largest of any power station. Plus, there’s a huge environmental benefit to running freight by rail instead of road.  

When lockdown was announced, what happened to your role?

It was concerning. Passenger numbers disappeared overnight. Suddenly, the most important thing on the network was freight. We went from being the thing that fits in around everyone else to top billing. 

I started identifying the key freight flows and prioritised the essential ones we had to keep open. This included flows such as power station fuel to ensure we kept the lights on, and essential medical and food supplies so they could reach their end destinations. And then there were the really unusual supply lines that continued—like nuclear tank flasks or sand to manufacture glass bottles for the medical industry. In fact, glass production across the country went through the roof with the demand for thermometers and cupboard goods. You could see that just by looking at the supply chains.

What was life like during that first wave of the pandemic?

I quickly started working from home, which did have its challenges. My wife works for the NHS, so I was looking after our little boy a lot. But I can’t wait to get back to normality and back to the office.

What were the most positive parts of your experience?

I was really proud that everything was delivered well for customers and end users, and we all worked together as an organisation to keep freight running. We’re only a small team but it felt like we had the weight of Network Rail behind us.

What do you think the railways can offer in times of crisis like these?

Resilience. I found it heartening that the rail industry was heads-down and getting on with the job. We kept the railway open, and we made sure our goods got to where they needed to be.

Janet Bamber, Avanti West Coast

Janet Bamber is a Train Manager for Avanti West Coast based at Preston.

Janet Bamber stands by a moving train
Photo by Charlotte Graham

As soon as we heard Chinese New Year had been cancelled, we knew it was a big deal.

Janet Bamber

What is your role at Avanti West Coast?

In December 2020, I celebrated 23 years on the railways, with 22 of them as a train manager. But, to tell you the truth, I feel like a newbie as some of the drivers have been working on the railways for 40 years. I love my job as it feels like one big family, and my role means I get to travel anywhere from Manchester to Liverpool, Birmingham, Edinburgh, or London.

I like to see the differences between the trains: the Glasgow to Edinburgh train is relaxed as it’s mainly full of holiday goers—but the London trains are more serious, more business, and it only becomes the jolly train on a Friday. I love the customer interaction you get as a train manager and I tend to pick up on the passengers’ moods quite easily. If the little ones are excited to travel, that really puts me in a happy place.

When lockdown was announced, what happened to your role?

I was off work at the time as I was waiting for an operation on my knee. But I’d already started to see how serious the situation could be for us because I’ve got a nephew in China, and my sister was over there visiting when lockdown was announced. As soon as we heard Chinese New Year had been cancelled, we knew it was a big deal.

When lockdown was introduced in the UK, I was prepared in some respects, but it was the solitude more than anything that got me down. Communicating by facetime was difficult, and although I’m not prone to becoming depressed, I could feel it affecting my mental health.

So, when my daughter spotted a Facebook group asking for people with sewing skills to help make scrubs, I immediately saw it as a way I could help and join in with something important and helpful. I used to sew clothes for a living, before I joined the rail industry, making garments for Littlewoods and M&S.

What was life like during that first wave of the pandemic?

The health sector was desperate for a whole range of items that needed sewing together. Everyone was running out of basic supplies and a lot of things were grounded in aeroplanes on the other side of the world.

We had a remote production line going on. A courier would turn up on their motorbike with a whole batch of pre-cut garment pieces. I sewed them together, the courier would collect them and drop off some more bits for me to sew. It was well organised, and everyone played a part. I made full sets of scrubs, scrub bags, ear savers (little bits of fabric worn at the back of the head to stop face coverings from pulling on the ears), headbands and even dentist gowns.

What were the most positive parts of your experience?

Being able to help was a hugely positive thing for me. I feel proud that the items of clothing I made went towards helping people across some of the northern hospitals. On a lot of the scrubs, we added in a little label saying ‘For the love of scrubs’ and the size of the garment. It’s not much, but it did add a little personal touch to each garment. Plus, since I was on my own, sewing gave me a focus that helped me stay calm.

And any negatives?

I’ve really missed having people around me, and because I’ve been recovering from my operation, I haven’t had colleagues around either. However, I’m healing well and looking forward to returning to work when I’m better.

Are you returning to normal duties?

I’m not sewing the scrubs any more as the supply chain for those items did start up again and there are people employed in that industry. I’m looking forward to getting back my health and fitness and returning to work.

I’ve got a plan to cycle around Cuba once the pandemic is under control to raise money for a local charity, the Ronald McDonald House, who supported my son and daughter when my granddaughter was in Alder Hey Hospital last year.

Find out more about the Ronald McDonald House.

What do you think the railways can offer in times of crisis like these?

The railways are a vital part of connecting people and they’ve been crucial to getting people and goods to where they need to be. For me, this crisis has shown that life is too short—you need to value your friends and family, they’re the most important thing.

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Thanks to Avanti West Coast, Laing O’Rourke and J. Murphy Joint Venture for HS2 LtdLNER, Network Rail and Northern for their support in creating this exhibition.