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Railway Heroes

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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.

Want to see this exhibition at the museum? It's available in Great Hall.

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.

Davey Glover, LNER

Davey Glover is a Train Manager for London North Eastern Railway.

Davey Glover
Photo by Charlotte Graham

The passengers just vanished from the railway. I went from managing a train with 600 passengers to only seven or eight.

Davey Glover

What is your role at London North Eastern Railway?

As a train manager, no two days are the same. We cover a huge swathe of the east coast from London King’s Cross to Leeds, Newcastle, Hull and the Scottish Highlands, so you get a lot of variety. My role is to check tickets, operate the doors and look after the safety of customers and crew during their journey. I sometimes say we’re the ones who have to deal with all the problems that arise too!

I moved into the role three years ago after a really varied career in different areas—I’ve worked in libraries, the police, retail, customer service, as a lifeguard and a bus driver. I wish I’d discovered the train manager role years ago though, as I love it! One day I’d like to be a driver, so this feels like a good step in that direction.

When lockdown was announced, what happened to your role?

The passengers just vanished from the railway. I went from managing a train with 600 passengers to only seven or eight. On top of that, the crew wasn’t working either as it was essential staff only for safety—just me and the driver.

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

It was quite isolating. In the back of your mind, you’re wondering ‘What if something happens’—like a medical emergency or a drunk person kicking off. Usually, the train crew provide a sense of back up. And then there was the fact that normally I’d be interacting with all the passengers. However, being able to get through that did make me think that I’d be able to deal with the isolation of being a driver.

I’ve always enjoyed messing about with media and making my own videos. I think I was humming the song ‘All by Myself’ because I was on an empty train. So, I played the Celine Dion video and tried to lip-sync along. It was just a bit of fun to cheer people up who might be stuck at home. I shared it among a few colleagues and then LNER asked to circulate it, which I didn’t expect! People thought it was pretty cool, and I don’t mind being in the limelight! It was intended to make people smile, so I’m happy that it’s done that.

What were the most positive parts of your experience?

For me, I think the highs were being able to carry on providing a service to those who really needed to get to work. You have no idea if the people on your train are the doctors and nurses that keep people breathing or the people that fix medical equipment such as ventilators and so on.

And any negatives?

My low point was not seeing any of my friends and colleagues—without the crew it felt very strange. But I’m naturally quite a happy person who doesn’t get stressed about things—it’s totally pointless doing that. I try to stay positive for my own mental health.

Are you returning to normal duties?

My day job has kind of continued as normal, and the numbers on trains are picking up again. I’ve been doing a lot more volunteering than normal with Bloodfast Hull, a Yorkshire-based organisation that delivers urgent medical supplies. A number of volunteers help Bloodfast to deliver blood, notes, organs, baby milk, sterile utensils and more all around the UK. And I’ve made a few more silly videos too, including one at Doncaster Depot for the ‘Movember’ fundraiser.

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

The railways definitely offer a lifeline. A lot of people don’t have their own transport so whether it’s getting to work or travelling to help a sick person, the railways are the backbone that keeps the country going.

Martin Frobisher, Network Rail

Martin Frobisher is the Group Safety and Engineering Director, Technical Authority, for Network Rail. He was awarded an OBE in December 2020.

Martin Frobisher, Network Rail
Photo by Charlotte Graham

In a crisis, you realise that without fresh produce or power station fuel, life grinds to a halt.

Martin Frobisher

What is your role at Network Rail?

As a member of the Executive Leadership team at Network Rail, I’m responsible for safety, environment and engineering across the company. I manage the technical authority, which means I set the safety standards and policies for our rail works.

I love the fact that I don’t have a typical day—I can be involved in a wide range of challenges, from technical engineering, safety of our employees and passengers, through to the environment. The COVID-19 pandemic will come and go but if we can be a part of reducing our impact on the environment, through carbon-neutral objectives, that would be a huge coup.

I’m an engineer by background, starting off in chemicals. But as that industry declined, I started to look elsewhere. I thought I’d only be in the rail industry for a short time when I joined in 1997, but the railways get into your blood.  

When lockdown was announced, what happened to your role?

The easiest way to describe it is that my life was divided.  
 
First there was my day job—where I was working out how to run a railway with fewer people available and fewer services. My biggest fear here was that we would defer essential work, keep bad records, and a problem would turn up in 12 months’ time. We also had an understandably frightened workforce, so we focused on improving workplace safety.

And then there was the army reserve work. Shortly after lockdown was announced, I got a call from my commanding officer in the army to go and assist with the building of the Nightingale Hospital in Manchester. It became immediately clear that I needed to be there every day, so I camped out and sat in every meeting to work out what they needed and where the gaps were.

Logistics was one key area, so I offered to provide a modern logistics manager in the form of Gareth Mallion. The site was very cramped and the loading bay too small to accommodate all the equipment which was being delivered. I arranged for Network Rail to provide warehouse space to store all the incoming equipment and deliver it to the hospital site when it was needed. We also provided 100 iPads to the hospital so that patients could stay in touch with their families.

Lots of other organisations generously provided help and I was even offered a million frozen meals from Manchester airport, which were sitting unused. When hand sanitiser was running short on site, our vans went over to a local distillery who had offered to supply us with it. When we needed beds and cabinets assembled, the Works Delivery team in Preston sent 25 people who sat in the lobby of the convention centre (our temporary headquarters) screwing them together for the hospital. We drew on so many parts of the business to help, and it was truly amazing how many people stepped forward.

Elsewhere, I also found myself offering support to retrieve some personal protective equipment (PPE) from the national deep storage at St Helen’s. The first two lorries that left St Helen’s with the PPE were from Network Rail—the drivers were from our Liverpool depot, and they just upped and went without even stopping to pack an overnight bag.

What was life like at the height of the pandemic?

It was really hard work, balancing duties for the army staff corps along with the requirements of the day job. I remember an awful lot of conference calls from the Manchester site. 

What were the most positive parts of your experience?

There were so many highs despite the crisis—for me, every little improvement has been a highpoint. I was really proud of our ‘Mind the Gap app’ in keeping our workforce safe and comfortable. We used one of our regular software developers to develop it—the idea is that it alerts you whenever you’re too close to someone and it has an accuracy of eight centimetres. We were able to offer it back to the NHS for free as well. With this, as well as the numerous COVID-19-safe measures we put in place in the offices, it felt like we were breaking new ground.

And any negatives?

Not really—although I did suggest a PPE distribution idea using trains that wasn’t taken up by the Brigadier. Ah well, not every idea can come to fruition.

Are you returning to normal duties?

There’s still a lot to do. Life has become much more normal, even though my working environment has changed. We’re starting to focus on longer-term issues again. And with the army, I’m working on some more conventional projects, like providing railway materials to the Royal Engineers for a military exercise they’re doing in Yorkshire. 

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

I think for me it clearly highlighted the vital importance of rail freight. Passengers are the bulk of our business in normal times, but in a crisis, you realise that without fresh produce or power station fuel, our life grinds to a halt and bad things could happen. I feel proud to have been a part of ensuring that was never an option.

Stephanie Hart, Network Rail

Stephanie Hart is End User Compute Lead for Network Rail. In August 2020 she accepted Network Rail’s ‘Living Our Values’ award on behalf of IT for her work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stephanie Hart
Photo by Charlotte Graham

Collectively, I think we achieved 18 months of change in a matter of weeks.

Stephanie Hart

What is your role at Network Rail?

I love working for Network Rail as end user compute lead. As there is only me who does my particular role it can be very busy, but also interesting. I never saw myself working in an office in the beginning. One of my first full-time jobs was helping vulnerable people and complex investigations. I think this set me up for life—since that role, very little fazes me.

When lockdown was announced, what happened to your role?

I have a broad knowledge of how Network Rail operates and what needs to happen to keep the operational railway running. So, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, I volunteered myself to work from home immediately to help prepare for mass home working. I knew if I got ill, it would significantly impact our ability to get IT equipment out to those who needed it most. We needed to get almost 36,000 colleagues working from home as quickly as possible, and I worked with my colleagues in Business Resilience to prioritise the orders for those who were deemed critical, such as the Freight Planning team.

Network Rail was incredibly lucky in that we were in the middle of an IT equipment upgrade, so we already had stock available in the UK. The speed and scale of the deliveries was amazing, and I had an incredible team around me making it happen. In addition to the physical devices, other areas of IT were busy upgrading systems and fast-tracking new processes to be able to cope with the scale of change. Collectively, I think we achieved 18 months of change in a matter of weeks.

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

One of my colleagues discovered we had some iPads in a cupboard left over from a project, which were no longer required. We distributed what was needed to internal colleagues. But then I saw on the news that many families were unable to visit their loved ones in hospital. I worked with several NHS Trusts to distribute over 200 iPads to those most in need.

Recently, I’ve been working on an initiative to donate over 8,000 laptops to local schools. We are having to upgrade our current devices to enable us to continue to work and be supported on our systems, and I wanted to make sure that these go to good use and not to landfill. I’m working with various colleagues and organisations to be able to begin the donations in early 2021. This is now more important than ever as so many children have missed many days, weeks and months of education due to the pandemic.

I wasn’t able to assist the NHS on the frontline, but by using available IT and working as a team, we managed to connect people when it was most needed.

What were the most positive parts of your experience?

Watching how everyone came together for one collective goal was a huge positive. Politics and red tape were removed, and everyone helped—even if it wasn’t their job. There was a huge sense of achievement—I feel we’ve made some great connections and are now working together closer than ever.

By putting in the technical changes required to enable home working, we have been able to look at other efficiencies and enabled our colleagues to think about how we can do things differently.

Personally, I also get to see more of my husband and pets. I also see my team more, although virtually, and we manage to make it fun.

And any negatives?

It was a very stressful situation and a real unknown. As this was happening to everyone around the world it did help knowing that everyone was in it together. I felt lucky to not be furloughed and was busier than ever in what was such a worrying time for many.

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

The railways have so many people with different skill sets—it was amazing to see people making items for the NHS, putting up hospital beds, delivering food parcels and medication, assisting with personal protective equipment (PPE), logistics and giving up their time to volunteer and help others. I really feel we’ve been able to add so much more value than simply running a railway.

Adam Broomhall, Network Rail

Adam Broomhall is a Project Engineer for Network Rail.

Adam Broomhall
Photo by Charlotte Graham

I take great pride in my job as I’m doing something that really benefits the public—even if they don’t always notice it.

Adam Broomhall

What is your role at Network Rail?

I work for the Track Renewals department as a project engineer. I cover every step of the process, from identifying the projects that need to be done to working with the Delivery teams to do the works. I do a mix of desk work and site work, which keeps things interesting.

I got into railways on the Network Rail graduate scheme after studying engineering. It was a great process as I got to see the full range of the business—day-to-day maintenance, renewals (where I work now), and enhancements, which are the really big projects like the remodelling of Kings Cross. It's challenging work, but I take great pride in my job as I’m doing something that really benefits the public—even if they don’t always notice it. 

When lockdown was announced, what happened to your role?

We were told to work from home before the Prime Minister announced lockdown. This made on-site works challenging at first. The area I cover stretches from London to Berwick-upon-Tweed, just south of the Scottish border, and our teams usually stay on site in a local hotel because they can’t go back and forth from their homes easily—it could be a four-hour journey each way. But there were no hotels or places to eat that were open. The logistics were hard. Eventually, I managed to find a hotel that was prepared to deliver room service in order to feed the team. I think we were the only customers.

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

Things have been a bit more difficult but generally possible. The easing of restrictions and clearer guidance on hospitality has certainly helped enable essential works, and the workplace COVID-19-safe precautions have made it possible to keep going. Now it’s more about changing behaviours to keep distanced, wear face coverings and stop and think before you do anything. I feel really fortunate that we only cancelled two non-essential jobs, and the bigger ones, like the renewal two-miles north of St Pancras, continued despite the challenges.

What were the most positive parts of your experience?

Oddly, because we were running fewer services, we got a lot of development work done. Activity like walk outs onto the line could be done during the day. We’ve also managed to become more environmentally friendly. My role used to involve a lot of printing of engineering drawings, for example, but now we use our screens. And virtual meetings mean you don’t always have to travel.

And any negatives?

Nothing stands out as especially negative although I am finding working from home a bit monotonous.

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

The power of the railways in normal times is connecting people to people, but we can’t do that at the moment. So, I think it’s about connecting our economy and keeping it going until we can travel freely again.

Charley Wallace, Network Rail

Charley Wallace is the National Passenger, Customer Experience and Interim Freight Director for Network Rail.

Charley Wallace
Photo by Charlotte Graham

I don’t think I slept for about three weeks.

Charley Wallace

What is your role at Network Rail?

I’m the national passenger, customer experience and interim freight director. I’m responsible for putting our many diverse customers—from passengers to freight—at the heart of everything we do.

I’m passionate about quality of service. Not everyone needs or wants the same thing, so we need to listen to our customers and give them what they’re looking for. In the past we’ve been much more focused on the way we move trains across the railways, but we’re changing and evolving as a business to really focus on getting goods and people where they need to be, safely and on time.

When lockdown was announced, what happened to your role?

I was quite new in the role when the COVID-19 pandemic started so it was a bit of a baptism of fire. Normally it would have taken months to meet all the people I’ve been working with and settle in, but the pandemic accelerated all of that. I started by looking at all the ways we could help and support our communities and our passengers. Could we become COVID-19 testing centres? Did we have enough personal protective equipment (PPE)? Did we have enough volunteers available at each station to assist our customers? Everyone was so proactive and generous—it wasn’t unusual to have people picking up the phone at 22.00. The industry really came together, and I hope that spirit of collaboration will be a positive and lasting legacy of the pandemic.

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

As soon as we set up the Network Rail Taskforce, it felt like the hours, days and weeks just merged into a single, surreal timeline. I was on daily calls with my teams and the Rail Delivery Group, as well as weekly calls with government.

I think I was on speed dial for the Department for Transport. They’d ring me up to see if we could arrange emergency transport for medical professionals who had just arrived from abroad. Could we help? I phoned a local bus company and ensured they had the right PPE to transport them safely.  

I’d say the most challenging thing was getting volunteers with magenta vests to help out at stations. Grant Shapps, secretary of state for transport, had promised the public this would happen, and we had to deliver—the pressure was enormous.

To make it more complicated, Sir Peter Hendy, chair of Network Rail, said they must be magenta because that’s the recognised colour for customer service.

So, on a Sunday afternoon, we sourced around 7,000 vests from different companies, including an emergency call to a company in Devon who had made them for the Olympic Games. There was only one problem—we had to go and get them. Again, the Network Rail team sprang into action, phoning colleagues and friends to distribute the vests to the right locations.

And in the background, I was home-schooling three kids under eight. I don’t think I slept for about three weeks.

What were the most positive parts of your experience?

When we established the Taskforce, I didn’t expect it to take off in the way that it did. We set up an instant messaging platform and there were so many people in Network Rail using it within the first hour. So many individuals, all saying—‘How can I help? I want to get involved’.

We had people volunteering to stand by as mechanics, delivery drivers, and others answering calls for PPE or supplies in other communities. We even helped Eurostar, who couldn’t get enough PPE to run their services—so we gave them what they needed until they could source their own. Everyone had a one-team ‘We’re in this together’ mentality.

And any negatives?

It was immensely tiring. We were all working on adrenaline and we never really knew if some of the things—like the magenta vests—would work out. But, when they did, it was a huge success. Seeing the secretary of state for transport standing in front of the volunteers outside Manchester Piccadilly on national television was a big moment for me.

And are you now returning to normal duties?

I’m still involved in the Taskforce but I’m also back to my day job. I’m excited that we now have an app for volunteering within Network Rail. We thought it would take two years to get finished, but it was rolled out in only three weeks and people are using it widely.

I really hope we don’t go through anything like this again—but if we do, we know we’ll be ready. 

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

I think the thing I was most impressed with was the security and safety of travelling by rail. I really felt we got it right in the stations. We’ve been listening to passengers and trying to support them as best we can with signage, sanitiser, people to ask for help and, of course, somewhere to grab a coffee. The world has changed so much, but I like to think we’re providing a little bit of welcoming normal out there.

Ritchie Lane, Northern

Ritchie Lane is a Conductor for Northern.

Ritchie Lane
Photo by Charlotte Graham

Right now, you don’t get two days the same—it’s not like sitting in the office 9–5.

Ritchie Lane

What is your role at Northern?

I’ve been on the railway 13 years as a conductor. I know all the routes and love getting to know the passengers. I’m a bit of a people person, and I like to talk and work at the same time. Right now, you don’t get two days the same—it’s not like sitting in the office 9–5.

The most important thing about my role is looking after health and safety—especially the train doors. On the train, I’m on hand if we have any accidents or incidents, and to look after the public. My mates take the mickey and ask me if I sell KitKats, but it’s a lot more than that! One of the nicest parts of my job is getting recognised by people in the pub—somebody even bought me a pint once. The little things like that make you think you must be doing something right.

When lockdown was announced, what happened to your role?

It was a dramatic change—social distancing and face coverings were very strange. The atmosphere went from friendly to frightened. At first, we were cordoning off seats and limiting capacity per carriage. Northern were being very supportive of how I did my job. As time has gone on, things have eased up a bit, but I’m not seeing the school groups or the commuters return in the same numbers. It’s sad because you don’t know what the future holds.

Almost all of the public are following the rules from what I can see. There’s the odd person not wearing a face covering, who might be exempt or have forgotten it at home. It’s a difficult balance to strike, because we’re not there to police behaviour but we do have a responsibility to look after the safety and comfort of all our passengers.

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

I used to know everyone in my carriage, what they did, what route they travelled, and we used to chat regularly. That all went during the COVID-19 pandemic, understandably, as people stayed home. Before the pandemic key workers didn’t stand out, but during lockdown you really noticed who was travelling and what uniform they wore. Where I could, I would stop to check in with people, asking them about their work and hours. That was how I met Ruby, a young woman working in a maternity unit of a big hospital but about to be transferred to the COVID-19 ward. I was really impressed—she was so young but so brave. When she asked if she could take a (socially distanced) photo with me, of course I said yes, and that’s how I ended up on social media.

What were the most positive parts of your experience?

During the lockdown, one of the unexpected benefits was less traffic on the roads, which meant it took me less time to get to work—I got more of a lie in! I’ve learned to be positive throughout my life, you kind of have to in this role, because you see passengers down in the dumps and dealing with a lot of stuff. And sometimes you might be the only person who’s noticed.

And any negatives?

I was worried when a colleague contracted COVID-19. There was a bit of a cloud hanging over the station, and a part of you does wonder if we’re all going to catch it. When we got the news that he had recovered and was coming back to work it made us all so happy.

Are you returning to normal duties?

Life more or less continued for me despite the drop in passengers. It is sad to see the numbers drop, but I try to look on the bright side—longer term I think we’ll recover as an industry as people always need to travel.

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

For me railways are about a chance to escape, a way to be out and about after being stuck at home for months. They can take you anywhere—the Lake District, Scotland... Not all of us have cars of our own, so railways can help us get away from the everyday and see our loved ones. Obviously, we have to wait until it’s safe for everyone to travel—but when that happens, I know the railways will be a lifeline for many.

Seema Jadva, Avanti West Coast

Seema Jadva is an HR Business Partner for Avanti West Coast and Police Special Constable for the London Metropolitan Police.

Seema Jadva
Photo by Charlotte Graham

I love the variety of what I do—you meet so many different people from such a range of backgrounds.

Seema Jadva

What is your role at Avanti West Coast?

I work in Avanti West Coast’s Human Resources department, based at London Euston. My day-to-day role involves supporting managers to support their teams efficiently and, during the COVID-19 pandemic, protecting our workers on the front line so they can do their jobs.

I love the variety of what I do—you meet so many different people from such a range of backgrounds. I feel they learn as much about me as I learn about them. The railways can be a challenging environment to work in, but I love the workforce we have.

Outside of work, I’ve been a police special constable—a “special” or a volunteer police officer—with the Metropolitan Police (the Met) in London for seven years. I joined after leaving university because I wanted to make a difference in the community I live in. When I put on that uniform, my shoulders automatically straighten—it builds my confidence and it gives me a lot of job satisfaction. It’s rare to see an Asian female like me volunteer for something like this, but I’ve always had my family’s support around me.

When lockdown was announced, what happened to your role?

As “specials”, you normally contribute about 16 hours of your time a month, but during the first lockdown, that went up to as much as 60 hours, on top of my day job. Avanti West Coast was really supportive, allowing me some time off work so I could offer more time to the Met.

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

The policing work hasn’t really gone away—I was doing a lot of weekend working over the summer and we were starting to see our usual pre-pandemic incidents so the volunteers are really vital. When you put your uniform on, it’s hard to tell the difference between us—that makes me really proud. It was hard to switch off at times, as we were on call so much. I would sometimes take the work feelings home with me—but I tried to relax by doing yoga and exercise when I could.

What were the most positive parts of your experience?

For me, the high points of working for the Met, and especially through this difficult period, has been doing a job well with amazing colleagues. As a volunteer you are so dependent on your colleagues for your safety. Plus, the camaraderie—there’s a lot of respect between us all.

And any negatives?

Some of the situations we’ve dealt with have been challenging. We receive training to deal with difficult things, and it is what I signed up for—you can’t back away from a situation when you’re the one who has been called to sort it out.

Are you returning to normal duties?

My day job has continued as normal, but on the police side, we’re expecting more activity with the various waves of lockdown and tier restrictions across the country, so we’ve all committed to a little bit more time volunteering.

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

I was part of the Met before I joined Avanti West Coast and it’s been fantastic to find out how many other people from the company volunteer as “specials” or for the British Transport Police. I’ve felt so supported by my Avanti West Coast colleagues and the company. I think I bring a lot of the skills I’ve learned from the police into my railway job, and vice versa—they’re both about people!

Clifford Morgan, Avanti West Coast

Clifford Morgan is a Train Manager for Avanti West Coast and Police Special Constable for the London Metropolitan Police.

Clifford Morgan
Photo by Charlotte Graham

My two roles definitely feed off of each other. Both of them have safety and protecting people at their core.

Clifford Morgan

What is your role at Avanti West Coast?

I work as a train manager for Avanti West Coast, and volunteer as one of the police special constables—a “special” or a volunteer police officer—for the London Metropolitan Police (the Met).
 
For Avanti West Coast, I am effectively the first point of call on the train. I need to understand the infrastructure of the track and the train in case anything goes wrong. I love working on the trains, but policing was always my childhood ambition, and volunteering with the Met gives me the opportunity to realise this.

It’s a year-long process to become a “special”. You work shoulder-to-shoulder with regular full-time officers so you need lots of the same training. But I love it because it means I understand the communities that I live and work in so much more. I moved into my task team in 2018 and primarily focus on gangs, public order and violence.

When lockdown was announced, what happened to your role?

Avanti West Coast were extremely supportive and gave me the opportunity to take a bit more time off from my role as a train manager so that I could volunteer more hours.

The trains were extremely quiet, as the public followed the advice to stay home. Normally I’d be looking after 300 passengers, and on some days I only had one person.

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

Working on the trains and volunteering for the Met is normal for me, but this period has been intense for all of us. The “special” work was very busy, up to 100 hours per month, and we were all extremely cautious about how we dealt with people in incidents.

Initially we saw a decrease in some of the usual street crimes when we were in strict lockdown. But other incidents increased, like live music events and unlicensed gatherings. I remember one strange incident where we investigated what we thought was an empty leisure centre, only to find around 600 people dancing away at a silent disco. It obviously wasn’t causing a noise disturbance, but it was breaking the lockdown rules. Sadly, my team also attended at least one domestic violence incident during every shift.

My two roles definitely feed off of each other. Both of them have safety and protecting people at their core—whether it’s the community or passengers. I definitely benefit from the confidence that volunteering for the Met gives me, and I think it helps equip me for my role on the railways.

What were the most positive parts of your experience?

Over the spring when we were all clapping for the NHS, our police officers drove up to our local hospital, Whipps Cross, and parked outside, with sirens going and huge rounds of applause. It was quite surreal and emotional, and you could see the staff inside really appreciating the gesture.

Similarly, I was dealing with an incident at a house early on in lockdown. When I stepped outside to call the detective, I could hear this banging and whooping—I didn’t know what it was until I realised it was the clapping for the NHS. I won’t forget that moment—with the streets so empty, but the sound of clapping filling the air.

And any negatives?

There’s no way to say it easily, but the saddest moment was being informed that a colleague who worked closely with the Met in the local authority had passed away from COVID-19. And there’s been a huge impact on the community in terms of mental health—we see the direct impact of these strange times on the people we help.

Are you returning to normal duties?

In the past few months, I’ve moved away from the response team to return to my normal public-order policing. And the day-to-day role on the railways has almost gone back to normal, although with fewer services. But the impact of the lockdowns is still being felt in the community.

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

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, our core purpose has been keeping vital rail services running for key workers and those making essential journeys—helping them to stay connected and travel safely with the extra protective measures we’ve put in place. For me personally, I’m grateful that Avanti West Coast have allowed me to make a difference in my volunteer role—policing and the railways are both a great public service.

Jennifer Hayton, Network Rail

Jennifer Hayton is a Track Operative for Network Rail.

Jennifer Hayton
Photo by Charlotte Graham

[I gave] the team more time to focus on the track work. Without our team going out and doing those things the railway wouldn’t run.

Jennifer Hayton

What is your role and how did you get started in railways?

I work as a track operative as part of a Technical team. We work any hours, any day of the week, and I’m out and about most of the time—although not right now as I’ve just given birth to a little baby boy!

I started in steam railways by getting a job at Beamish Museum as a steam train driver, fireman and guard, just because they were one of the few places hiring at that time, and I totally fell in love with it. That inspired me to transition into the modern rail industry.

When lockdown was announced, what happened to your role?

I was driving back from McDonald's and heard on the radio that Boris Johnson had caught COVID-19—that was when it really sunk in. At that time, I was living at home and travelling one and a half hours to work each day. But my mum was in a high-risk category and I realised I really shouldn’t be going to work and potentially bringing COVID-19 home. So, I spoke to my boss and asked if I could go back home to collect my stuff and move out to Newcastle for a short time. I was frantically trying to find somewhere to stay and there wasn’t much available, but eventually I found an Airbnb that was happy to take me.

It was really hard—emotionally and financially. Paying for accommodation definitely had an impact on my finances, as I had to pay per night for several months until I could find permanent accommodation. I also couldn’t visit or hug my mum. But we were able to stay in touch using technology, which definitely helped.

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

After I’d moved, work was surprisingly similar to how it was before the COVID-19 pandemic—just with more precautions. In fact, I ended up transitioning to working from home because of my pregnancy anyway—Network Rail policy prevents you from being on site when you’re pregnant, for safety reasons. So, I took on an administration role for the whole team, setting up paperwork, planning and appraisals, to give the team more time to focus on the track work. Without our team going out and doing those things the railway wouldn’t run.

What were the most positive parts of your experience?

It was great not having any traffic on my commute to work. That meant I could sleep in a little longer!

And any negatives?

Sadly, I lost my grandad during this time. That was really hard, we were very close. We could only have 10 people at the funeral and, because I was working, I was unable to hug or console any of my family at the funeral.

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

For me, it’s about job opportunities. Many people are struggling with finding work. But the railways keep going. We’re always going to need transport—the railways kept going even during wartime. For the right people, the rail industry can offer them work so they can keep their families going.

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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.

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