Rail’s COVID-19 Heroes – Avanti West Coast
One year on from the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many train operating companies have found themselves reflecting on such a pivotal year and its impact on the industry. As part of Global Railway Review’s relaunch of its exclusive COVID-19 Heroes series, five employees from Avanti West Coast discuss the incredible and exceptional efforts that they have undertaken both at work and at home during the health crisis.
Diane Forrester – Avanti West Coast Customer Service Assistant
When lockdown was first announced, the First Class catering offer onboard our trains was suspended in line with UK government guidance. This gave me an opportunity to learn new skills with e-learning courses and training opportunities that were being delivered online.
Life was very different, and everyone had to adapt with home-schooling, working from home and shopping for people who were shielding.
After hearing stories about the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), I joined my family and friends in supporting North and West Cumbria Scrub Hub – a voluntary community group making scrubs and accessories for National Health Service (NHS) staff and frontline workers in Cumbria.
Dedicating our time to making accessories for local hospital workers and fulfilling orders received by the Scrub Hub was something that I wanted to do to play my part in the UK’s response to COVID-19. We made and delivered 550 scrub bags, 140 ear protectors and 210 headbands locally, and posted additional items to hospital workers further afield. We also volunteered our time to support appeals from a children’s hospital ward and food banks.
I did not need to give any thought to helping during the pandemic, and it was an amazing joint effort to support NHS workers. It was unlike anything that I have ever done before and I was proud to be a part of it. I loved being able to make a small difference, and it is great to help other areas of the local community who needed support.
Also, I feel proud for playing my part to keep trains running during this time. The railway has been vital for key workers, people who need to travel for bereavements and to help loved ones who are vulnerable and for volunteers to get where they need to be.
I have even kept my hand in sewing by making face masks for my friends and family – I even made a few for the younger ones to pop in Christmas presents.
Kevin Dodd – Avanti West Coast Customer Service Assistant
Working during the pandemic has been a surreal experience. Before the first lockdown, we would have welcomed 2,000 people at the station making journeys during peak times, but now, as people follow the government’s advice, it’s a very different situation.
I feel lucky to have the opportunity to go to work, especially as some people do not have that at the moment. While we kept vital services running for those making essential journeys, I wanted to do my bit to help others and make a difference in the local community.
At Stockport Station, there is a close-knit group of us that are always working together to do something charitable. We have been keen to help those less fortunate to get through these unprecedented times. So, we have supported causes that are helping people who have been affected by the coronavirus crisis.
In one case, we undertook a charity fundraiser – walking and cycling nearly 150 miles – to help Man about a Dog, who are a group in Stockport that supports people who have survived suicide attempts.
Over the last year, we have seen new food banks set up locally – there are now 10 within approximately four miles of the station. We regularly bring in items of food that can be donated to each of them.
For 15 years, I have volunteered for The Wellspring – a charity in Stockport for people who are homeless or about to become homeless. Having previously served in the Army, The Wellspring is a cause close to my heart, as it supports ex-military personnel who have fallen on hard times.
As a station team, we support The Wellspring once a year. We delivered 70 care packages containing chocolate, drinks, crisps and snacks that The Wellspring could hand out to those in need on Christmas Day. Ahead of the extreme cold weather, we brought thermals and hats that would keep the charity’s patrons warm.
We are passionate about supporting causes close to home, as we can see the difference that it makes. I’m already working with my colleagues to plan our next fundraising challenge – we like to do at least one thing a year to help others. Now, it is more important than ever to be doing what we can.
Debbie Cooper – Customer Service Assistant at Wigan North Western
At Wigan North Western, we have played our part to help others during the pandemic. We all supported The Brick Project – a community charity that offers services to people who are homeless, in poverty or facing debt crises – by donating items of food. We also made donations of toiletries to Wigan and Leigh Hospice.
With the NHS doing everything that they could to help everyone affected by COVID-19, and people that I knew who were dedicating their time to support the NHS in other ways, I wanted to do my bit to support their efforts. The NHS Volunteer Responder opportunities to help the UK’s COVID-19 response appealed to me and, when Avanti West Coast announced that they would support those volunteering, I immediately applied.
I felt lucky that I can go to work and see other people as part of that. I have a reason to get up in the morning, as I’m providing a service to help key workers get to where they need to be.
But the NHS Check In and Chat service, which offers support over the phone to people at risk of loneliness while they stay at home during the pandemic, was an ideal way to help, as I like to chat. I also thought that it was something that I could commit to.
The team at Wigan North Western have been supportive of my efforts – when I received some calls during my shifts on the platform, they ensured that I could give my time to those in need.
Volunteering for the NHS Check In and Chat Service has been a fulfilling experience. I have been able to help various people far and wide by giving them some companionship, for a few minutes to a few hours, or referring them to resources and services available through the NHS.
I have had conversations with young people struggling with lockdown and elderly people who live on their own and whose families aren’t nearby. The coronavirus crisis is really getting to them.
So many people have interesting stories to tell, and I found myself sharing common interests with many of the individuals that I have been talking to. A widower reminisced about the times that he had shared with his wife – we were both laughing and joking together, and it reminded us of the good times before the pandemic.
I have never done anything like this before. It is nice that everyone I have spoken to has had the confidence to talk to me and share their stories and feelings. I felt that our time on the phone gave them a distraction from everything that is going on with them. They put a smile on my face, and I hope that I managed to do the same for them – even if it was just for a few hours.
Alistair Campbell – Customer Service Assistant and BTP Special Constable
Alistair Campbell, Customer Service Assistant for Avanti West Coast, who works on board and is based out of Glasgow Central, has been a British Transport Police (BTP) Special Constable for 14 years. One of his roles as a BTP Response Officer sees him covering 500 square miles between Motherwell and Lockerbie in Scotland. As well as keeping the public safe, his responsibilities include carrying out extra patrols and reassuring key workers.
During the first lockdown, I was given special dispensation by Avanti West Coast to give up more of my time to work as a Special Constable after the British Transport Police made a request for more volunteer officers.
When the second lockdown was implemented, I asked again, and it was approved. My role at the BTP is one that I love, and this particular experience has been an opportunity to develop as a Special Constable. From a personal point of view, it’s made me think about life in general, when you have to deal with so many people from all different walks of life.
It’s a great feeling to help out. I see a lot of people on the frontline, and they have been working so hard. While there have been fewer services on the railways, I have been able to volunteer more. Having that extra person there is a great help to the BTP, whether it’s on patrols or helping out at the police station.
My colleagues in the railway are proud of me, and my counterparts in the BTP are really grateful that we’ve stepped in to help at this time. It’s also been great of Avanti West Coast to give me the approval to do this.
I’ve dealt with a lot of cases and, in particular, we’ve dealt with a lot of mental health issues, which is a very important subject and one which has really come to the forefront during this time. It’s been challenging, but this is what I signed up for. I would have no hesitation in doing it again, and I am proud that I can look back and say that I did this.
Josh Jensen – Customer Service Assistant and BTP Special Constable
Josh Jensen, who is also a Customer Service Assistant, is usually dealing with customers onboard, but also serves as part of a BTP daily response team in Liverpool, where he is based. During the day, his team covers between Chester and Southport and, at midnight, they also cover between North Wales and Carlisle.
I became a Special Police Constable in May 2019, six years into my full-time railway career as a Customer Service Assistant. I wanted to experience work from a policing perspective and had researched the British Transport Police and what roles they had to offer. With a minimum requirement of 16 hours per month, it could easily be entailed to my working roster in my full-time job.
Since March 2020, I was able to commit more hours as a Special Constable after gaining approval from Avanti West Coast, and I have assisted colleagues at the British Transport Police in Liverpool with general patrol duties, COVID-19 enforcement and other various roles where the extra officer is required on more-or-less a full-time basis.
I have supported with train patrols, focusing on local anti-social behaviour hotspots, and also assisted with some investigations into criminal damage across Merseyside. As a Special Constable, our duties can vary day-to-day and you can end up anywhere on the rail network from time to time.
As a Special Constable and an onboard Customer Service Assistant, you also develop your confidence, as well as the skills in each role, which become useful in different scenarios. This could be a ticketing issue to something more challenging, like a situation involving anti-social behaviour or maybe mental health.
As with all of these circumstances, it is important to keep the passengers safe and keep the railways moving, as well as be a communication link between the Force and the train company to tackle any local issues or developing intelligence. From my perspective, this whole experience in the past year has been really rewarding and a great thing to be able to do.