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Rail’s COVID-19 Heroes – South Western Railway

Posted: 27 April 2021 | | No comments yet

In the next instalment of Global Railway Review’s exclusive series, South Western Railway (SWR) introduces some of its team who are working beyond the job description during the pandemic, to the benefit of both SWR passengers and staff.

Rail’s COVID-19 Heroes - South Western Railway

Jenny Keen – Flagship Station Manager at Basingstoke

When Jenny Keen became SWR’s Flagship Station Manager at Basingstoke in February 2019, she had no idea that a year later she would be leading a team of more than 50 frontline key workers through a pandemic.

As Flagship Station Manager, Jenny’s responsibility extends to five of SWR’s stations (Basingstoke, Hook, Winchfield, Fleet and Farnborough), and her team includes three Duty Station Managers along with platform, gateline, station control point, ticket office and revenue colleagues.

Over the last 12 months, as her colleagues have been going above and beyond for customers, she’s been going above and beyond for them, too.

Jenny Keen SWR

Jenny Keen – Flagship Station Manager at Basingstoke

In the first week of lockdown, Jenny created a WhatsApp group which continues to be a daily stream of good morning and good evening messages and sunrise, sunset and pet photos, as well as colleagues frequently checking in on one another. She has welcomed new starters; developed colleagues’ skills and helped them progress; celebrated significant service milestones complete with certificates and hampers; and supported those who have had to self-isolate. Together with her team, she has brightened stations with ‘Thank You NHS’ displays, poppies and Christmas decorations. She even donated 3,000 surplus biohazard bags to the local Basingstoke hospice.

Her team has a diversity of experience, with five colleagues serving more than 30 years, and seven new members joining the team recently. Jenny has been able to spend more time with her team and, as a Mental Health First Aider, has played a part in prioritising their physical, mental and emotional health. But it’s Jenny’s glass half full attitude that has perhaps had the biggest impact over the last 12 months, making sure that she boosts morale amongst her colleagues and peers.

Going forward, Jenny is really looking forward to welcoming more passengers back. She wants people to know that travelling by train is safe, and that she and her team have lots of COVID-19 measures in place, such as hand sanitisers and enhanced cleaning. Put simply, Jenny says, “It is safe, and we want you back!” No doubt, she’ll be on the platform, with her team, ready and waiting to say hello.

On a final note, Jenny says “I couldn’t have got through the past 12 months without my team’s support.”

Andy Roberts – Train Planning Manager

Andy is usually based in London with his team, however, as the pandemic hit, the SWR train planning team – like many others – were faced with the initial challenge of migrating to home working overnight. At the same time, scaled back timetables and new train crew diagrams were required immediately. So, the team had to adjust to working from home instantly.

Andy Roberts SWR

Andy Roberts – Train Planning Manager

Despite the usual IT challenges that the majority of people faced in the transition to working from home, Andy and the SWR planning team were the first train operating company (TOC) to get their emergency timetable in place. Doing so was crucial for ensuring that key workers could still travel, for compliance with new requirements, and so that it could align with the schedules of other TOCs and FOCs.

In usual circumstances, train planning teams would have roughly a year to plan a major timetable change, and three to six months for shorter term changes. However, the pandemic meant that Andy and his team had to act quickly, and frequently respond within days and weeks. Travel restriction changes and new rules and requirements were introduced, in some cases, overnight. In total, Andy and the team undertook over 10 weekday timetable changes in the past 12 months.

Andy has not only been crucial to the logistics of introducing new timetables, but also responsible for the production of the diagrams of work for drivers and guards. These detail the work required to be undertaken in a driver or guard’s working day, and new diagrams have to be produced every time the timetable changes. The production of these new diagrams has had to take into account additional considerations related to the pandemic, such as maintaining social distancing in mess rooms.

A lesson learned by Andy and his team during these challenging times is the importance of being agile and flexible. Andy says that the team has been challenged in new ways throughout the lockdowns, but they have always succeeded and learned a lot about their expertise and wider team skills through these new experiences. He is really proud of the way his team has managed to sustain high levels of morale, despite the constant changes and challenges thrown their way. They have learned a lot about themselves and capabilities throughout the past year, and have all taken on new technologies and flexible working in their stride.

One particular lesson that Andy plans to take forward with him when normal services return is to always expect the unexpected! As a planner, he relies heavily on data and trends, but the pandemic has highlighted that no two days are the same, and really challenged this way of working. Subsequently, going forward, Andy expects the factors which influence timetabling and diagramming to be different, responding quickly to new travellers’ habits, such as staycations and changes to commuting behaviours.

Sheree Whetren – Customer and Community Ambassador

Sheree has worked at SWR for over two years and has spent the last year and a half as Hedge End Station’s Customer and Community Ambassador. As a key worker, Sheree has worked throughout the pandemic and, thanks to her generous spirit and efforts, she has put Hedge End Station right at the heart of the community during this difficult time.

Sheree Whetren SWR

Sheree Whetren – Customer and Community Ambassador

Like many transport hubs, Hedge End Station became noticeably quiet when the pandemic hit, however Sheree saw it as an opportunity for the station to boost its involvement in the community, help local residents through the challenging time and lift local morale.

Her first community project was a colouring competition for local children. Many families were struggling to keep children entertained throughout lockdown, and Sheree noticed some even playing in the SWR car parks as they became increasingly bored with nothing to do. Therefore, Sheree launched a colouring competition, encouraging local children to draw ‘faces of hope’ and ‘thank you’ messages and slide them under the station door. Sheree displayed the artwork in the station windows, lifting the mood of residents passing by and showcasing the colourful work of local children.

Sheree also used the lockdowns as an opportunity to help to improve the station not just for residents and customers, but also local wildlife. Now, for residents walking past, and when travel restrictions ease and the station welcomes customers back, travellers will see new planters, as well as a new bug house. 

In the run up to Christmas, there were increasing concerns about loneliness among elderly people in the community, as restrictions prevented them from seeing friends and family. So, Sheree launched a Christmas present appeal among SWR staff, asking that if anyone was purchasing gifts to try to buy one extra to donate to a local resident who was likely to be alone during the festive period. The appeal was extremely successful, and Sheree collected and wrapped 620 presents for elderly residents in the local community. The project brought so much joy, to recipients and SWR staff alike, that this is an appeal the station plans to run again this year.

Sheree is also currently working with the local community and small businesses in Hedge End on a charity raffle for Action for Children. She has managed to secure some great prizes from local shops and businesses and has currently sold more than 500 tickets.

Looking forward, Sheree wants to continue with her community work and plans to run a competition with a local school. This will see the children designing artwork for the platforms, which will focus on safety and bringing the community into the station.

Efforts have not gone unnoticed in the community, and Sheree has received some lovely letters from local residents thanking her for all of the station’s efforts during this challenging year. Thanks to Sheree, she has lifted moods and has helped many to feel less lonely at a time when they cannot see friends and family.

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