The current Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has put many strains on society. Large numbers of people are working from home or otherwise quarantining themselves, either as a precaution or because they actually have the virus.
However, life must go on. Health workers have had to work through the outbreak and have been doing a sterling job. Clinics have sprung up in unlikely places – including in a shop at Birmingham New Street station – to keep the healthy away from the sick in hospital. In Spain, the people applaud health workers every night to show their appreciation, a move that is now transferring to the UK.
But other groups have had to keep working too. The emergency services are doing excellent work at a difficult time, with police adding protecting the public from itself – by discouraging gatherings, such as 20 people attending an impromptu barbeque in Coventry – to try and prevent the spread of the disease. There are even reports of police and security workers being coughed on and spat at in deliberate acts.
Police have also been mobilised at stations to try to reduce the number of people travelling. Many trains are practically empty as people stay at home, but London Underground is still crowded in the mornings as people claim their jobs are ‘crucial’ – some are, many aren’t.
Through it all, the trains have kept running. Passenger services have been cut, partly due to the fall in demand (down 70 per cent in some areas) and partly because crews are off sick, but a level of service remains to ensure that those who really do need to travel and get to work can do so. Freight trains have also kept running, delivering food and other supplies around the country.
To keep the service running, staff have been redeployed and priorities changed. Maintenance is the priority on the infrastructure, keeping lines open, while government-backed appeals have gone out for recently retired signallers and drivers to return and assist.
It’s been a massive and largely successful effort, and national and industry leaders are grateful. The Prime Minister has thanked transport workers, police officers, teachers and school staff for “keeping this country going”.
The government announced measures to transfer the financial risk away for the passenger train operators and make sure the trains would keep running. “We’ve announced how we’re helping industry and passengers and supporting train operators through temporary contracts to provide stability,” said Minister of State for rail Chris Heaton-Harris. “This will keep the rail network open for key workers, as well as making sure passengers can get refunds for journeys they can’t take.
“These measures allow key workers in the rail industry to continue to help other key workers get to where they need to be to help us all.
“Thank you to everyone on our railways for working so hard to keep our country going.”
The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, added his thanks: “I would like to convey my immense personal gratitude to every single member of railway staff, including those who are moving essential freight.
“You are doing our country a great service at this time of national emergency, by ensuring our NHS staff and other key workers are able to get to work and save lives. Thank you.”
The rail industry itself also praised its workers. Network Rail chief executive Andrew Haines had this message for both staff and contractors: “Wherever and however we work, now more than ever is a time where we must be driven by our values. This means working as a team. Making sure we are keeping each other safe and supported, and being empowered to take the most appropriate steps, locally, to deliver the very best we can to those who depend on us, at work and at home.
“Thank you for your continued commitment, teamwork and flexibility at this difficult time. It is you who will, through your commitment and common sense, keep the country moving. I’m so proud of my rail industry colleagues and we can make our nation proud of our railway by how we handle whatever comes our way.”
Paul Plummer, chief executive of the Rail Delivery Group (RDG), which represents all of the train operators as well as Network Rail, commented: “The rail industry is working together so that people and goods can keep making essential journeys during this unprecedented national challenge, getting key workers to hospitals, food to shops and fuel to power stations.
“We would like to thank our people, who continue to do an incredible job in difficult circumstances.”
Robert Nisbet, the RDG’s director of nations and regions, added: “We would like to thank all our colleagues in the rail industry for their hard work during this time of extraordinary national challenge. Like other key workers, they are to be commended for putting the needs of the country first, and their safety remains front of mind. Together, they are keeping the country connected for essential travel.”
The efforts of rail freight employees are appreciated too. John Smith, managing director of GB Railfreight, the third-largest rail fright operation in the country, spoke for his sector: “Our teams are committed to continuing to help the UK get through this period by ensuring that vital supplies are delivered.
“Rail freight has the advantage in being able to efficiently move very large volumes of goods in a safe and reliable way. With each train able to move between 40 to 70 equivalent lorry loads of goods, rail freight has an important role to play to ensure that supplies can be maintained if the number of available staff across the road freight sector is hit due to illness or the need to isolate.
“I would like to pay tribute to those working across the rail freight sector for the role that they are playing, and will continue to play, as the UK responds to the pandemic. We all have to work together to ensure we keep the goods we most need moving across the entire country.”
Coronavirus will be around for some time yet, affecting the lives of everyone in the nation, but it is good to see the rail industry working hard to keep things going, and being appreciated for doing so.