Acting General Manager through the pandemic

Back in January 2020 I agreed to step up to Acting General Manager to cover the GM’s maternity leave. Little did any of us really know what was in store. Sure, the word Covid was starting to appear in the news, but at that point it did not seem any more dangerous than when SARS had been around.

By the end of February, I was firmly in position and the word Pandemic, was starting to be bandied about as infection levels in Europe were fast growing out of control, and then by mid-March it hit us all. Emergency meetings, analysis of budgets, realisations of lockdowns and the final decisions were made to shut the doors on the railway and furlough most of the work force.

As spring turned into summer, and more and more of the exciting events we had planned had to be either cancelled or postponed the enormity of taking on the role became apparent. However, I did not let it deter me and I grabbed the challenges ahead of how we would re-open with all the restrictions that would need to be in place and got working on them.

Sadly, as we edged nearer to the lifting of lockdown one, the lack of funding, unsuccessful grant applications and the knowledge that the hard months ahead would be with limited footfall, the horrible period of redundancies also took place. In all my working life, I have for most of it, been a manager of a team, and though had been part of dismissals I had never been part of redundancies. The process was without doubt gruelling and at times heart-breaking and it was very sad to have such losses in what was a small team was already.

However, onwards and upwards was the journey I travelled. With the support of staff and dedicated and generous volunteers we moved forward and opened our doors to visitors – yes it was different, but we adapted, we trialled things and adapted again and in a short space of time we were successfully running trains with a slick timetable that allowed for full carriage cleansing in between services among other things.

As the autumn approached we clung on tight, we prepped for Santa and sold tickets fast and furiously, in the few short years I have been with NVR I had not seen so many tickets sold quite so quickly as I did on the day we put the tickets live on our web site. The buzz was great, everything felt good, still the restrictions, but by then we had a good system in place and one we all felt good about. Then lockdown 2 hit, but this time it was different, it had an end date. It meant we lost the first few dates of Santa, but again we adapted, quickly moved bookings, laid on an extra day to accommodate and we once again retreated to furloughing staff for the month of the lockdown.

December dawned, and we hit the tracks running, the entertainer arrived, the presents were stacked high and we turned on the Christmas music. The first customers arrived, booked in and made their way to our new look grotto, where they met with Santa who was sat socially distanced on a stage surrounded by Christmas trees, his trusty reindeer and helpers. All went according to plan and we had 15 very successful train trips over the next two weeks that followed.

Behind the scenes though, my eye was firmly fixed on the news headlines. It was clear that the infection levels were gathering at such a pace that the remaining running days were hanging on literally by a thread. I had regular staff meetings with the office crew on the ‘what if’s’ hoping against hope that none of it would be necessary. But, by the evening of the 18th December after calls with the local authorities it was clear that the next days would be hard and we were required to make further adjustments to which tier levels we could allow to come to the railway. We had to reach out to customers due with us that weekend who were not in the same tier, ask them to halt their journey and contact us. We just about got through the 19th, when the daily briefing by Boris told us all we were heading towards a longer lockdown. The locos were put to bed, announcements out to the customers for the 20th and we shut the doors once again.

The 20th December was a very sad day for me personally. I came to work and three of us manned the office, taking calls and replying to emails, working through 15 train loads of customers who we were bringing deep disappointment to. All those children who had been looking forward to seeing Santa and having their special train ride, the pain was almost too much to bare.

A small band of volunteers were also on site, who stowed a lot of our treasured and expensive Christmas items away. They found time to host some families who had not got the message, making sure they had a warming drink and the children left with a present – not quite the same as seeing Santa but at least they did not leave empty handed.

Christmas ended for me that day – the pain of having to give in so dramatically to this awful pandemic in such a rapid fashion is one that will live with me for a long time, and but for writing about it here, will become a forgotten episode in the years ahead in the history of NVR.

We now find ourselves in March 2021, still waiting to climb out of that same lockdown, but a sense of excitement is beginning to build as vaccinations role out and a pathway out of the pandemic is now laid out.

So as I come to the end of my time in the role I find myself reflecting back on what has happened and hopefully as I hand the baton back I do so with an element of pride that I led my colleagues through what has been history in the making and I hope leaves NVR on a reasonable footing for the years ahead.

Kim Shaw