Ask anybody who uses public transport about their experiences with bus drivers, and you probably won’t get a wholly positive answer.
Ask an Ealing Community Transport passenger, however, and you will always get an appreciative and approving response: “friendly”, “helpful” and “kind” are some of the words most often used in ECT passenger surveys.
As two of the charity’s most experienced drivers, Fayyaz Dar and Darren Tyrrell, explain – for them, being an ECT driver is not just about taking a vehicle from one location to another; the wellbeing of their passengers is their major focus – and what makes their jobs worthwhile.
“With all my clients I have built a relationship with them – if they don’t see me they get upset and they make comments like, ‘Where were you yesterday, I missed you!’, says Fayyaz.
“I know they are passengers – but they become your friends, and they do miss us,” says Darren. “There are often times when you are driving along and they’ll have a sing, you know – it’s nice to see them happy. At the end of the day it’s all about making people happy and keeping them safe.”
As we all know from the past year, the notion of ‘keeping safe’ during the Covid-19 pandemic has become a prevailing interest for the whole population.
But for Fayyaz and Darren, the pandemic has also brought extra challenges around maintaining their own safety as well as that of their vulnerable passengers.
Both have been on duty to support their regular passengers during some periods of the pandemic. But both also have health conditions that have forced them to ‘shield’ during times when the virus has been most threatening.
Fayyaz first heard about ECT through a family friend, and thought working for the charity sounded like an interesting change after many years in big business. “Until I joined ECT I had always worked for major corporations at a multi-national level,” he says. “But six years ago I made a decision to change career and put something into the community – and wash away my sins!” he smiles.
“I work with adult services and I drive the same passengers each day so there is a sort of bond with them, in the sense that I feel responsible for them,” Fayyaz explains. “When I was shielding it felt like someone taking your child away – and then you don’t have anyone to look after.”
Fayyaz says that the past year, both physically and psychologically, has been “a mixed bag”. He describes his feelings as “absolutely out of this world… Initially it was a feeling of fear because we went into lockdown and furlough but prior to that we were working and taking all sorts of precautions, not only for ourselves but most importantly for our clients.
“That is always first and foremost in my opinion and especially with the clients that we deal with – I transport vulnerable adults to centres and they have all sorts of special needs,” he explains. “I get to know my passengers on an individual basis, so I had a lot of fear for them – Am I doing the right thing? Am I taking every precaution that I need to? – because this is a responsibility; it’s not a job, it’s a responsibility.”
Indeed, Fayyaz's sense of duty to his passengers is so committed that when he suffered a heart attack back in 2019, his first reaction was to call the office from the ambulance and let CEO Anna Whitty know he couldn’t come into work: “While the paramedics were looking after me I said to them, ‘I’ve got to make a call, you carry on doing what you need to do’ – so they administered some drugs and I called the office. I said, ‘Anna, just to let you know that I won’t be able to work because I’ve had a heart attack and I’m being treated at this moment!’ - It was funny really!”
During recent months, Fayyaz has been saddened by a series of bereavements among his family and friends, many of them Covid-related. But he himself has remained healthy, shielding at home for some of the time but back at work whenever it’s been safe for him to return. “Going onto furlough when I had to shield was a relief to a degree,” he admits. “But at the same time I was thinking ‘How are my clients getting on? What’s happening to them? What are they doing?’”
He describes returning to work during these uncertain times as “like having a bonfire – you’ve got to be careful and control it. You are always on edge to make sure there are no embers flying out and whatever embers there are you extinguish them immediately.”
But he says that his passengers have been “happy to see me – and it’s a two way thing!”. He adds that ECT has “supported me very well through this scenario”, with regular updates and clear information on keeping everything sanitised and ‘Covid-safe’.
For Darren Tyrrell, who has been a Dial-a-Ride driver for ECT for more than 14 years, following a 20-year career in engineering, it’s Type 2 diabetes that has forced him to spend much of the last year shielding at home.
“When it all started everybody expected it would last just a few weeks and I thought, oh that isn’t so bad. Then it turned into five months... You try to stick to some kind of routine, but if you’re not careful you can find yourself watching the news from dawn to dusk!” he says.
“You tended to do more exercise because it became illegal to go out unless you were exercising or going to get food – so it was time to get the bike out and cycle four or five miles, or thinking, what do I want at the supermarket today?”
The boredom was probably the hardest thing about staying off work “but there was fear, too, I must admit,” adds Darren, which also affected his return to work. “I’m quite an outgoing, confident person and when I came back to work the first time and had a driving assessment with Jay our trainer, I did say to him, I actually feel nervous about this. But once I was back in the saddle and we’d been out for 20 minutes it was like I’d never left.”
After another period of shielding during the most recent lockdown, Darren says he is again “bored out of my mind and I am sure it is the same for our passengers”.
He adds: “They were nervous and frightened last year and I was happy to see them and reassure them – but now they will be excited to get back out, to try and get some normality back.”
Darren himself also “can’t wait to get back out again” – still wary but more confident thanks to the vaccine.
He describes himself as “very happy with my work at ECT”, adding that “even though you are doing the same thing, every day is different and you get good feelings making someone else happy. Every job has its days but you get to meet so many different people, hearing about their lives and things they like – so I still enjoy going to work every day.”
Fayyaz is also reassured by the success of the vaccination programme. “If everyone is vaccinated then it makes everyone safer so I am glad that our clients have had the vaccine,” he says.
Asked more broadly about his feelings towards ECT, he reflects: “I view working with someone as being in a relationship. It’s a two way thing. As soon as I put my uniform on in the morning that’s it, I am representing the organisation.
“I am very old school – so the loyalty aspect is very, very important,” he reflects. “When I get appreciation for my loyalty I will go all the way, if I don’t I will walk away. I’ve been here six years now and I haven’t walked away yet – so I think that answers your question!”