Shortly after the Slovenian Railways Group successfully closed the 2019 business year the coronavirus induced pandemic of Covid-19 disease (SARS-CoV-2) began. Despite the extraordinary situation that suddenly occurred worldwide, Slovenian Railways ensured unhindered operation of freight transport, rail construction activities and the operation of the railway network in Slovenia.
Safeguarding the health of our employees was the most important issue the companies comprising the Slovenian Railways Group were tasked with solving. All the necessary protective gear was supplied immediately and a changed work organization was implemented. With good cooperation within the Slovenian Railways Group and with the Republic of Slovenia authorities we were successful in overcoming the first wave of the pandemic.
We interviewed Mr. Tine Svoljšak, the director of SŽ-ŽGP (Rail Engineering and Construction Company) on how the company handled the first part of the coronavirus crisis.
Mr Svoljšak, how did SŽ-ŽGP handle the crisis caused by the pandemic?
The main priority during the peak of the crisis in March and April was to keep the business going. The moment the coronavirus outbreak was declared a pandemic, we adopted a number of measures. A management group was formed comprising department heads, management and trade union representatives together with their respective assistants to meet three times per week – Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays morning – on the parking lot just outside the company building. To ensure continuity of operations, we agreed a contingency plan on managing the company in case any officers or employees in a management position would test positive for COVID-19. Preparations were also made to facilitate working from home; enough laptops were purchased so everyone could work from home up until the start of next year, for example. Because the measures were passed in good time, the company did not face any major issues during the first peak of the pandemic.
What posed the most risk for SŽ-ŽGP?
The highest risk for our business is the workers’ hostel in Zalog, which houses ninety of our staff who work in Civil engineering operations and Machinery, which are two of our key departments. If anyone from those departments would test positive, the entire staff housed there would have to be sent on furlough. This would effectively force us to stop operations and render us unable to perform contracts, in turn incurring liquidates damages and other costs. Operative risk, such as project management at construction sites, was our priority number one during the pandemic. To avoid having to close any construction sites, all measures would first establish safe conditions of work for both site workers and administration staff.
Did the pandemic have any effects on your ongoing infrastructure projects?
Work at construction sites progressed without issues. Large-scale infrastructure projects at the stations of Pragersko and Maribor and on the section between Zidani Most and Rimske Toplice continued normally. The Zidani Most-Rimske Toplice project was one of the largest construction sites in the country, and was regarded as an example of good practice in civil engineering at the national level for its good and efficient work methods. Internationally, work was underway without changes on a major infrastructure project in Reka, Croatia, worth €24 million. Despite the difficult situation, a record amount of maintenance work was completed on public rail infrastructure for the Infrastructure Manager (IM). It is important to note here that the risk was incredibly high and largely understated, because none of the projects mentioned above could have been completed if as many as one employee in the workers’ hostel had tested positive.
Furthermore, we actively participated in international calls for tenders throughout the pandemic. Armed with letters of accreditation – some even issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – we would travel abroad when negotiating major business deals because personal contact is still extremely important in such matters. All in all, we refused to yield to the pressure created by the coronavirus.
Sounds like a remarkable achievement given the situation. I suppose having railpassenger services cancelled also made things easier?
With fewer freight trains running and passenger services completely suspended, it was indeed easier to do our work, which led to record-high volumes of maintenance conducted in April and May. After all, infrastructure maintenance is best done when there is no traffic.
What preparations did you make in case an employee would test positive for COVID-19?
In early March we set up a pair of isolation rooms at Zalog and three residential containers equipped with four beds for quarantine purposes, which are able to accommodate up to twelve persons. We also re-purposed a part of the Verd quay building to serve as an isolation unit, comprising four rooms with two beddings each. This allows us to provide separate accommodation to any employees who would need to self-isolate following their return from a trip abroad.
A number of our employees were finally able to return home to Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) after a long wait for the country to be whitelisted. But then a new wave of infections hit and the country was again put under lockdown, rendering them unable to return to Slovenia. With bus and train services from BiH affected by COVID-19 restrictions, we had to find a solution for each employee separately so they could return to work. The challenge was finding a way for them to travel to Croatia and then cross the border with Slovenia, followed by quarantine in Slovenia.
What other issues affected the work?
The challenges were quite a few; the first had to do with border crossing, as some of our employees had been away from home for as long as three months. Organizing the return trip and taking care of the logistics was anything but simple. Due to the quarantine regulations in effect, the employees had to be accommodated in separate facilities to protect our main workforce from the high risk of infection.
Other challenges concerned the supply of rail construction materials and the staffing at train stations. If the supply of essential materials such as rails, switches and sleepers would be cut, all ongoing projects would have to be put on hold. With the March and April reductions in both IM and RU staff at train stations, it was necessary for everyone to work together closely to coordinate things so that construction materials could be delivered in good time, and to keep the stations open and the locomotives available for service.
With the first wave behind us, what lessons could you say you learned?
While we successfully made it through the first wave, I believe we forgot to take note of the key lessons it was supposed to teach us, so it could well happen that, facing a new wave of infections hits, we will be seeing the same old things talked about at Group level. At ŽGP these largely boil down to the workers’ hostel remaining a high-risk location, but also concern vehicle disinfection and protective equipment supplies, in particular whether the supplies will be able to last for three months, how much they will cost etc. The situation again demonstrated how important it is for all stakeholders – from the infrastructure manager SŽ-Infrastruktura to the railfreight operator SŽ-Tovorni promet and SŽ-ŽGP – to work as a team. After all, for a project to be successful, all sides need to work together closely and efficiently.
When do you expect to see the impacts of the crisis on business?
At SŽ-ŽGP the pandemic led to an increase in labor costs, in particular. The lockdown measures introduced additional costs as the company is trying to adjust to the new situation. This will inevitably have a negative impact on the company’s business performance. Due to the volume of work, however, we were not in a position to send the majority of staff on furlough as recommended by nation-wide measures to tackle the spread of coronavirus, but instead kept the business going throughout the pandemic, much like the two other members of the Group, i.e. the freight operator SŽ-Tovorni promet and the infrastructure manager, SŽ-Infrastruktura. Thank you for your time!
Thank you for your time!
(Published originally in the beginning of August in the print version of Nova proga magazine available in pdf on link)