Bombardier UK President: Redesigning an entire operation with social distancing as a priority

Over the past weeks the resilience of the rail industry has been put to the test as we all adapt to the COVID-19 crisis.

Whereas in the past tasks will have been designed with efficiency and productivity as the primary focus, now it is social distancing.

Bombardier Transportation, the UK’s leading rail engineering and manufacturer, is among those that has transformed its working practices to keep staff safe and to stop the spread of the virus.

Work was paused as its Derby, Crewe and Ilford sites as operations were redesigned in a matter of weeks with heightened health and safety protocols implemented for its four thousand UK staff.

Matt Byrne, UK President of Bombardier Transportation, has spoken to railbusinessdaily.com about how the company is adapting to the new normal and the impact it has had on its work.

He said: “Tasks were never designed with social distancing in mind. It was more about efficiency and productivity. But that has changed now with social distancing the primary focus.

“None of us predicted the tragedy of COVID-19 and it has created some serious challenges in society, in the economy and for businesses, and not least for everyone here at Bombardier.

“But the business is doing reasonably well considering the circumstances and we’re making good progress on a number of ongoing projects.

“One of the positives is the fact it has helped to build the culture within the company and it really has helped bring the teams closer together. It’s allowed us to put more focus on what is important and sometimes that is forgotten about.”

The challenges brought by COVID-19

In the space of a matter of weeks, the working practices for all the staff at Bombardier was transformed.

Those who can are working from home, while for those working on its UK new build site at Derby, its heavy maintenance site at Ilford and component refurbishment and overhaul site at Crewe, greater spacing, split shifts and additional safety requirements and washing facilities are the new norm. Similar working practices have also been introduced at Bombardier’s train servicing sites which have continued to operate throughout the crisis, keeping Britain’s train moving for essential frontline workers.

Matt said: “From the engineering side of the business – homologation, approvals, design and software aspects, COVID-19 has clearly introduced a number of new challenges.

“Just take remote working as one example with the need to be able to access test labs, test trains, the ability to develop software fully remotely. All our engineers, with the exception of a small few, are working remotely.

“Generally, it has brought challenges in terms of efficiencies, coordination and co-operation and it has also tested the culture. We have dropped off levels of productivity and efficiency, not just in the manufacturing side, but also in the engineering side.

“It does take longer to do things working remotely, but people are working the extra hours and giving that extra 10-15% to make it work.

“We’ll see a slight drop off in terms of production milestones. This side has seen the biggest impact because the way the supply chain is at the moment.

“We do have a number of suppliers that are still closed – 60% of our key suppliers have been closed down at some point.

“With the new measures in place some tasks are taking 20% longer. Some tasks we still can’t do because the tooling isn’t necessarily available, but that number is dwindling day by day as we work with our people and the unions on this.

“The unions have been extremely supportive and we are standing shoulder by shoulder and the conclusion is something which is positive and sustainable in the medium and long term.

“A lot of hard work has gone on and everyone has done a sterling job in redesigning an operation to keep staff safe. This is from them arriving at the gates to when they leave, looking at all the steps, pinch point areas and how we build the train and the 4,000 different tasks involved with that.”

What lies ahead in the immediate future

Although some aspects of the lockdown are starting to be relaxed, Matt says there are no plans to change the new working practices at Bombardier Transportation in the near future.

He said: “We don’t expect social distancing to be removed for quite a long time as things stand. So all our plans are being based upon making the investment to accommodate for social distancing.

“We’re talking many months into the future. No-one is sure what the trigger point will be for social distancing to be removed so we’re trying to accommodate for the worst case and invest in the worst case when it comes to the time scale for social distancing.

“There are also changes when it comes to our office-based staff. We have learnt we are able to operate a radically different way and that flexibility is going to be positive in the future.

“We have learnt a lot of lessons over the past few weeks in terms of what is possible and how it can be made to work and the benefits of it working.

“We’ll make sure that the positives that come out of this, from a working point of view, will be embedded in our practices going forward.

“There are also lessons to be learned in terms of the environment and the environment we have created, but also in terms of the culture, how the leadership and team works, and in making the right decisions to balance the safety of our people and business continuity.”

Impact on contracts and life further down the line

Matt has been at Bombardier for 20 years and became UK President for the company in October.

Despite the challenges he concluded the conversation about his optimism for the future and an update on some of the big ongoing contracts currently underway.

He said: “I think there are reasons to be positive. We still see a significant market going forward and we do see ourselves playing a huge part in it.

“We’ve currently got over 250 vehicles built and they will be brought up to customer specifications and configurations in the weeks and months ahead.

“We’re submitting software approval files for Greater Anglia to the ORR. We’ve just got the testing of the software just prior to the passenger version, and the passenger version is finishing off its testing and will be released in the next 2-3 weeks. We should be selling the first Greater Anglia unit before the end of the month.

“The first unit for South West Railway should be on the network before the end of the month so that is another positive.

“So from a business perspective the teams have done very well. Although COVID-19 has bought its challenges, a lot of the emphasis over the recent weeks has been on the completion of the homologation of the fleets, as well as the necessary software upgrades ad approvals.

“Looking generally at the rail industry, we will all have to evolve and adapt to maintain our unique position as a key transport mode.

“We will have to look at train design, what does it mean for integration and how it supports the industry, through to servicing, and R&D to make it a safer environment.

“Clearly this will span beyond the current crisis. There are a number of activities which we’re working on with operators in the short term. In the long term we will continue to evolve train designs and there are a number of theories we are working on and a number of technologies we are trying.

“At this moment in time the order books are still full and we’ve still got long term contracts taking us well into 2021. The horizon is still extremely positive.”

Matt Byrne, UK President of Bombardier Transportation