In times of crisis, the rail sector is the backbone of the economy and the society at large. The social relevance of reliable mobility has become clearer than ever. Especially by rail, passengers, important raw materials, food and medical products are reliably transported with few staff. Production sites of the railway industry in Germany ran and run tirelessly - under strict health precautions - ensuring safe train traffic, stable maintenance and reliable spare parts production.
But who are the everyday heroes who ensure smooth rail traffic through the pandemic? We put a spotlight on the hidden heroes of the rail industry - Behind the scenes of a systemically relevant industry.
There are more than 700 kilometres between Sascha Borchertmeyer's place of residence and his place of work. The 39-year-old lives with his family in Emsland. But he pursues his profession as a catenary fitter for Rail Power Systems in Bavaria. His colleagues and him are employed on various construction sites in Munich and the surrounding area. Among other things, he is responsible for repairs to and construction of new overhead lines, the construction of new masts and grounding work.
"I really enjoy the job," he says. He likes that his work is so multifaceted and the tasks vary depending on the construction site. He also appreciates the good atmosphere in his team. "We have a strong solidarity in our group," he says. During his work, he lives in a caravan at a campsite near Munich. He shares the second apartment on wheels with his brother, who is part of the same team. In their career choices, the two men took after their father who was a catenary fitter himself.
Sascha Borchertmeyer usually works two weeks at a time and then spends a week at home. He lives with his fiancée, two children and the family dog in Haren (Ems). The couple is expecting another child. It is not always easy to reconcile private life with his working hours, he admits. Some friendships did not survive the fact that he was often away on the weekends. After all, this showed who the really close friends were.
During the Corona crisis, he severely restricted contact with family and friends. He had to forgo a visit to the regular pub - watching football in the stadium will probably not be possible for a long time. On the other hand, his professional life continues as normal as possible - for good reason: "If the trains don’t run, nothing runs," says Sascha Borchertmeyer. In his team, everyone pays attention to social distance and refrain from shaking hands. From their employer, he and his colleagues received proof of the systemic relevance of their work so that they could continue to travel to their construction sites.
For someone who commutes as far as Sascha Borchertmeyer, the Corona-related restrictions had a not entirely undesirable side effect: the highways were free. So he gets home to Emsland faster after the work is done.
ALL TRAINS REMAIN IN OPERATION
What brings Janet Görner joy these days? "I am glad that I can continue my work," she says. There is no doubt that she is needed: the 41-year-old woman is a fleet manager and local operations manager for the railway technology provider Alstom. At the railway station in Chemnitz, she and her colleagues take care of the maintenance and servicing of electrical appliances. The 15-man team is responsible for 29 trains, which run from Dresden towards Bayerischer Hof through Chemnitz, among others. There is no less to do for the staff, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.
When Janet Görner comes to the office in the morning, she first gets an overview of the vehicles at the station. Then she normally goes to the workshop and chats with her colleagues.
Due to the pandemic, the situation is somewhat different: she currently works from home every other week. She and her boss take turns, so that only one person is in the office at once. "Sometimes it's difficult when I can't be there and talk directly to the staff," she said. She does her best to take care of most of her tasks over the phone. At least the fleet manager is used to video conferences: Online meetings with her colleagues in different locations throughout the country were already on her weekly agenda before the COVID crisis.
The atmosphere at work is still good, she says. She still enjoys to chat with her colleagues - keeping the necessary safety distance, of course. Görner doesn't talk too much about her work under these difficult conditions. "I'm still simply doing my job and giving my best," she said.
At the same time, she emphasises how much she appreciates the commitment of her colleagues. For some of them, their working routine has significantly changed through new safety measures: For fewer people to be in workshop at the same time, the shift schedule had to be adjusted. For the evening shift, this means leaving work at 11 p.m. instead of 7 p.m. For some, it is a challenge to reconcile these new working hours with their families, says Görner.
When the fleet manager is not at the office, she shares her home office with her son, who does his homework next to her. At 17 years old, he doesn’t need much supervision anymore. That means that Janet Görner can fully focus on maintaining the availability of trains across Germany.
FACING THE PANDEMIC WITH TEAM SPIRIT
When train operators struggle to detect defects on their vehicles, they call Christian Baar. In that case the customer service technician travels throughout the country, inspects the vehicle, finds the error and fixes it.
The 43-year-old is a specialist for pneumatic braking systems. Troubleshooting is not his only task. He also takes care of the placing in service of vehicles and offers training courses in which he passes on his knowledge to the customers. "It's a lot of fun for me because I'm particularly challenged here," he says. Christian Baar is a trained energy electronics engineer. By moving to Berlin, he changed the industry and started at Knorr-Bremse. That was 19 years ago, and he has remained loyal to the company ever since.
It is part of his profession to travel a lot, to visit rail companies throughout the German-speaking area. Since the COVID pandemic, he has spent more time in his Berlin office - training sessions have been postponed to a later date. However, not everything can be moved back: "In case of a technical malfunction you have to get to the vehicle, you can't fix that from your desk."
Christian Baar lives close to Berlin in Ahrensfelde with his wife, two children and a beagle. The pandemic has a big impact on their family life, because the children have not been able to go to school for weeks. When he and his wife finish work, they sit down with them, supervising their school assignments. "It's almost like a second day of work," he says. The family relaxes best in their garden, where they grow cucumbers, tomatoes and strawberries.
As far as his work is concerned, one thing is particularly important to him: "We are real team players in the customer service division. This applies to the entire company, regardless of location. If you need help with an order, you can always call your colleagues - even if they are on holiday. It's always been that way, but since COVID it has become even more important because we're going on our missions alone now most of the time."
Since the pandemic, the personal interaction within the team has been more subdued. "I have been friends with some colleagues for almost 20 years. It's strange to just wave to them from a distance now," says Christian Baar. Before COVID it was normal to sit together and laugh together. "I hope these times will come back."
Alexander Fleischmann does not have regular working hours. Sometimes he works during the day, sometimes at night, whether it snows or rains. And he travels to construction sites all over the country – he is always where he is needed. Alexander is on the road for a better half of the year. "I'm flexible, it’s a perfect fit," he says.
The 35-year-old foreman at Vossloh Rail Services comes in when rails have to be unloaded on a line. His most important work tool is a special loader wagon, which he and his colleagues also refer to as "maybeetle" or "spider". Alexander Fleischmann is leading a team of five employees: "I am the mum of the company," he says.
He likes to be in charge of his domain. Alexander never wanted to work in a profession in which one regularly looks at the clock and waits for the day to be over. He likes to deliver exactly on what is needed at the construction site.
He also likes the fact that he travels all over Germany for his job. "Sometimes I work where others go on vacation." When there is still time after work, he likes to visit the regions he’s been deployed to. Due to the current restrictions, traveling has been a little different than usual. He and his colleagues were the only guests in many hotels which often meant self-catering instead of breakfast-buffet.
His home is in Nuremberg, where he lives with his partner and daughter on the outskirts of the city. When he is off the clock, he takes care of his 10-year-old, who, like all other pupils at the moment, had no traditional school lessons for many weeks. The family regularly goes cycling with a picnic - a hobby they were fortunately able to pursue throughout the pandemic.
Alexander Fleischmann praises the crisis management of his employer, but also measures taken by hotels and construction companies he works with. "All in all, I think it's been handled pretty well," he says. “A great deal is being done to ensure that everything continues to works smoothly and that me and my colleagues can do our job safely.”
Last but not least, the crisis has shown him how valuable his profession is. "We make sure the trains continue to run," he says. "It's a good feeling to be needed."
Since the spread of Covid-19, many people have been working from home. Unlike Natalie Schweimer: In order to keep safe distance from her colleagues, she moved into an office container on the construction site which she is responsible for. As project manager for Rail Power Systems, the 29-year-old oversees the construction of two new tracks for the S-Bahn between Bad Vilbel and Frankfurt-West. She and her co-workers are responsible for the construction of the overhead lines for new and existing tracks. In addition, they are modernising the stations’ overhead lines.
After a few weeks, she was able to return to her office, but Natalie still likes to regularly swing by the construction: "I'm trying to be outside as much as possible." She co-manages the construction project with two colleagues with whom she is in close contact despite COVID – however, from a far now. As a team, they have grown even closer together since the start of the pandemic, she says.
Natalie Schweimer lives in Bad Vilbel, so she is not far from the construction site. Her place of employment is not always right around the corner: last year she worked on the project Stuttgart 21 and had to take an apartment during the week.
Natalie Schweimer started her career in marketing, but after studying industrial engineering with a specialization in mechanical engineering, she switched to the railway industry. At Rail Power Systems, she trained as a project manager. "As a project manager, you do everything," she says: “from ordering materials to coordinating the work during the curfews to billing.”
She is glad that work on the track, that is so important for the region, has continued even during the massive restrictions. The numerous meetings on the project now often take place digitally - not only an emergency solution in Natalie Schweimer’s opinion. "Online-meetings work well, I could imagine to continue communicating digitally after the pandemic from time to time."
In her free time, it has been hard for her to reduce contact with friends and family. She had to cancel her planned holiday trip to Turkey and she will not be able to make use of her season ticket for Eintracht Frankfurt in a long time. Usually, she enthusiastically cheers her team on at their local stadium. Now, she only watches the games on TV.
Steffen Riedel is on call 24 hours a day to ensure that rail transportation across Europe is right on track. "If a fuse blows at night on the construction site for example, I have a choice: I can take care of it or the construction site is disabled" he says. So, he takes care of it.
The 58-year-old is the local transport operations manager at Vossloh Rail Services. As a rail milling specialist, he and his colleagues ensure that rails and switches are in good condition and that trains move safely. The teams work mainly at night and on weekends, so that train traffic can continue as undisturbed as possible.
Steffen Riedel has been working in the railway industry for more than 40 years, starting in 1978 as a train fitter at the Deutsche Reichsbahn. He lives on the outskirts of Berlin with his wife and 14-year-old son. But he doesn't spend much time at home. He travels up to 90,000 kilometers a year. In the past year alone, he has travelled to construction sites in the Czech Republic and Poland, in Italy and Finland, to name but a few countries.
The current pandemic did not change the fact that he is needed abroad. While travel was severely restricted worldwide, it continued to be on the (rail)road: within Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland. At the borders, he kept his employer's letter at hand, certifying the systemic relevance of his job.
"For me, this work is the most normal thing in the world," he says, even though he knows that he is largely responsible for ensuring freight transport can run smoothly by rail and that people can go to work by public transport and stay mobile.
He enjoys the fact that in his profession no day looks like the day before. He is constantly learning and can get creative by developing new solutions - just as he did the other day when he was dealing with a very special rail malfunction in Switzerland. He appreciates the contact with other people, but has no problem keeping the distance that is so important at the moment.
When he is not on the road, Steffen Riedel likes to work from home. He is pleased that his employer has supported home office even before the pandemic. "A few years back, home office was often ridiculed. But now we see that it can really work."
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