India, Bangladesh and other South Asian nations have been battling a resurgence of COVID-19 for the past several months, with strict lockdown measures enforced in many cities.

Our specialist teams have been navigating the multiple challenges of continuing to deliver critical transport and other infrastructure projects whilst protecting health, safety and wellbeing. This has meant significant changes to ‘business as usual’ processes, ongoing flexibility and adaptability to an ever-evolving environment, and most of all resilience to ensure we remain a reliable delivery partner to our clients and support them in the challenges they face.

We asked some of our specialists in Bangladesh and India to share their experience delivering key rail and metro projects during this unprecedented time.

Project: Dhaka Metro Line-5 (South), Bangladesh
Speaking to: Mr AKM Saleh Ahmed, Deputy Team Leader

SMEC is currently engaged to provide the feasibility study, engineering design and procurement support on the Dhaka Metro Line-5 (South) project in Bangladesh, which will deliver 18km of metro rail. Deputy Team Leader, Mr AKM Saleh Ahmed, shares his experience of achieving project milestones during ongoing COVID-19 waves.

Q: How has SMEC been continuing delivery of this project during COVID-19?
“Delivering project works during COVID-19 has been very challenging, but we are making sure we put in place procedures that enable us to deliver the project to meet targets. Normally, the working environment for a project like this would be done entirely in person. We have made huge shifts to maintain communications whilst limiting in-person interaction. Frequent virtual meetings, strict safety protocols and responsive rescheduling of job responsibilities have helped to support the team, and we will be able to achieve all the project milestones.”

Q: What have been your major concerns or challenges, and how did you overcome them?
“A considerable number of our key global experts are engaged on the project, and in usual times these experts would be required to be on site in Bangladesh. However due to travel restrictions, this is simply not possible, so we have looked at alternative arrangements to maintain coordination and collaboration with global specialists, through flexible virtual meetings and ongoing communications across many different times zones. This has not only enabled knowledge sharing, which is particularly crucial at the initial project stages, but also helped to build a great team environment.”

Q: With many other businesses and industries temporarily shutting down, why do you feel it is important to maintain delivery of infrastructure projects despite ongoing disruptions?
“Our vital infrastructure projects change how people live and travel now and into the future. While many aspects of our economy have had to shut down, albeit temporarily, we have been able to keep going, keeping our people employed, progressing our projects and supporting our clients. This can’t happen without the trust and safety of everyone involved in the project, so that is our first priority. Once the immediate public health emergency has subsided, infrastructure development will also play an important role in economic recovery.”

“The rail and metro sectors have been a major focus for the economies of India and Bangladesh, and we are proud to be supporting our clients on several projects of national significance. In the midst of challenges posed by this pandemic, our teams’ focus has been to keep projects on track while ensuring the safety and wellbeing of our people.”

– Dr Janardhan Sundaram, Executive Director, Bangladesh

Project: Dohazari to Cox’s Bazar Railway Project, Bangladesh
Speaking to: Dr. Md. Anowarul Razzib, Health & Safety Expert and Milan Chandra Goswami, Bridge Engineer

The missing link of the Trans-Asian Railway (TAR) network, the Dohazari to Cox’s Bazar Railway Project will connect Bangladesh to the Myanmar border. SMEC is providing supervision consulting services for the construction of a single line dual gauge railway track.

Dr. Md. Anowarul Razzib, Health and Safety Expert, and Milan Chandra Goswami, Bridge Engineer, share their experiences with managing safety and team morale during these difficult times.

Q: What’s it been like to continue delivery of this project during COVID-19?
“We established safety and prevention programs that outline a number of important steps for keeping workers safe while continuing delivery of the project– from telework to flexible schedules to personal protective equipment (PPE) and face coverings.” says Milan. “We also ensured that correct communication methods were employed to meet the needs of everyone involved on this project. Some of our workers are illiterate, and others come from impoverished and vulnerable communities, so it’s essential that we employ a number of different tactics to communicate safety messages.”

“Building awareness of the COVID-19 pandemic, and its associated risks and required actions, was a major challenge to overcome,” notes Dr. Razzib. “We hold regular health and safety talks and have developed awareness building programs which have helped to educate and support our teams”.

Q: How do you keep up team morale during these difficult times?
“Keeping up morale is essential to keeping a team on track to achieving project goals,” says Milan. “The COVID-19 pandemic has created a lot of anxiety for everyone. We explored unique ways of promoting a great project team culture and introduced some fun and creative ways, such as friendly staff competitions and virtual well-being sessions. These have all helped boost spirits and make our employees feel valued.”

Q: Why do you feel it is important to keep delivering this project despite ongoing COVID-19 disruptions?
“This project is a top priority for the Government of Bangladesh,” says Dr. Razzib. “Providing an essential railway connection for Bangladesh to the Trans-Asian Railway route has significant socio-economic value for the nation and beyond”.

Project: Padma Bridge Rail Link Project, Bangladesh
Speaking to: Michael Paice, Team Leader

SMEC together with its subsidiary ACE Consultants and partners are providing construction supervision services on the Padma Bridge Rail Link project that will connect Dhaka with the south-west part of the country.

Q: In addition to site safety protocols, in what other ways have you and your team adapted your project delivery?
“Like many other organisations, working is now much more reliant on technology for communicating.  We have reduced face to face contact and movement on our sites. On the personnel side, we recognize that all these changes mean a new and often uncertain working environment, which can be challenging for the large number of people assigned to this project. We try to show empathy for people’s situations and reward their dedication and hard work through various awards and recognitions. We provide additional leave for employees who are directly or indirectly affected by the pandemic, and home support when they are unable to attend site offices.

“Continuing these projects helps to drive the country’s economy, provide jobs and ensure the livelihoods of people in the industry.”

– Michael Paice, Team Leader

Projects: Chennai Metro P4 & 6, Bangalore Metro 2A & 2B, Mumbai Metro Line 6, RVNL Hubli Electrification Project, and Haryana Orbital Rail Corridor, India
Speaking to: Ashish Kumar, Head of Rail & Metro

Q: SMEC is currently engaged on a number of key rail and metro projects in India. What have been some of the key challenges in project delivery and how have you overcome them?
“Major infrastructure projects were already struggling due to the effects of last year’s lockdowns,” explains Ashish. “This new wave and the resulting lockdown added tremendous stress to our clients, contractors and consultants who are all striving to effectively work remotely to ensure that deadlines don’t slip, and costs are managed.”

SMEC has a robust portfolio of both design and construction supervision projects in India’s rail and metro sector, and Ashish says the teams adapted their approach to each category of project.

“For all the metro projects where we are delivering design services, teams have been working from home. We have regular online meetings to monitor progress and stay in touch with our clients to ensure their priorities are maintained. Our clients are well aware of the challenges of working remotely and have been very understanding. For example, we have made all our submissions online with the agreement that the hard copies would be submitted once the lockdowns were lifted.”

“For projects where we are providing construction supervision, including the RVNL Hubli electrification project and Haryana Orbital, design review teams were shifted to work from home with senior specialists regularly monitoring the progress. Construction supervision staff who have to be on site were provided with all necessary PPE and stringent site safety protocols. Inevitably and despite all precautions, we have had some staff contract covid-19, who are paid their full salaries while they are isolating and recovering.”

Q: In addition to PPE and site safety protocols, how do you look after the health and wellbeing of your staff?
“During this wave, almost all our colleagues or their extended family members have been affected by the pandemic. We have engaged an external, professional counselling service that staff can access for additional support with mental health.”

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