Events 20 September 2016
Oleg Belozyorov: We'll do everything on our own and not ask for alms
The president of Russian Railways in an interview has told TASS about prospects for using the Hyperloop technology in Russia, the changes in the company he runs, his favourite Zodiak sign and much more
On steam engines and planes, charter trains, bottlenecks and changes for the better
- Travelling by air or by train – is it a dilemma for you?
- In principle, it isn’t. What really matters is getting to the destination you need as soon as possible. What means of transportation you choose is of secondary importance. The ultimate goal always comes first. It is to be achieved in the most effective and optimal way. If I must fly, I fly, if I must walk, I walk. No problem!
I believe it’s better to spend time on doing my job than on travelling.
- And still, you saw a steam engine before you saw a plane, didn’t you?
- Quite right. I was born in Ventspils, a seaport, where cargoes were delivered by rail. The airport was at the other end of the city, three kilometers away, which was quite a distance by local standards. The look and smell of the rail track were far more familiar. Besides, my mother was a doctor at the local railway’s outpatient clinic.
I started using planes regularly to travel from Leningrad, when in 1992 I graduated from the Voznesensky Institute of Economics and Finance. In Latvia we moved about by train. To the republican capital Riga, too, although bus services were far more frequent. After all, 120 kilometers is a rather long ride. A train carriage is far more convenient. I recall one particular family outing. We travelled by train for three days to see Latvia’s places of interest. We were on the move during the night and in daytime we went sight-seeing about the castles. This small country is very rich in historical sites and architectural monuments.
Incidentally, the Russian railways company RZD has a special department for relations with travel agencies. If necessary, you can order a charter train and request any route.
- Is this service in good demand?
- Yes, tour companies eagerly use this option. The traffic schedule is the key problem. Changing train schedules is a costly affair. But if the requested route is a well-established tourist itinerary, the costs are in no way different from those of an ordinary passenger train. In cash terms it’s basically the same.
- You took over the RZD on August 20, 2015. Did you set yourself a task of inspecting all of Russia’s railways within a certain deadline? Say, one year?
- I established no special time frames, although I surely made plans for visiting each of the sixteen railways. Over one year I inspected all of them but one, in Kaliningrad, where I only managed to introduce the new chief, Viktor Golomolzin, to his subordinates. I will certainly go there again to see the state of affairs and to meet with the staff. When I’m on business trips, I prefer not so much to chair office meetings as to see the infrastructure and meet the people. Seeing and hearing for oneself is the best way of getting information.
There, where a good team of co-workers has taken shape, the business mechanism works with the maximum efficiency. Even in defiance of objective problems. The basic performance parameters – rather the ability or inability to meet the targets - readily expose problems with human resources. The scale of tasks accomplished depends on how successful, motivated and committed to the common cause the employees are. The modern world is a scene of struggle for capital and resources. This is a universal truth. The assets being contested are different. Human resources are possibly the most precious of all and they are in the greatest demand. People are free to choose where they feel better and more comfortable. Our task is to create competitive conditions.
- What can you offer?
- To begin with, we, railway people have really thrilling jobs. It is important for any person to have a chance to display one’s potential. Railway jobs are for real men, although there are quite a few women employees within the RZD system. We pay decent wages, 30% above the average in this or that region. People have a good opportunity to establish themselves and solid reasons to remain committed to their jobs. A package of hefty fringe benefits is another argument in favor. We painstakingly observe all of our commitments under the collective bargaining agreement. Hospitals, childcare centers, mortgage discounts… That’s the way it is and that’s the way it will be. True, at a certain point some started arguing that health care is a non-core asset and should be dropped. I strongly disagree. It should be remembered that at some remote communities in Siberia and the Far East the local railway-supported health service establishment is the only one available. There’s just no other alternative.
- What are the Russian railways’ bottlenecks?
- The Trans-Baikal Railway is in the most complicated position. Historically, there’ve always existed a bundle of intricate problems. Still more headaches emerged in recent years. In a word, the railway’s condition was anything but normal. We are in the process of sorting things out. It’s still very far from the ideal, but the situation has been changing for the better. On the one hand, the railway failed to enjoy proper attention, but on the other no one could have predicted that such a mighty flow of cargoes would start flowing to the Far East. The traffic has surged up. The yearly growth is as big as ten percent.
- Not only. The whole of Asia. The West concludes far fewer contracts with us today that it used to, the sanctions have changed the market situation. More cargoes are going to the south and to the east. The Baikal-Amur railway is unable to handle the whole amount. Also, a great deal depends on the location of ports where the freight trains arrive. The Trans-Siberian was laid 110 years ago. This is an old line and it needs considerable upgrade and renewal. Changing the rails and the sleepers is only part of the task. The whole system is to be brought in line with the requirements of the day if the Trans-Siberian’s throughput is to be increased in earnest.
- When can changes for the better be expected?
- Back in 2013 the Russian president and government made a decision to support a project for developing the eastern railway network that incorporates the Baikal-Amur line and the Trans-Siberian. We hope to be finished in 2019.
- Wasn’t 2018 set as the original deadline?
- We changed it on purpose. The RZD does not produce much on its own. By and large we transport somebody else’s products. Our main cargoes are coal and ore. These items are provided by our counterparts. As the commissioning of mines and production facilities is delayed, we have to revise dates, too. If we create infrastructures ahead of time, before it is in real demand, we will have to pay taxes on it. Moreover, this would be tantamount to ineffective use of budget money, and we cannot afford this in the current complex situation and in any other, too.
- When you took office a little more than a year ago, you said that you would not dismiss the previous team. But many of your deputies who held the posts of vice-presidents are gone.
- To begin with, not a greater share of them, but a smaller one. Dismissing the previous team has nothing to do with my style of work.
- As far as I know, more than half of the old-timers have been replaced.
- Really? Honestly, I’ve never bothered about making such calculations. Never thought they might be of any use… Besides, not all of them have left the company. Say, Vadim Morozov was the RZD’s first vice-president for ten years. Now he is my senior adviser. I have tremendous respect for this man. He is an excellent specialist, a real professional. True, he has his own ideas of certain managerial solutions, different from my own. We’ve devised a way of how to use Morozov’s knowledge and experience best…
- Also, the chiefs of three railways have lost their posts.
- Not quite so. For instance, Vladimir Goloskokov, the chief of the Northern Caucasus Railway has moved from Rostov-on-Don to St. Petersburg to take over the October Railway. Oleg Valinsky has been relocated from St. Petersburg to Moscow to the position of RZD vice-president and chief of the engine fleet. And Goloskokov’s former deputy, Vladimir Pyastolov, has been promoted to lead the Northern Caucasus Railway. In a word, dismissal is the wrong word. It’s rotation. New chiefs have been appointed to command the Kaliningrad and Far Eastern railways. Their predecessors have retired. And the former Chief of the Volga Railway was dismissed after an internal investigation.
- Do you give a second chance to those who’ve made a mistake?
- Mistakes vary. Some are unforgivable. Of course. I would agree with the old truth: “Failure teaches success.” If someone really wishes to correct a mistake, he is to be helped.
Don’t you see, we’ve got together to do our job right. I try to maintain calm and professional relations with every single person. Nothing personal. Natural processes are afoot. Certain rotation proceeds. Some colleagues have retired for age reasons, others have been moved to new positions inside the company and given new assignments. It turned out that some top managers were not good enough for their jobs. They failed to match the new requirements and had to be dismissed. But I don’t see anything tragic about that.
- Is the search for a scapegoat an effective way of addressing issues?
- I don’t believe that this should be a manager’s key task. Identifying and punishing those responsible may be a thrilling process, but far from always an effective one. Take the Trans-Baikal Railway. This is precisely what happened there again and again for a long time. Executives of this or that level were fired each time there occurred an accident, a schedule disruption or some other emergency. Under the established system and in accordance with our own internal corporate rules we cannot but punish someone, once a mistake has been made. In the end there emerged a situation in which everybody refused to be appointed to such suicidal positions. I tried to change the approach. It is far more important not to punish, but to do one’s best to enable employees of different talent and ability to address arising issues and come up with properly configured solutions. These days head office staff make fact-finding trips more often to settle matters on site.
True, my subordinates have to do things my way, but I make it pretty clear to one and all what I expect of them. Among other things costs are to be slashed and old habits dropped.
Life has changed.
- What is it you are talking about?
- To put it in a nutshell, it’s about being more modest. This quality is really important. Take care of other people. Retain your grass-roots connections. Move forward hand in hand with your colleagues, and not on your own. Stop catering to one’s own whims. Excesses never bring about anything good. I have nothing against comfortable conditions at work, but the balance should be observed and certain borderlines never stepped over.
As a result we’ve saved a great deal.
- How much?
Up to two billion rubles, something like that.
- What costs have been slashed?
- The overheads. Cars, trips, flights, hotels, the entourage, advisers, aides… And so on and so forth. A little bit here, a little bit there. That’s how it was all put together. I decided we can easily do without certain things.