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Some Longstanding Problems Of Indian Railways Continue, But Here’s How They Can Be Resolved 

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Snapshot

The Indian Railways is ageing and every segment of its vast structure has to be rationalised to keep pace with technology and meet public expectations.

Tragedy struck at about 3 am on 20 November as the entire top brass of the Ministry of Railways - several divisional railway managers (DRMs), additional divisional railway managers (ADRMs), all general managers (GMs), members of the board and ministers were at Surajkund, Haryana, ideating on ways to recover the ‘lost’ glory of railways in India. The three-day retreat which was inaugurated on 18 November could not have ended with greater ignonimity as another rail accident joined the infamously long list of rail tragedies, with fatalities now inching close to 150.

This retreat was in response to the suggestion by Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself. The Prime Minister suggested that railways should not just listen to outsiders, but should also listen to its own people. There is growing anxiety in the organisation, which functioned even when rest of the government was made non-functional by a policy and decision paralysis, before the present government took over. Anxiety arises from major changes which do not follow a set pattern.

Indian Railways (IR) has been a complex organisation and has seen a very high churn rate for ministers in past few years, including two under this government. With no other ministry having such extensive operational accountability and responsibility, such attrition at top political level indicates the challenges inherent.

What catches one’s attention is the difference in the operations of sectors like coal, power, roads, telecom and the railways. For instance, while other ministries have reviewed all contractual commitments, ministry of railways entered into locomotive factory contracts, without subjecting it to a review in relation to need and location. Within few months of signing the greenfield diesel locomotive factory deal, the government announced full electrification.

The organisation is very old and needs rationalisation in the light of the changes taking place in core technology and society’s expectations. However, the recent tragedy near Kanpur prompts one to find out how some core issues stay unaddressed and core problems are being aggravated.

Railways Is No Longer The Preferred Career Choice

Working for the railways till a few years ago was rated above the much vaunted IITs, as youngsters left these august institutions and took up special class railway apprenticeship. Railways also attracted the country’s top engineering talent through the Engineering Services Examination conducted by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC). It is alarming that civil engineering (the prima facie cause of the Kanpur accident is attributed to this organisation) of Indian Railways has lost out to Military Engineering Service and Central Public Works Department (CPWD). What a reversal of fortune for the proud civil engineers of the Indian Railways (the civil engineers belonging to Indian Railways Service of Engineers, civil engineering department has been historically called ‘engineering department’, rest other departments needed a qualification like mechanical, electrical).

For mechanical, electrical and electronics, though the first choice is Indian Railways, core services (IR service of electrical engineers, IR service of signal engineers and IR service of mechanical engineers) have lost out to stores (IR stores service).

The reason is simple - stores is a 9am to 5pm weekday service as against others which are 24x7 for 365 days. But when it comes to promotions and higher responsibilities, everyone is treated equally. Stores officers get general administrative and operational exposure only when they get their joint secretary grade, after about 20 years of service. Whereas, core technical services are expected to spend their initial formative years in yards, tents, trolleys and locomotives away from families, struggling for leave, only to share equal space 20 years after, with officers who had a cushioned life till then.

This is the reason which caused immense heart burn when a stores officer was elevated as chairman of the Railway Board and given unprecedented extension of two years in one shot (only officer given such an extension by the current government). No wonder, the tail was given an institutional boost over teeth as against the wisdom of Rakesh Mohan committee.

So, the railways today offer two paths of career progression to the top – a treacherous path and a comfortable one - and then we wonder why the choices are lopsided.

Restoring The Cosmopolitan Culture Of Indian Railways

For the past three decades, the railways have steadily lost their cosmopolitan culture. Zones now are now manned by officers of that state. This affects the cosmopolitan culture of the railways, needed for their pan Indian presence.

However, the crown is reserved for what has now emerged as All India Delhi Service - this is Indian Railway’s AIDS.

New Delhi has several railway establishments and a person can spend a lifetime there. Apart from the Rail Bhawan, Northern Railway headquarters, Delhi Divisional HQ, CRIS, Centre for Modernisation of Workshop, inspection offices (of Research Designs and Standard Organisations - RDSO, Rail Coach Factory, CLW), Indian Railway Conference Association etc, head offices of all rail PSUs like Dedicated Freight Corridor Corporation, Station Development Corporation, High Speed Rail Corporation, IRCON, RITES, Rail Vikas Nigam, IRCTC, Rail Energy Management Company etc are located in New Delhi or Gurgaon.

The Rail Bhawan no wonder has preponderance of Delhi-based officers, who keep rotating within various offices and central deputations, while staying in Delhi. Staying in Delhi becomes the overriding consideration which affects their ability to objectively take a stand, as there is lurking fear that they can be transferred out of Delhi.

It is time that no zonal railway has more than 10 per cent of their officers in Rail Bhawan - this would bring a lot of balance to decision making. Further, Rail Bhawan has been bursting at its seams and now one full floor in the Metro Station of Pragati Maidan houses its board’s offices. To bring about this, shift the headquarters of Northern Railway to Jammu or Srinagar; shift Delhi Division HQ and set up a sub-divisional office instead, and shift all PSUs outside the National Capital Region (NCR). Existing properties can be monetised to create a new headquarters.

Listen To Rakesh Mohan And Kakodkar

The Rakesh Mohan Committee, which gave a report to NDA-1, recommended a reduction of ‘supporting’ departments and the key take away from the Kakodkar report on railway safety was its observations on Integral Coach Factory (ICF) coaches and the need for investment in safety. Rakesh Mohan Committee invited lively discussion among the railway fraternity. Now that sufficient time has passed, a lot of experience is available globally on how various restructuring procedures initiated in the 80s and 90s in world of railways, have worked out.

However, reorganisation and reorientation of the Indian Railways organisation is going to be less contentious.

Going against the wisdom of Rakesh Mohan committee appointed by NDA-1, who identified poor tooth to tail ratio as a long term systemic malaise of the railways, the railway board has just strengthened services like stores and personnel, changed the reporting of the key signal department twice at the apex level. At a time when the entire accounting, personnel and stores function should have been handed over to computers, one sees in amazement that four additional positions of director generals have been created with new directorates popping up.

Rethink Of ‘Services’

Indian Railways follow a highly codified process for procurement. The following stands out in stores procurement and stores department of Indian Railways:

● Major part of procurement of about Rs 36,000 crore per year (2012-13 figures) is specified in great detail by technical departments and also the source from where they can be procured is specified (what to, from where and how much is detailed). There is hence a clear need for the role of computers and third party agencies to take over procurement, inventory management and delivery to user.

● All levels of stores department are ex-cadre, i.e. any officer of any technical service can be drafted in executive positions of stores department, so the feeder streams already exist. Whereas the officers of stores department cannot be deployed in another role outside their department till they are promoted to a joint secretary level (which they reach not before 20 years of service) and posted as ADRM or DRM, starving them of precious exposure to the working of railways.

There is accordingly no justification to have separate organised service for handling stores function of Indian Railways.

Indian Railways Personnel Service (IRPS)

Similarly, the personnel department has all its executive levels ex-cadre. Whereas, like in the stores department, the officers of Indian Railways Personnel Service cannot be deployed in another function till they reach the joint secretary level (i.e. at least first 18 to 20 years).

The process of staff management must be fully computerised on a rule based system.

What To Do With Mostly Ex-Cadre IRPS And IRSS

End recruitment to Indian Railways Personnel Service (IRPS) and Indian Railways Sores Service (IRSS) as these services man only ex-cadre positions. Feeder lines exist for these services from other services.

Rationalisation Of Bench Strength And Reporting

Summary attack on tooth-to-tail ratio, 50 per cent reduction in manpower of stores, accounts, commercial and personnel from (figures from 2012-13-Stores: 26,661, administration: 42,938, accounts: 28,579, commercial: 93,250) and move to e-governance. Retrenched staff to be immediately absorbed in safety departments.

Create and strengthen cross functional roles like mobility; create a position of DG mobility by dissolving positions of DG Personnel and DG Stores.

Member Safety should replace DG Signal, with signal and telecommunication going under Member Infrastructure. Operating department up to apex level at railway board should be open to officers who have served as DRMs and ADRMs with a bias for signal engineers.

Rethink on role of Rail Bhawan: a view on regulation

There is a clear role of regulator for technical, operational and financial matters in the railways.

Financial Regulator

The regulator will carry out tariff determination and also arrive at non-discriminatory access fee for the new non-Indian Railways operators. The ministry would have a cross functional team with cost accountants to examine the recommendations. This body needs to be created.

Operational Regulator

This regulator will look into granting of non-discriminatory access to the railway network. The regulator would take over the traffic operation of the network along the lines of transmission line deregulation. This body needs to be created.

Technical Regulator

RDSO of the railways stays. Presently, RDSO is required to only give recommendations, with Railway Board taking final decisions. RDSO under a Director General and core engineering teams can be given full autonomy. Strengthen the RDSO with final authority on matters which have moved to Rail Bhawan. Take vendor development role out of RDSO and handover the current power exercised by Rail Bhawan to RDSO.

Is There A Justification Of Zones?

When new zones were created it was decided that no new positions would be created, which was followed in violation. Today, with increased information and communication technologies penetration, the justification of zonal headquarters in the conventional sense has diminished. It would become challenging to determine the seniority of subordinate staff, an issue which can be settled with an open mind. A zone from an administrative unit should be reduced to mobility and safety unit.

Rethinking The Role Of Engineers

Today the vehicle designs and signalling technology rest with the original equipment manufacturers, this must change if India aspires to be global leader in railway technology. If the railways wants to continue with this, then it needs only contract administrators and should substantially reduce the size of electrical, mechanical and signal engineering departments progressively by 10 per cent per year, and reduce it to 50 per cent in another five to 10 years time.

Rethinking Unions

Union structures should follow the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and MCI model. No individual should get lifelong immunity by just sticking as office bearer. No retired person should be allowed to be representative of employees. Also, one can’t hold to the position of general secretary in perpetuity - a cap of three tenures should be applied.

● Rail Bhawan to have only cross-functional directorates; all technical decision-making to be delegated to RDSO. Safety, energy, mobility, transport services to be the only wings available in the building apart from compliance people. Reduce the strength of Rail Bhawan by 50 per cent in three years with the objective to reduce it to 30 per ent of its current size in 10 years.

● Merge all engineering academies and Railway Staff College and house them in one compound. All training issues to be dealt by the head of this entity.

● Urgently prioritise replacement of old ICF design coaches with better coaches. It needs to be noted that even Linke Hofmann Busch (LHB) design coaches are not the last word on vehicle safety.

● Though infrastructure gets inspected for its condition, vehicle inspections remain very low-skill jobs with low-skilled people just looking and judging if wheels are running hot or by using a hammer to listen to wheel defects. When additional loading was permitted by Lalu regime, it was contingent to the provision of weigh bridges and wheel impact load detectors (WILD). Increase in loading was done by reducing the safety margins. Vehicle inspections must happen every 100-200 km. There is no insurmountable problem with WILD and weigh bridges, install them right away. Wheel slip and slide controls to be made operational on all locomotives as must have, non-bypassable feature, make quality clay free dry sand available as key prerequisite for running freight trains.

● Implement Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) urgently, and use this platform to integrate other safety solutions.

Setting The Direction

Form a team of high credibility leaders from within the system who have a known track record in technology and management. Present government has entrusted the Air India with a railway man; it was a railway man who broke the jinx and brought metro culture in India.

Get Rail Bhawan To Answer This:

● If a track breaks what can be done to detect it in time?

● If a train derails, why should so many die, should coach open like a card board box?

● If a live overhead wire falls on a coach or petroleum wagon are we safe? What is assurance?

● Can a terrorist turn a signal green and ram trains?

Disclaimer: Swarajya carries a variety of views in its blogs section. Some of the articles here are from our previous avatar (Centre Right India). Opinions expressed in this section are the personal views of the author(s) and do not reflect the views of Swarajya.