Government’s Ideas for the Railways are on the Wrong Track

When I was posted as Divisional Railway Manger in Madurai, the General Manager of Integral Coach Factory, a brilliant mechanical engineer who was about to retire from service, narrated to me a very telling experience. His otherwise bright career prospects had been ruined by a heavy pre-monsoon storm in 1991, that hit a small part of his division when he was working as DRM Bangalore. This sudden storm caused a large boulder to roll down from Makalidurga Ghat section, on to the railway track; the Karnataka Express, travelling on that track hit the boulder, derailed. Thirty people died.

Wreckage of Kamayani Express and Janata Express trains which derailed within minutes of each other while crossing a small bridge at Harda in Madhya Pradesh on Wednesday. Credit: PTI

Wreckage of Kamayani Express and Janata Express trains which derailed within minutes of each other while crossing a small bridge at Harda in Madhya Pradesh on Wednesday. Credit: PTI

Responsibility was fixed eventually on the DRM, even though he had been let down by his Divisional Track Engineers who failed to initiate pre -monsoon maintenance protocols as prescribed in Indian Railway Permanent Way and Works Manual. The DRM could not escape the responsibility, having failed to issue written orders to initiate mandatory trackside maintenance and patrolling, to ensure heightened track safety. This otherwise brilliant DRM lost his chance to become a Railway Board Member because of this single memory lapse on a clerical action.

This revelation instilled in me a paranoia about potential impact of rains in Madurai, a large Division that faces the fury of two monsoons, from the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. Since my predecessor was against spending any money on track, as a way of cutting expenditure, I was facing a track work backlog. My fears were real. Two cloudbursts devastated my track in multiple locations in each year of my tenure. However, since I was better prepared with monitoring and coordination with the Collectors and panchayats, we were not only able to prevent mishaps to trains, but also restore track in record time.

Zero tolerance

I tell this story to highlight the zero tolerance of the Railway organization in the early 90s. At one time DRMs even had unambiguous powers to summarily sack staff if they were found to compromise on safety. The entire system was rigid against anyone who failed to take reasonable care and caution in ensuring safety of passengers. The system was even firmer in the decades prior to the ’90s. The authority to choose and appoint a Divisional Superintendent (DS was modified as DRM later) was exercised by the Zonal General Manager from among the senior officers working within his Zone. To protect his own career, no GM would ever take the risk of choosing anybody other than the best among the seniors who could deliver competent rail management. Because of the risks involved in the posting as DRM, those officers who were aware of their own limitations would never aspire to become DRMs. Gradually the Railway Board usurped these powers which were in the GMs’ domain and started posting officers based on seniority and not necessarily on proven merit. The deterioration has now become obvious. Today there is no risk of any one asking for the Railway Minister’s resignation or a Railway Board Member or GM being asked to demit office after any serious accident.

The Indian Railways Permanent Way & Works Manual has very clear instructions on preparation for monsoon and undertaking monsoon precautionary measures and these measures are taken well in advance from the month of May onwards. One of the critical provisions of this Manual is updating all vulnerable location mapping through regular joint inspections by the Divisional Engineers. Sustained watch has to be kept on Spatial and land use changes in villages and towns surrounding the track network. These are to be regularly inspected and updated action to minimise floodwaters threatening the embankments.

It is more than two months since the monsoon season had started and I am sure even today there would be several Railway GMs and DRMs who have not even updated the Vulnerable Locations Mapping of their respective Zones/Divisions and chalked out Disaster Management Strategies including tight patrolling of Tracks.

Lack of personnel

Most of the Divisions do not have adequate staff to undertake this task. Monsoon preparedness entails intensive manpower based practices, including patrolling in the night at vulnerable locations. No technology eliminate the need for patrolling. Monsoon and falling boulders are not the only issue. Railway tracks are open to security threats and these too require an intensive manpower based vigil. It is ironic that while the Railways face shortfall in patrolling manpower, the organization is branded as having excess manpower by committees headed by freelance economists who can never understand how the largest passenger Railway system in the world handles the fourth largest freight volume over the same track.

For handling a passenger volume of 31 million, Amtrak which is run by U.S. Department of Transport needs 20,000 employees. The number of passengers handled per employee per day is a mere 4.2. Indian Railways, with 1.2 million Employees has to deal with 8500 million passengers with passengers handled per employee per day being 18, a high figure for a mixed traffic Railway which also carry massive freight work load of 1100 million tonnes and annually manufactures 500 locomotives and 3500 Coaches. And the entire orientation of this organisation is being diverted from safety to reduction in staff and wayward policies of frugal asset maintenance.

Investments on modernisation are being quoted as a panacea for all ills and the Railways are being branded as sick and bankrupt by former Railway Ministers. Let the nation be told the truth. Railways, manned by bureaucrats, makes more profit than Indian Oil Corporation. Indian Railways has enough money to ensure its network safety right now.

Had it been corporatised in 2014 -15 and listed in the market, with Revenues of USD 25.3 Billion and a likely net profit (this is always certified by none other than CAG himself under his hand and seal in Appropriation Accounts presented to Parliament) of USD 1.2 Billion — after paying a dividend to the exchequer — it would have been ranked 472 in the prestigious Fortune Global 500 List in 2015. Japan Railway East, the most modern and efficient railway in the world is ranked below at 476. SNCF France has a net profit lower than Indian Railways. The business models of IR and Walmart are similar – both do business with the bottom of the economic pyramid in their respective nations. Their profit margins are thus less than 5 %.

The need of the hour is not mindless lip service to modernisation and exaggerated expectation that investments of Rs 8 lakh or 9 lakh crores will ensure safety. The need is to ensure that Track Standards and Designs are not compromised when New Lines, Doublings and Gauge Conversations are built, making them vulnerable to vagaries of nature. Proper drainage systems should not become victim of efforts to drive down expenses. If manpower is short for patrolling it must be filled on priority or even hired. For ensuring safety what we need to do is revive the old work culture and not huge funds.

The writer is a retired Financial Commissioner (Railways) and ex- officio Secretary to Government of India

  • ashok759

    Fine column, one hears cadences of the Raj, which bequeathed us this excellent institution.

  • Jasvinder Singh Marwaha

    Mr Shivdasan has made a brutal statement of facts. All else is theory and efforts at experimentation at the cost of the tax payer and railways. Indian Railways run on ethos, railway culture and pride. You tamper with these and you ill have a company which is here today will be gone tomorrow. There are enough MBAs and PhD’s (from world class institutions) on Indian Railways roles who know what is to be done to improve the railways. Ask them what they need to do it rather than telling them what to do.

  • Sknr319

    Wonderful analysis . Thanks for such insightful observations