Can Piyush Goyal Push Through a Delicate Merger of Bickering Railways Departments?

While the merger of mechanical and electrical cadres will end a bitter turf war, an overarching downsizing move will affect unions.

New Delhi: Reeling under heavy losses in its passenger segment and failing to attain expected growth in goods business, the Indian Railways is embarking upon a long-awaited move of merging all eight internal services into two departments.

The imminent move, sources say, will do away with departmentalism which has adversely affected the efficiency and effectiveness of the functioning of the national transporter.

The Indian Railways is also giving serious thought to reducing the number of its employees by offering lucrative voluntary retirement schemes (VRS) to reduce staff strength by up to 50% in a phased manner. 

Taking a dim view of trade unionism, the public transporter is also mulling reining in various unions by reducing the number of union branches in each division and curtailing privileges given to union office bearers in terms of transfers and postings.

These and many other reform-driven action plans were shortlisted for active consideration by the public behemoth in a two-day marathon meeting called “Parivartan Sangosthi” that was held last weekend. The meeting was attended by all top brass including railway minister Piyush Goyal to discuss the transporter’s next wave of reforms. 

The most striking move that emerged from the brainstorming session is the decision to prepare a blueprint for merging its mechanical and electrical cadres, two traditional rivals, into one. There also plans to merge the traffic, personnel and accounts services to form another division. 

Also Read: Indian Railways’ Finances Would be Much Worse Without PSUs’ Help, Says CAG

The railways currently consists of eight main Group A services — traffic, engineering, electrical, mechanical, accounts, personnel, signalling and stores.

The intense turf war between the mechanical and electrical departments has resulted in the complete halt of further manufacturing of the Vande Bharat Express. Those involved in the making of the first indigenous trainset are also facing a vigilance inquiry.

Taking note of the Vande Bharat issue, sources said that Goyal pointed out in the meeting that there is a need to create a fear-free working environment to protect officers from unwarranted vigilance cases for trivial or technical lapses. 

On trimming the national transporter’s huge workforce, railways sources say that the target is for 10% reduction in three years and a further 30% in a phased manner. Since staff costs are above 60% of total costs, the Railways feels that its financial viability will come from minimising unskilled staff strength and downsizing the number of board members to five from the current eight. 

The downsizing move is likely to affect the unions also as there are nearly 250 union office bearers of at each division and overall 50,000 in the entire railways. Many of these union workers, railway ministry officials allege, practically yield no work output. 

There are a host of other small reform proposals on the anvil. One move, for instance, is to include merit-based criteria for the selection of general manager and divisional railway manager and not just go on the basis of seniority. 

Since many diesel locomotives will be redundant in the advent of complete electrification, there is a proposal to export them to fetch a better price instead of selling it on scrap. There would be about 4,000 diesel locos to be replaced by electric ones in the next two years.  

The Parivartan Sanghosti emphasised on speeding up of passenger and goods trains. While coaching trains should be running at 130 kmph, the goods train speed is required to be doubled at least from the current 25 kmph speed.

Arun Kumar Das is a senior journalist who covers the Indian Railways and can be contacted at akdas2005@gmail.com.