What is the Indian Railways’ Real Problem?

From delays and technical glitches to fatal crashes and stampedes, the Indian Railways problems seem to be never ending with little respite despite the powers that are assuring us otherwise with regular regularity, awarding it epithets of “creaking”, “accident prone”, “deadly” among others because terribly, most of these problems result in innocent Indians paying with their lives, the latest being the incident of a stampede on an overbridge at the Elphinstone station on the Mumbai suburban railway network. Yes, problems occur everywhere, but why it is that despite a recurring train of (pun unintended) often deadly incidents on the network, why hasn’t the railways been able to “fix” these problems? Why hasn’t Indian Railways been able to reduce accidents and modernise itself? Why do we still hear of train accidents every day? Why is that it hasn’t been able to “modernise” itself, overhaul its infrastructure and trains, and strengthen its tracks and other equipment? Why do Indian trains look and run exactly the same as they did some 20 years ago?

Everyone and their sister have any number of opinions about the sad state of the railways: Decades of underinvestment, politics, politics and more politics, an inefficient and apathetic bureaucracy, labyrinthine red tape, bad quality materials, outdated processes and rules, corruption and more corruption, entrenched interests, inability to raise money, both too many employees and too many vacancies at the same time and above all, terrible inefficiency at every level and so on. However, whatever you say, all these aren’t the reasons for the miserable state the Indian Railways is in, but only the symptoms and results of a fundamental flaw that lies much deeper, a policy that is at the very core of the organisation, something so ancient that is it is as relevant in today’s world as is a Khap Panchayat, without changing which any other “reform” will only prove to be futile cosmetic change.

Centralisation

Well, this is only putting it nicely. The real fact is that the Indian Railways is essentially a colonial organisation, the policies of the British Raj being at its core. The Indian Railways works not a company or a corporation, but a “department” or a ministry in the Government of India, consisting of a “Railway Board”, a group of top bureaucrats signing off on all decisions pertaining to rail transport in India, headed by a chairman and reporting to the Parliament through the railway minister. This basic structure itself was a direct carryover from the British Raj, whose Railway Board was headed by the Commissioner of the Railways in India reporting to the British Parliament. For the corporate-thinking types, the “Railway Board” does not mean the same as a “Board of Directors”, because Indian Railways does not have a corporate structure. It does not have a chief executive. Also, a company board does not have to approve purchase orders to buy stationery in its offices. In other words, the Indian Railways was designed to be out and out a bureaucratic establishment, governed and run as a centrally planned colonial system with all decision-making and powers concentrated at the top in a handful of people. All the problems of the Railways, everything, has this one structural flaw at its core.

See, a lot of people living in these days of (supposedly) free-markets, expect the aim of the Indian Railways to be to “deliver a superior customer experience”, “maximise profits” and all that, just like any other corporate enterprise, at least out of obligation, believing that the primary goal of the railways is to provide convenient, hassle-free travelling options to passengers by running trains on time and providing the necessary infrastructure to do so and so on. This is where they are mistaken. As a colonial system, the primary goal of the Indian Railways is ONLY to serve its officers and itself to meet the ultimate aims of the empire. EVERYTHING else is an extra, inconvenient burden. Since there is no empire today and hence no ultimate aims to be met, the Indian Railways has ended up an organisation existing only to serve itself and its officers, which is why it is in the condition it is today.

In one way, this particular method of operation was necessary when the Indian Railways was first formed. The founders of the Indian nation saw the railways as a strategic asset in nation building. The railways of independent India were given a very specific purpose, which was to act as a vehicle to help to “fully integrate” the newly established nation-state that was formed by amalgamating hundreds of previously privately and foreign-governed, impossibly disparate geographical and cultural entities, many of which had been at each others’ throats for centuries. With its central planning, a heavily top-down model of governance and highly standardised systems of operations reaching into every nook and cranny of the country, the Indian Railways were meant to first and foremost represent and project the idea of India as a single, united nation despite all the differences among its peoples. For this, it was required to stick to the script with no exceptions. All the disparate railway companies under the British were nationalised into one single entity that was highly standardised in terms of everything from organisation policies to running rules to rolling stock. And it worked brilliantly.

The problem was (is) that IR continued in that “centralisation and standardisation to unify India” mode, long after those goals were achieved. There was no restructuring or reinventing of the Indian Railways undertaken to keep it up with the times and to power the next level of India’s growth, even when the world and the country around it were changing. As the railways held the monopoly over the everyman’s long-distance travel and hence the aspirations of their social and economic upward mobility, our politicians realised that whoever controlled the railways could exert great control over the population. By the early 1980s, they had turned the railways into a highly effective populist tool by controlling its scarce resources and releasing it (restrictedly) to preferred constituents, which was when its decline hit a rather steep slope. The railways became a complete politically motivated organisation, with an objective first and foremost to preserve the power and standing of those in power. Things like efficiency, modernisation, service optimisation, customer service and other such things weren’t even in the plan, and the old colonially centralised and patriarchal method of functioning continued. Even when the 1991 economic liberalisation changed much of the country, the railways remained as the old relic it was, centrally controlled by most often according to the whims and fancies of one person with no consistency in policy or planning.

How Much Centralised are the Indian Railways?

Pretty much totally. Consider this. The same body operates the Churchgate-Virar Fast local, the Mumbai – Delhi Rajdhani, the Viramgam – Okha passenger, the Punjab Mail, all freight trains and operations and around a 5000 other trains of various types, maintains hundreds of stations, tracks and infrastructure in four states, runs training centers and coach repair workshops and locomotive depots and half of the Mumbai Suburban network, which ideally should be a completely independent entity altogether and so on. However, the Western Railway does not have independent authority over any of these! Does this make any sense? This is how deep and entrenched the problem is.

Yes, Indian Railways is “divided” into zones and divisions based on geography, but these mainly function to delegate administrative and operational processes and details, while control and command very much remains with the ministry at all levels with little decentralisation and financial decision-making powers. Almost all decisions taken by zones (divisions individually cannot take any decisions at all) have to be approved and authorised by the railway board, be it the construction of a platform shelter at Ambalapuzha, provision of a stoppage at Borivali or changing a girder at Jalpaiguri. This system simply does not allow anything to move fast to meet and overcome challenges, rendering local managers helpless, as they cannot improvise to solve problems, even if they wanted to help. They can only submit a recommendation and wait until the approval comes all the way from Delhi. While there might be some autonomy in local affairs like station management, anything that involves money is tightly controlled by the board and can be disbursed only as per rules and procedure, which mired in red tape which can take years.

Example: Many commuters had tweeted about the dangerous state the overbridge between the Elphinstone-Parel railway stations were, long before the stampede that killed 23 people. Demands for a new bridge were raised as back as 2012, and yes, a new bridge was actually approved by the railway board and funds were allocated in 2015 (11.8 crores), but two years later, work has yet to start. Let us look at how deep the mess is. First of all, nobody in the administration will be bothered about the bridge and its (lack of) space and suffering of commuters because that is NOT a bureaucrat’s primary job. That would be, one, manage his juniors and superiors, and, two, to manage the finances. It is only after a lot of pestering by people and their representatives and the general public that one of the two GMs recommends to the Board that there be a bridge. The RB approves the project. Now it is up to the GM to call for a tender and let the contractor build the bridge. And this took 5 years. In countries with modern ways of working, they would’ve identified that the bridge was not enough 20 years ago and built a new one. Here, just taking an approval takes 3 years, the run-up process to build it takes 2 years, building it takes one year, inaugurating it takes 6 months. 

Like we discussed in the chapter about overhauling Mumbai’s transport system, a group of high-level bureaucrats sitting in a building in Delhi should not be the decision makers on how people in different parts of India should be travelling. Every village, town, city, region, and state in India is enormously diverse and exhibit travel patterns unique to those geographies, as per the needs of the people. These patterns and conditions need to be scientifically analysed and studied thoroughly using modern data analytics tools before arriving at decisions on how to run train services between them to serve passengers in the most optimum way, and not for some random politician to get votes, or to validate paperwork. It is always people at the local level, who are in touch with ground conditions who will know what is best for those regions and what will work well and in what way. Decision-making has to be localised and decentralised, and regions should be given total autonomy to decide what is good for them. The centralised command should be limited to only policy, general HR and overall finance and reporting. Today’s one-board-to-rule-them-all approach has to go. But that is easier said than done, because there is an enormously powerful force at play here, which reinforces and props up the entire premise of centralisation, fighting tooth and nail against any attempt to dilute it. They are the true rulers of India, its sprawling bureaucracy.

The Problem of the Bureaucracy

Bureaucracy is not just a feature of Indian Railways, it is the organisational culture, so and so that it has shaped the core of how it works, it has become a means to an end for everything from infrastructure creation to running train services. For instance, the decision to start new trains is seldom based on research and analysis into revenue expectations or passenger demand or load factors or geographical specialities, competition and such, but mostly on how idle rakes can be utilised. A lot of trains are just rake transfer services running from stations that cannot accommodate them to those that can. And these run empty with no use to anyone. Another gloriously shining example is the concept of “slack timing”, when anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours of “extra time” are added between the last two stations, so that the train can “make up” the time it invariably loses during the run to arrive “on time” at its final destination and boost “on-time” performance records. But why isn’t this system changing? Do you know why Indian Railways is unable to modernise in the way we want it to? Why are our trains, tracks, operating rules and customer service are all so decrepit? The answer lies in this statement here.

Indian Railways is primarily a form of employment that also runs trains” – Manu Joseph

Indian Railways has to be the least automated large industrial undertaking in the world. Almost every job and process you see on the railways is still done manually by hand. Yes, our locomotives and coaches are all handmade! Track laying, repair, inspection, maintenance, signalling (station masters call each other informing of train departure and arrivals and manually turn knobs to set signals) all coaching and shunting operations all done manually by grease and sweat. Even in this age of digital everything, acres of forests are fell to meet the staggering amounts of paperwork being done, by hand. We know about the complicated ticketing and charting processes, but it goes far deeper. For instance, AC attendants have to enter temperatures of a coach into a sheet manually every so-and-so kilometres. Go to a railway station and look around. 70% of the work you see around is redundant, automatable at this instant. In fact, 90% if you were to put your heart to it. Everything from track inspection to train driving can be automated to be done by bots, which is what railways across the world have long since done. But we can’t do this, because it is physically impossible, because of what Indian Railways is.

Indian Railways’ primary function is to provide employment to lakhs of underprivileged Indians. This is why in its present form any attempt at modernisation is simply not possible as that will inevitably lead to much automation, resulting in a hell lot of job losses, contradicting its primary function.

But still, can’t some existing employees bring in some change? Right. Like any other government organisation, railway employees view service as a means to an end, which is the life goal of every Indian, whose life is also a means to an end, which is to “get settled“. Everything from the selection process to accountability to the salary structure is designed to create an incredible inertia and resistance to change and to preserve the status quo. Hiring is by UPSC tests, promotions are by seniority and there is no accountability to be had, even if you kill people. Previous attempts to change organisational structures and processes and any other attempts at reform were always shot down by the bureaucracy itself, because who would want to change a structure that serves them so well? Employees are simply not equipped to handle change or to bring any dynamism into the organisation. IR is the epitome of an example of the Indian lazy mentality popularly called the “chalta-hai” attitude. In such an environment, how can you expect earth-changing ideas to blossom.

The Colonial System Lives On

One has to remember that almost all institutions of independent India, from the civil services to the police and the Indian Railways are direct descendants of the British bureaucracy and hence their organisations continue carrying at their core the colonial values they originally inherited, which was to preserve, protect and further the Raj. An integral part of this was to elevate its personnel to demigod status to ensure complete separation and subservience from the “natives”. This is where what we lovingly call “VIP Culture” today comes from, which is visible in all its glory in the Indian Railways with the heavy status accorded to the top brass. The Chairman, RB is a cabinet rank, while board members are treated the same way with all kinds of VIP privileges accorded to them. GMs and AGMs etc are no less. Forget mixing with common people, they travel in their own plush saloon coaches, to make way for which all trains of the miserable fare-paying peasants are pulled aside and made to wait. They live in great opulence with all kinds of servants (railway staff) at their beck and call, just like how erstwhile officers of the Raj used to live. The organisation of the railways spends more effort in trying to make the lives of their few hundreds of officers comfortable than to make those of their passengers. This is still among of the worst kinds of a colonial hangover a democratic country can have.

Since the Indian Railways is the successor of the colonial railways, run in colonial principles, the roles of zonal managers is not of efficient train running or customer service, but are mostly, overwhelmingly, staff, resource and finance management. Then there are (lucrative) contracts to be awarded, favours to be taken and given and all the other trappings of an Indian governmental bureaucrat to be taken care of. In the middle of all this, who cares and who has time to attend to things like bridges about-to-fall or gaps in platforms? As for employee groups towards the lower end of the hierarchy who usually have to deal directly with passengers, they consider themselves no less high and mighty than their superiors, and to reinforce their self-proclaimed superiority as arbiters of the Indian Railway destiny, take it out on their customers, who are treated with irritation, disdain and sometimes downright disgust, as some kind of pests daring to breach their privileged status of existence as governmental ubermenschen.

A couple of months ago, I visited Trivandrum Central railway station to procure an ATVM card. I was shooed from counter to counter, and at the last one, the pretty lady who first couldn’t understand what I was asked (“ATM card??”), irritatingly called out across the room “Iyaale okke aara ingottu vidunnathu?” “Who sends these (kind of) people here (to me)?” Then, another gentleman appeared next to her and asked equally irritated through the glass, “Do you have a copy of your ID proof? If no, go get it and come!” and vanished. I had nothing to say, and left, feeling thoroughly humiliated. Note that I went there to procure a travel card, something very basic that I am entitled to as a customer of the Railways, which is the absolute minimum requirement for travel in most countries. Also, I had specifically selected a time when there would be no crowds at the ticketing counters, and there weren’t. Maybe I should’ve told them that the then railway minister was following me on Twitter. It is another thing that there are rumours of a scam inside the railways that retail ATVM cards are not issued to safeguard earnings of contractors whose people stand next to ATVM machines handing out tickets to people. More about this later.

Being a monopoly and at that, a governmental one, the philosophy of “customer service“, which should be the basic foundation of the employment and organisational culture of a service organisation, its core value and first rule, finds no place anywhere in its manuals, which is all full of only financial and resource management. Can you find a member for customer service on the current railway board? Yeah.

Solving the Problems of The Indian Railways

The ascension of the Indian Railways into a truly modern, efficient and flawless working machine for public transportation cannot happen unless its biggest handicap its colonial method of working is done away with. This would require and result in a complete overhaul of everything we know as the Indian Railways today, doing away with its existing structures, organisational and operational, at all levels, because the way the organisation is structured and operated makes absolutely no sense at all. Any other attempt to “solve” its problems without addressing this fundamental flaw will only be whitewashing the grave, and we will only we forever playing catch up to all kinds of disasters and accidents and such, endlessly firefighting and trying to solve problems, because this centralised, one-size-fits-all colonial model simply won’t work in today’s India anymore. Individual cities and regions have to be given autonomy to tailor their transportation methods according to their unique needs, rather than an apex body who might have no idea on how conditions are locally dictating terms. For instance, Mumbai should have its own, single, integrated transportation control and operating body wholly under local control.

However, simple decentralisation by, for instance, making zones autonomous etc. is not enough because then we will only be diversifying the problem because ultimately, babudom will still prevail in other forms. The transformation of the railways should start from the very top with the dismantling of its centralised colonial structure, beginning with the abolishment of the railway board as it is today, followed by the split of the Indian Railways into different constituents and their corporatisation with the government being the 100% shareholder. More about this in the next chapter.

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