On completion of my deputation term I took earned leave and we visited relations in the South before going to Calcutta to report to Eastern Railway for my posting orders. BLC Sastri COPS told me that I would be posted as Senior Personnel Officer (Union), a job that was meant for interface between the railway administration and the recognised trade unions. It was an indication that, having returned from deputation, I was not welcome either in the Operating or Commercial departments.
In January 1968, I had paid a courtesy call on KK Mukherjee GM Eastern Railway after my EB test. This was my first entry into the General Manager’s chamber, the sanctum sanctorum. I recalled the day I had joined the Eastern Railway, expecting to report to the General Manager. KK Mukherjee was suave and polite as ever. When I congratulated him on his promotion, he told me it was only a temporary arrangement and he was merely keeping the seat warm for someone else. Referring to my deputation, he remarked that one tends to lose touch with railway working by remaining outside. When I heard about my posting, I visualised KK telling Sastri, 'He must have forgotten everything. Let him cool his heels in the Personnel department for a while'.
I was disappointed because Sastri had, as Chairman of the examining panel, commended my performance at the EB test, in which I had bettered all my batch mates on the Eastern Railway. I collected my orders and returned to Bombay to fetch my baggage. Reaching Howrah, a week later, I met Makhan Chatterjee DCS (HA) for allotment of temporary lodgings in Howrah station. He told me that my orders had been changed and I had been posted as DSO Asansol. I went to Fairlie Place to collect my orders and thank Sastri and the same evening we reached Asansol. I was pleasantly surprised to get the same bungalow and the same bungalow peon, Narayana, who had cleaned up the place and was eagerly awaiting our return.
I had another taste of KK Mukherjee’s mind set soon after joining in Asansol. A new main line for goods trains had been constructed between Ukhra and Pandaveshwar stations and had to be opened after inspection by Commissioner for Railway Safety (CRS). I visited the stations in advance, checked all points of safety and tested the staff for important rules. On the day of inspection GS Pandor, the CRS, completed his inspection and then began to test the ASM in Pandaveshwar. The ASM answered Pandor's question on the rules for lowering of home signal correctly but Pandor insisted that he was wrong. I took out the General Rules book and showed the rule to Pandor. Like all narrow-minded people, he took it as an insult, left in a huff and on his return to Calcutta told a pliant KK Mukherjee that DSO ASN is unaware of General Rules. KK immediately called Sastri, who promised to send me for a refresher course. He did not have the gumption to tell the GM about my performance in the EB test. Nothing came of it in the end, though, because of the support I got from HC Johari, TS (Safety).
In my assignment with the FCI in Bombay, I had to maintain liaison with the Central Railway constantly, in course of which, I was able to keep track of what was happening on Eastern Railway. I had heard that Gujral had gotten out of favour and had been shifted to the post of Dy COPS(Safety), a job that was not to his liking. I discovered the reason for his fall from grace much later but before long he bounced back to be posted as DVS Dhanbad, went to France for a spell of training with SNCF and on return was posted as DS Asansol. One day, I heard some Central Railway officers mention that GD Khandelwal, Chairman Railway Board had circulated extracts from the ten-day Periodical Confidential Demi Official letter (popularly known as PCDO) of GM Eastern Railway (KK Mukherjee) to CRB containing information about innovations being carried out on Asansol Division.
TS Krishnamurty STO (Goods) of Central Railway showed me the extracts. Central Railway officers dismissed the extracts as cheap publicity but as I went through them, I was amazed, both at the range of subjects tackled and the ingenuity of the innovations made. I was particularly interested in the changes in the areas that were in my charge when I was in Asansol Division. By the simple device of providing telephones in the offices attached to Station Masters & Yard Masters of important yards, follow up of shunting accidents had been speeded up and the number of clerks in the Accident Section reduced. Time taken for finalizing such cases, which I had brought down to 50 days with much effort had been slashed to 25 days! It seemed unbelievable. Traffic stores had been streamlined, enabling quick repairs to damaged station equipment without depending on Engineering or Mechanical workshops, consumption of kerosene oil at railway stations was curtailed by taking power from overhead traction for use in electrically operated signal lamps. No wonder C Rly officers thought it was all fake.
As I read of these and other operating innovations on my home railway, I could not help feeling a desire to be a part of the action. This wish was fulfilled when I was re-posted as DSO Asansol. Now I had a chance to see things first-hand. To begin with I read about all the new things Gujral had done in the articles entitled Operations Research on Asansol Division that he had written for the Eastern Railway Magazine and all the material included in his PCDOs to GM Eastern Railway, only some of which I had read in Bombay.
I also reviewed the improvements attributed to my office with a view to gauge the accuracy of the claims made. I found that methods used were indeed ingenious and the results spectacular, except that my predecessor, and batch mate, MP Shrivastava had exaggerated the results to please Gujral. The average time taken to finalize shunting cases had, come down from 50 days to 36 days, while it was claimed to be 25 days. A drop of 35% was by itself quite notable, but Shrivastava had felt compelled to satisfy Gujral's penchant for blowing up his achievements.
More exciting things were happening in Andal. Andal Marshalling Yard was a depot yard for loading of about 1400 four-wheeler wagons of coal per day in over 300 sidings, serving a multitude of collieries spread over the Adjai and Singharan valleys to the west and north of Andal. Empty wagons received mostly from Howrah and Sealdah (Down country) divisions were supplied to the collieries by shunting trains called coal pilots. Loaded coal wagons brought by the coal pilots were weighed, sorted out and formed into trains in the marshalling yard for despatch. Apart from coal wagons originating from the base collieries, the yard dealt with 700 to 800 through loaded wagons received from adjacent divisions and from Durgapur Steel Plant for which Andal was the serving yard. The yard was undergoing extensive re-modelling when I left Asansol Division in 1965. When I returned three years later the work had been completed along with electrification. Gujral, who had studied the working of a similar yard in France, decided to modernize the working of Andal on the lines of the French counterpart.
Like most modern Marshalling yards, Andal was a forward movement yard, with three distinct sections for receiving, sorting and despatch. It also had a separate Empty Yard to handle the large number of empty wagons required for supply to collieries. The receiving and sorting yards were on the down direction that is, towards Howrah, while the Empty Yard was in the up direction, to handle empty wagons received from Howrah and Sealdah divisions. A fly over across the quadruple lines provided access from the Empty yard to the base yard for serving coal sidings, from which coal pilots were sent to the colliery sidings for placement of empties and withdrawal of loaded wagons. A second fly over in the west of the yard, built for serving Durgapur Steel Plant, was also used to receive coal pilots working between Raniganj and Andal as well as to despatch west bound goods trains from Andal. The sorting yard was equipped with an electronic humping device and automatic hydraulic retarders to control the speed of wagons rolling down the hump.
As per prevailing practice, empty wagons supplied for loading coal were given a fit for loading examination and loaded wagons were subjected to further examinations in the receiving yard. Wagons declared unfit would be collected on sick wagon lines in the sorting yard and placed in the wagon repair sidings (called sick lines) for repairs. After repair, they would again be sorted over the hump to their respective destination lines. Wagons drawn to despatch yard from the sorting yard were put through rigorous examination, including brake power tests and unfit wagons replaced before the despatch of each train. Each day, about fifty unfit wagons were detached in the despatch yard. These had to be returned to the sick lines in a reverse movement and re-sorted for despatch after repairs. Handling damaged wagons in the despatch yard interfered with the smooth forward movement of wagons and resulted in delays in clearing lines in the reception yard. This in turn caused hold up of trains in the section and loss of efficiency in general. It was a problem common to marshalling yards across the country and operating officers had come to accept it as inevitable.
But Gujral had other ideas. In France, he had seen a more efficient method of handling damaged wagons and he was determined to replicate it in India. The newly remodelled yard in Andal offered an ideal opportunity. As DS, he had the necessary authority to plan and execute his ideas. The first point to be tackled was the Empty Yard. Train examination of empties was upgraded from fit to load to fit to run to ensure that wagons with inherent defects were not sent for loading, even if they were otherwise in god condition for loading. The second front, that was in fact central to the scheme, was the reception yard. Hitherto, train examination in the reception yard was confined to identifying wagons that were unsafe to travel on main lines, so that they could be sent to the sick lines for repairs. It was only in the despatch yard that the wagons were subjected to intensive train examination, as the wagons leaving the yard had to travel on the main lines safely.
Gujral decided to introduce intensive train examination of wagons in the receiving yard itself. Train examiners were asked to not only to mark wagons defective but also to undertake repairs. They were given the necessary tools, trolleys in which to carry them, and trolley tracks built between the reception yard lines. A power line was provided between the tracks with conveniently located plug ins. Moreover, train examining gangs were trained to focus on certain wagon parts and specialise in detecting and rectifying defects. In the sorting yard, coordination of humping operations and hydraulic retarder operations was streamlined to reduce damages due to impact.
BOX type wagons, open eight wheeled bogie wagons with Centre Buffer Couplings, specially designed for loading minerals, had been introduced in IR in the late 1950s. Their number had increased over the years. In the beginning, as they came out in small lots from the wagon manufacturers, Railway Board ordered the wagons to be loaded in lots of five wagons, attached to existing screw coupling stock with the help of transition couplers (TCs). As their numbers grew, they began to be used for loading coal and minerals in full train loads. In the absence of exclusive facilities for them, loaded BOX wagons trains received in Andal would be passed over the hump with locos at both ends to the sorting yard and thence to the departure yard, where they would be examined. Damaged BOX wagons would be detached before the train was despatched. Since the damaged BOX wagons could not be replaced easily, the trains would go out underload, wasting the hauling capacity of the locos. Returning the damaged BOX wagons detached piecemeal in the departure yard back to the repair lines and thence to the reception yard was a painful process, because of the incompatibility of couplings.
Gujral changed all this by evolving the concept of the BOX Wing, which could be reached directly from the reception yard without passing over the hump. BOX wagon trains were received in the BOX Wing, examined and damages detached there and directly placed in wagon repair lines. Repaired wagons were collected and kept ready for attachment to respective rakes in replacement of wagons detached from outgoing rakes. Brake power examination was also conducted in the BOX Wing and the rakes went to departure yard only to be dispatched. Since the wagons were new, damages generally consisted of seized roller bearings or broken springs, resulting from shock loading in collieries, many of which had installed loading bunkers that delivered large quantities of coal into the wagons.
Cause wise analysis of each case of a damaged wagon detected in the reception or departure yard was undertaken to determine why, where and when the damage was caused to the wagons and who was responsible for causing it. Records of the analysis were maintained for ready inspection and the staff identified as responsible were made answerable. Implementation of the scheme was monitored personally by Gujral. There was a dramatic reduction in detachment of damages in the departure yard, and efficiency indices for yard operations, including terminal detention to electric and diesel locos showed a marked improvement. Gujral reported the developments in his PCDOs to GM and when the system had stabilized he informed GM that, on the principles of “Management by Exception”, he had instructed Chief Yard Master (CYM), Andal to call him up only when the number of wagons detached in the departure yard exceeded two wagons. Gujral stated that CYM Andal had not called him in over two months. This was one of the extracts of Gujral's PCDOs that I had read incredulously in Bombay. No CYM will have the guts to call up his DS only to be fired. Therefore, the whole thing appeared suspicious. When I came to Asansol, I found that the CYM Andal briefed the DS every day and that the actual number of wagons detached in Andal departure yard ranged from 2 to 5 wagons, down from 50 in the past, a tremendous improvement.
While Gujral was fully involved with day to day operations and kept the operating officers on their toes, he left me to deal with my work without any interference. With a little attention to detail, the time taken for finalizing shunting accidents was reduced to tally with the figure claimed by my predecessor. A little more effort and it came down to 20 days at which stage decided to share it with Gujral. He was skeptical at first but was convinced when I showed him individual accident files and included a paragraph about the achievement in the next PCDO.
Khandelwal, who had been Gujral's mentor earlier as DS Dinapore, called Gujral to Delhi to enlarge on his achievements to an audience consisting of the top echelons of railways. Not all were convinced though. Among the dissenters was BC Ganguli, Member, Staff, an IRSE officer reputed to be a brilliant bridge engineer, who would succeed Khandelwal as CRB. Brushing aside Ganguli's objections, Khandelwal declared Gujral the best DS in the country, decided to open a training centre for IRTS officers in Asansol and asked Gujral to organise a seminar for DSs, at which he would himself preside.
When I came to Asansol in June 1968, the Railway Officers’ Training Centre (ROTC) for training IRTS officers was being established. At the request of Gujral, Manohar Lal B Taly had been moved from the post of DOS Dhanbad to take the newly created position of Superintendent ROTC. The infrastructure was being created awaiting the arrival of IRTS probationers who were undergoing training elsewhere. To fill up the gap between their arrival and the facilities getting ready, the Railway Board decided to use the training centre for running week long courses for senior scale officers connected with operations all over IR. Officers of Operating, Mechanical and Electrical Departments came from across the country to get to know the innovations made in Asansol Division. Gujral made Thapar, Taly and me responsible for all the arrangements that included lecture sessions in ROTC and conducted tours to all the relevant places, Control office, Andal Yard and surroundings, and DS office.
The course would kick off with a welcome speech by Gujral, highlighting the points of interest and then Taly and I would take the visitors round to the nominated places. Most of the visitors were skeptical of the achievements and would question the data furnished by us or try to pick holes in our explanation of procedures. We anticipated these interruptions and were well prepared to answer them. At the end of the course, they would generally be speechless, shaking their heads in disbelief. Among the visitors were MC Das, who was then DME Vijayawada, Cyril Christian, DEE Vijayawada, PV Bhaskar Rao DOS Secunderabad, T Kumar Das DOS Bhusaval and Chaman Lal Kaw DOS Jhansi. Kaw took me aside to ask me how exaggerated the figures were, especially those of damaged wagons detached in the Andal departure yard. I told him that even four times the figure would still be a fifth of the detachments before Gujral introduced the new system of train examination.
Cyril Christian was the brother of Clarence Christian, a senior traffic officer known for his sense of humour. But Cyril was different. He lost control after a few drinks and abused everyone irrespective of their ranks. There was a story in circulation that when he was DEE Chakradharpur, he asked the telephone operator one evening in an inebriated condition to connect him to CEE in Calcutta. CEE SER being in Garden Reach, the confused operator asked, “Which CEE, Sir?”. “Any bloody CEE” shouted Christian. Without realizing whom he was addressing, Cyril let off a tirade of abuses at the wrong CEE. In Asansol, he disappeared one evening and MC Das and PV Bhaskar Rao landed in my bungalow in panic. We searched the town and found him in his element in the only Madras Restaurant in Asansol.
When the probationers turned up, Gujral took the training of IRTS officers seriously. He would deliver several lectures himself to supplement a well-planned, in depth schedule drawn up by Taly. Taly roped me in to deliver some lectures too and when he took short leave, I was asked to stand in for him. The trainees would take this opportunity to ask me for concessions denied to them by the Taly. The first batch came to Asansol after their training had commenced so they treated ROTC as an unwanted curb on their freedom. The second batch was much more disciplined and committed. The training proceeded well and even years later the batches trained in Asansol remained a class apart.
Meanwhile, Khandelwal decided that the seminar for DSs should be conducted in Asansol, instead of Delhi to give the DSs a chance to see the improvements themselves. Even a man as confident as Gujral was rattled by the decision. All through the period of preparation for the seminar we could see the tension building up in him, with constant nagging from KK Mukherjee, who feared that his reputation was at stake. Gujral would share his concerns with us, particularly with Thapar, who had a close rapport with him. On the night before the big wigs arrived, Gujral called Thapar and spoke for a long time, saying he was sleepless with anxiety.
Everything went off very well, however, with Khandelwal, KK Mukherjee and Jagjit Singh, GM SE Railway participating in the event. The Divisional Superintendents came prepared with presentations of their own achievements, with which they tried to match Gujral’s show. Most of them had a perceptible, pre-conceived dislike for the whole exercise, which they treated as another attempt by Gujral to hog the limelight. Some of them, who were War Service Candidates like Gujral, feared that he would supersede them. Thapar, Taly and I tried to keep them in good humour. In our quiet interactions with them, we found that while many of them were showmen, who used good government money for cheap publicity, there were some genuinely efficient DSs who had preferred to remain away from limelight. When it was all over, Gujral showed his relief by inviting the core group that included Ranjit Bannerjee, DEN 1, Thapar, Taly and me with families for a picnic on the banks of the Adjai at Pandaveshwar.
Unfortunately, Gujral's efforts were overtaken by political upheaval that saw the rise of Naxalism. When the dust had settled, some of Gujral's successors tried to undo his work out of envy, while others did not have Gujral's drive and commitment.