When I joined Howrah Division as Senior Divisional Operating Superintendent (T), (Sr DOS (T)) towards the end of November 1975, MK Sinha IRSME was Divisional Superintendent (DS) and AK Guharaja IRSE was Deputy DS. I had cordial relations with both. Sinha was DME (Power) Asansol when I was posted as Divisional Safety Officer Asansol. He let me have a free hand, especially after the success of some of the measures I had initiated.
Howrah Division was much bigger than it is today. It stretched westwards from Howrah to Panagar (140 km). It also included the whole of the Sahibganj loop from Khana (120 km from Howrah) to Kiul (410 km) and the BAK loop from Bandel (39 km from Howrah) to Barharwa on the Sahibganj loop (273 km), including all the branches. Lines taking off from Ballalpur and Tildanga on the Azimganj – Barharwa section, formed a triangle with its apex at New Farakka, providing access to Farakka Barrage.
There were two electrified double line tracks between Howrah and Burdwan. The main line via Bandel was mainly a suburban line. The Howrah Burdwan Chord, which was also an electrified double line, ran alongside the main line up to Belur, diverged and rejoined it at Shaktigarh, 12 km short of Burdwan. There were thus quadruple lines between Howrah and Belur and again from Shaktigarh to Burdwan and further up to Panagar. On the Belur - Bandel section there was a third line between Uttarpara and Bhadreshwar.
The line from Khana to Kiul was part of the original alignment of East Indian Railway connecting Howrah with Delhi passing through Rampurhat, Rajmahal, Sahibganj, Bhagalpur and Jamalpur. From Khana a line was extended to Raniganj to serve the collieries opened in that area. The em¬bankments and bridges of the line were constructed to carry a double line. However, as traffic increased, it became imperative to reduce the distance between the coalfields and Mughalsarai. EIR decided to construct a chord line to connect Sitarampur on the Raniganj branch with Luckeeserai. The chord line opened in January 1871, reduced the distance for through traffic by 160 km and made doubling of the original line redundant. It became the new main line of EIR, and the original line was re-designated as the Sahibganj loop.
Howrah was one of the biggest passenger terminals in the country with 15 platforms for long distance and suburban passenger trains serving both Eastern and South Eastern Railways. Long distance trains from South Eastern Railway used platforms 12 to 14. Platform number 15, which was short, was used by EMU locals of SE Railway. Platform number 16, the original platform of Howrah station from which the first train had started from Howrah on August 15, 1854, was used for parcel traffic. Tikiapara coaching depot, Bamangachi Loco Shed and EMU Car shed were located nearby to support this large volume of traffic.
Howrah Goods Shed was one of the largest goods sheds in the country with sheds catering to different commodities received and despatched from across the country. A jetty located near the goods shed served for transshipment of riverine traffic over the River Hooghly. Empty wagons released from inward traffic received in Howrah Goods Shed in excess of requirement for outward dispatches were important for supply for coal loading in Asansol Division.
The suburban section was interspersed with industries that were served by sidings taking off from suburban stations. Industrial pilots served these industries that included Dunlop Rubber, Hindusthan Motors (makers of Ambassador cars), ICI and several jute mills situated on the right bank of the Hooghly. Train operations between Howrah and Burdwan involved running suburban trains, mail, express and passenger trains as well as freight trains. Trains were controlled from the Divisional Control Office in Howrah.
The upper part of Sahibganj loop, from Barharwa to Kiul ran alongside the right bank of the Ganga. Until the bridge over the Ganga near Barauni was opened, wagons loaded with consignments bound for the North Eastern and North East Frontier Railways were transshipped at Sakrigali Ghat near Sahibganj and the meter gauge wagons ferried across the river in flats. Sakrigali Ghat was a bustling transshipment point comparable to Mokameh. In 1975, this process continued in Bhagalpur, albeit at a much smaller scale. The rail connection over Farakka Barrage was opened in 1971 for interchange of trains with NF Railway. Malda Division was yet to be carved out.
Goods sheds in Sahibganj, Bhagalpur, Jamalpur and other stations received food grains and dispatched forest produce. The fertile alluvial loam of the Gangetic valley produced plenty of fruits and vegetables to be transported mainly to West Bengal. During the mango season, train loads of Malda and Langda mangoes moved to Calcutta. Stone quarries near Jamalpur and other stations offered a steady supply of traffic. In the lower part of Sahibganj loop, from Khana to Barharwa, the most important traffic offered was construction stone from Pakur. Smaller quantities of stone and other consignments were also offered at other stations. Train running on Sahibganj loop was controlled by a control office located in Sahibganj and a subsidiary control office in Rampurhat. Both worked under the supervision of Assistant Operating Superintendent, Sahibganj. Freight operations on the Sahibganj loop were considered so important that the post of AOS (Sahibganj) became a training ground for young traffic officers on EIR.
The Emergency had been in force for five months during which the Central government had tightened its grip on all activities considered inimical to the interests of the ruling party. Important leaders of the opposition and their affiliated trade unions were imprisoned, leaving the supportive railway trade union of the ruling party as the sole representative of the workers. The government assumed sweeping powers of arrest and detention in the name of maintaining law and order. Not only miscreants, trouble mongers and other ant-social elements, but also intellectuals, professionals and even ordinary citizens who did not agree with the ruling party, found themselves behind bars for unspecified periods. The fear of imprisonment pervaded the nation and indiscipline vanished like magic. Train operations became smoother, as demonstrations, strikes and bandhs, unauthorised use of the alarm chain, train robberies and wagon breaking, and even petty thefts disappeared from the scene. Ministerial staff, long accustomed to trooping into the office nonchalantly any time up to midday and abandoning their duties well before closing time, got into their seats before opening time and stayed in office as long as they were required. Performance indices on Indian Railways improved effortlessly. The government exhorted the people with large hoardings,
“If the trains can be on time, why can’t you?”
In normal times operating officers spend much time on punctuality of passenger trains, continuously monitoring trains on run, analyzing past failures, fixing responsibility and meting out punishments to defaulting staff. During the Emergency, however, this was reduced substantially. My job was made easier by the DS MK Sinha's management methods. Sinha enjoined the Deputy Chief Controller (Dy CHC) on duty to call him at 6 AM every day to brief him on punctuality of important passenger trains and main features of operations on the previous day, like loading, internal releases, wagon balances and loco utilization. In every case of loss of punctuality, he insisted that the Dy CHC should tell him, then and there, who was responsible and what penal action the concerned branch officer proposed to take. If the he failed to satisfy him, Sinha would peremptorily issue verbal orders to place the Dy CHC under suspension. I would hear of this when I spoke to the Dy CHC later that morning and I would have to persuade Sinha to change his mind. But the interest he took in punctuality helped to keep everyone on their toes and relieved me of the burden.
I began my sojourn in Howrah division recalling CCS Radhakrishna’s request about the departure time of the new express train proposed for Madras. After studying the platform occupation charts, I managed to change the departure time from 12 noon to a more convenient time. But the new train, called Coromandel Express, began its inaugural run from Howrah only in March 1977, as the South Eastern, South Central and Southern Railways could not find a path acceptable to all.
I also visited the main activity centers in the division, paying special attention to Bandel, remembering the study I had recently conducted on the traffic from Dunlop’s. I was impressed with the way records were maintained in the 'trains office' by Suniti Chatterjee, Head Trains Clerk, and wrote my observations in the Trains Register. I noted that the average detention to wagons in Bandel was high and the yard balance seemed to be higher than warranted by the volume of traffic passing through Bandel.
Less than a month later, General Manager, Eastern Railway and heads of departments were in Bandel for annual inspection. EJ Simoes, saw my noting on the Trains Office records and remarked sarcastically that it was up to me to improve matters. Others who were watching the exchange smiled derisively while I told the GM that I would indeed be doing something soon.
Divisional and Yard Balances are rough indices of the operating health of a division. In simple terms, a freight or passenger carrying vehicle is an earning unit of transportation. An idle vehicle is a source of loss. A high yard balance indicates idling, implying loss of earnings, and inefficiency. The optimum balance depends on the kind of operations a vehicle undergoes in a yard and target balances are laid down by railways for each yard. Divisional wagon balance is composed of yard balances, vehicles in sidings, trains on the run and trains stabled in the section, that is held up en route to destination without motive power attached.
I made a mathematical assessment to determine the divisional balance and set about working on it. During my visits to Howrah sorting yard, Bandel and Burdwan, I noticed that wagons meant for inter yard transfer were being collected for two to three days to form full train loads, in order to ensure full utilization of the hauling capacity of locomotives. However, if no terminating load arrived when enough wagons were collected, a locomotive had to be fetched from one of the other yards, moving as a light engine. The train was detained on further, after the loco was attached, for passage in the busy suburban section. The average detention of these wagons ranged from 60 to 80 hours and wastage of locos was immense.
Emulating Gujral’s methods in Asansol division, I asked Deepak Ganguli, Wagon Movement Inspector to chart out economical paths, outside suburban peaks, for running inter yard shuttles on a fixed timetable and earmarked an electric loco for the purpose. I decided to start the shuttles on 26th January 1976. Pathak, Chief Controller doubted the wisdom of starting the service on a holiday, but when I told him that if it was a good day to start a Republic it was good enough to start a new train, he readily fell in line and named the shuttles Green Arrows, because they were marked on the control charts with green pencils.
The first Green Arrow running out from Howrah Sorting yard was held up after two stations due to a wagon developing a hot axle. When asked, Sr DME (C & W), Ashim Biswas (IRSME 1956), immediately countered, typically, that such things are bound to happen if the wagons were not given adequate time for maintenance. A check of the history of the wagon in question showed that it had just come out of Liluah workshop and the Train Examiner in Howrah Sorting Yard had passed it without proper examination before the train left Sorting Yard. I brought it to the notice of CWM Liluah, Subodh Dikshit, my old friend from Liluah and asked him to ensure proper maintenance of these wagons since they were being sent to Bandel for supply to Dunlop Rubber Factory. Within a week thereafter, running of the shuttles stabilized, yard balances dropped and average detention to wagons improved considerably in the three yards. Subsequently, Biswas made place for Masih Uzzamam, who worked shoulder to shoulder with me and became a close friend.
During the annual inspection by General Manager, Eastern Railway in December 1975, MK Sinha DS had asked Ved Prakash DME (Power) to present the GM with a booklet highlighting the work done by the Mechanical Department, pointing out the problems faced due to the inattention of the Operating department. As per practice, a handout was prepared for the inspection party, with inputs from all departments, on the performance of the division in various fields. There was no place for separate handouts by each branch officer. EJ Simoes GM ER, convinced that everything was fine with the Mechanical (Power) department, called me and launched into a tirade, in the hearing of SN Sachdev COPS and BB Lal CME. Later, Sachdev spoke to me at length about departmental prestige.
An important lesson I had learnt from Gujral and Taly was the imperative need to ensure that all steam pilot and shunting trains were made to run punctually. When they ran out of schedule, they were prone to be held up for passage and burst their prescribed time for returning to the loco shed, thus upsetting the power plan under which locos were assigned to each shed. To cope with the additional strain caused by this, the loco shed would turn out locos late for the next trip, often without completing maintenance schedules, thus starting a vicious circle, and cut down on other services. Moreover, lack of adequate time on the section prevented the service from completing its scheduled operations, forcing it to leave wagons in the section to wait for a more opportune time. All in all, running of these trains out of schedule was the surest path to inefficiency. I had used this insight in Dhanbad with great success.
Accordingly, I told the station masters, yard masters and traffic inspectors that I would be monitoring their performance in this regard personally. They responded positively and the impact of the efficiency of shunting services was soon evident. Ved Prakash's bluff in the GM’s Annual Inspection was now called, as loco sheds were called upon not only to turn out steam locos on time but also ensure they performed well on the run. Failures affecting operation were reported by the Deputy Chief Controller on duty to a centralized agency under Chief Operating Superintendent known as Emergency Control Office. A list of these failures was compiled on the following morning and placed on the table of General Manager and Heads of Department. Field officers had to explain these failures to the satisfaction of GM. Ved Prakash had to call me frequently to hold back the messages to avoid being fired. He was compelled to put his own house in order, to match the increased operating efficiency, turning the GM's advice to me on its head. Ved became a close friend after this experience.
In my previous assignment as Deputy Chief Commercial Superintendent (Claims - Accident), I studied traffic offered by the Dunlop Rubber Factory in Shahapur near Bandel. High rated rubber goods manufactured by this factory had switched over to road almost exclusively. MN Radhakrishna, Chief Commercial Superintendent, was keen to get the traffic back. I visited the factory to determine the reasons for the company deserting the railways. Their main grouse was that supply of wagons was irregular and untimely, and that the wagons had to be cleaned before loading. Moreover, with no assured transit time, goods would take anything up to a month to reach destinations like Kanpur and Delhi, compared to a week by road.
Dunlop factory was served through a siding taking off from Bansberia, the first station on the Bandel – Azimganj section, by Bansberia pilot based in Bandel. I asked SM Bandel to pay special attention to the running of this pilot so that empty wagons were made available for loading before 8 AM. Wagons released after repair from Liluah workshop were earmarked for Dunlop’s, to ensure that the company received clean wagons. After the supply of wagons had stabilized, I visited the factory to assess the impact. The management was happy with the supplies but still seemed to prefer road to railways. I was told that the buyers wanted the goods to reach them within a specified time. Goods sent by road reached within a week to destinations like Kanpur and Delhi but by rail there was no certainty of reaching even in thirty days. I promised to do something about it and extracted a promise from the Marketing Officers of Dunlop that the entire outgoing traffic would be offered for movement by rail if we matched the transit time by road.
As per extant marshalling orders, wagons meant for destinations beyond Mughal Sarai were shuttled from Bandel to Burdwan from where they were sent to Andal. They would be received in the Up Yard at Andal and wait to be transferred to the Down yard, where they would be sorted into the ‘Up Country’ line in the Marshalling Yard for despatch to Mughal Sarai. It would take the wagons over a week to cross Mughal Sarai and a further week or more to reach their proper destinations. I reckoned that if the wagons loaded at Dunlop were sent to Howrah Goods, they could be attached to the daily run Super Goods train for Delhi. This special goods train, with limited stops en route, had a fixed transit time that would make it possible for the Dunlop wagons to reach their destination well in time. This would be a movement in the wrong direction, in violation of marshalling orders, but it would be worthwhile if the railways could recapture the traffic.
I instructed SM Bandel to attach loaded wagons received from Dunlop to the Green Arrow shuttle bound for Howrah sorting yard. Chief Yard Master of Howrah Sorting yard was asked to send them on to Howrah Goods immediately on arrival and Chief Yard Master Howrah Goods was instructed to attach them to the Super Goods. In the normal course, Bansberia pilot with wagons from Dunlop would arrive in Bandel just before the departure of the Green Arrow shuttle for Howrah sorting yard, leaving no time to pick up the wagons and attach them to the shuttle train. The wagons could go to sorting yard only the following day. With a slight adjustment of timings of the shuttle and close monitoring, it became possible to despatch the wagons from Howrah Goods for their destination on the very day they were loaded, skipping Burdwan, Andal and Moghul Sarai yards. Consignees in Kanpur and Delhi could receive their goods in three to five days. Managers in the Dunlop factory kept their promise to dispatch all their outgoing traffic by railways.
Bandel yard began to look slimmer than ever. The average detention to Dunlop wagons that was over 30 hours on my first visit to Bandel dropped to around 20 hours when time tabled shuttles were started and a mere 8 hours after the loaded wagons were sent to Howrah Goods.
Soon afterwards, I had to accompany GM Simoes in his Inspection car as he passed through Bandel on his way to Asansol division. When the train halted at Bandel I persuaded him to go to the Station Master's chamber and, over a cup of tea, sent for the wagon detention statistics and placed the register before him. Simoes looked at the figures and asked me a few questions. When he saw the sharp drop in detention to Dunlop wagons, he literally jumped from his seat. "You mean you actually reduced the detention of these wagons from 30 hours to 8 hours?" he exclaimed, unable to believe his eyes. I told him about the measures I had taken and assured him the figures before him were genuine. He praised me profusely and wrote a most laudatory reference in his inspection note thus erasing the memory of the bad publicity I had received earlier.