Howrah Division: Managing the Manager

After my experience of working as Divisional Operating Superintendent in Dhanbad with SN Sachdev as Divisional Superintendent, I had learnt more about him and his moods over the years. My batchmate MMP Sinha, who was Divisional Commercial Superintendent Dhanbad at the time, had told me that after I left Dhanbad, Sachdev had often said complimentary things about my work. Nevertheless, I decided to be on my guard.

As I fell into the routine of most operating officers across the country, I noticed that Sachdev Chief Operating Superintendent (COPS) did not interact with me routinely every morning. On the Eastern Railway the responsibility for freight operations lay with Deputy Chief Operating Superintendent (Goods), known by his shortened designation of DyOG. The post had been upgraded and was known in 1975 as Additional COPS (Goods). The incumbent was PW Impett. He was assisted by Ashim Mitra IRTS 1961, who had trained under me in Asansol Division in 1962-63. Mitra would call Deputy Chief Controllers of all Divisions in the morning and brief Additional COPS and COPS. Eastern Railway’s freight operations were centered around coal loading which meant that freight traffic managers focused on coal loading divisions and interchange with Northern Railway in the morning, unless there was an emergency. Freight operations of Howrah and Sealdah divisions came up for discussion in the telephonic freight operations conference that had been introduced on Eastern Railway in the middle 1960s.

My predecessor, SK Singh had told me, when I took over charge from him, that Sachdev expected Sr DOS to meet him every time he went on tour or returned from tour, although as per protocol only the Station Superintendent had to be present. Sachdev never gave a direct order to Singh but would make a point of peevishly reminding him at every opportunity. Singh never took the hint and just followed protocol. After joining Howrah Division, I had moved from Liluah to Colvin Court, ER's apartment block across Howrah station for convenience. It wasn't too much trouble to satisfy Sachdev's wish so I decided to humour him.

When I met Sachdev at Howrah station the first time, I realised that his wish to see Sr DOS had less to do with ego than a desire to have someone to talk to freely. He would air his views and ask my opinion on the subject. Unlike Gujral he did not have his own schemes ready to implement. It made me think and work out my ideas and report back to him on his next visit. When he returned from tours or from visits to Delhi, he would share his ideas and experiences even in the short time between alighting on the platform and climbing into his staff car. Once he returned from a meeting of COPSs in which Eastern Railway's performance drew compliments from MT. I had never seen Sachdev so elated and so effusive and forthcoming. He was dying to share his joy with someone, and he seemed to be looking forward to my presence at the station. Back in office he was his usual sour self. Not everyone was happy with my proximity to Sachdev though, because they thought it reduced their importance.

I had learnt over time that when you want to innovate on the field, you should not seek prior approval from the headquarters. That is the surest way to kill the scheme. Apart from the delay such a step entails, everyone in headquarters thinks he knows better and tries to modify the scheme to extinction. Accordingly, I did not inform Ashim Mitra or Impett when I started the Green Arrows. Ashim would take details of every electric and diesel loco on the division and question the Deputy Chief Controllers but the information was revealed only after the plan succeeded. I mentioned it to Sachdev at my next meeting, casually. He made no comment and it effectively silenced others in headquarters.

An Experiment in Platform Occupation

It is a common sight to find railway platforms cluttered with parcel packages, obstructing the movement of passengers. Putrefying vegetables and other perishables cause pollution and create unhygienic conditions. The problem is acute at Howrah station with its high volume of parcel traffic, including a large quantity of fish.

When I met Sachdev at Howrah station along with Sarfraz Ahmed, Sr DCS (HA) (IRTS 1962), Sachdev drew our attention to this persistent problem and wondered if we could do something about it. We did not pay much heed to the remark then, since it had been an old, almost intractable problem, but when he mentioned it again on his next visit, I promised him that we would try to tackle it. Ahmed and I made a detailed study of the problem.

Parcels, particularly perishables, are transported by mail express trains to reduce their transit time. In the case of perishables, delay in transit can cause deterioration leading to claims. At the destination, these parcels must be speedily unloaded and delivered to consignees. In Howrah, it had been a long-standing practice to deliver perishable consignments on the platform itself. Some of the consignments would have already deteriorated on arrival and could be delivered only after their condition had been assessed by the authorised commercial officer, usually an ACS. Parcels would, therefore, stay on the platform for several hours, during which parcels from other incoming trains were also unloaded on the same platform.

From the operating point of view, it was important for each incoming train to vacate the platform within the time allotted in the platform occupation chart to avoid detention to other incoming and outgoing trains. Parcel clerks in charge of unloading operations were under pressure to speed up the process, often causing mishandling and damage to the parcels.

I proposed to Ahmed that it would be much more comfortable for both the Operating and Commercial Departments if all the parcels were dealt with in the parcel shed instead of on passenger platforms. I suggested that instead unloading the parcels on the platform, immediately after arrival of each train, the empty rake of the train could be drawn out after detraining passengers. The parcel wagons could be separated in the coaching yard and placed on the parcel shed platform as soon as possible. He agreed with me but was concerned with the possibility of the perishables getting further deteriorated in the process.

We decided to experiment with one train to begin with. We picked Dehradun express that arrived early in the morning. I instructed CYM Tikiapara Coaching Yard to ensure that the parcel vans are placed on the parcel platform number 16 within two hours of the arrival of the train. Both Ahmed and I took it up as challenge and kept close watch on the operation. It was a success from day one. The empty rake of Doon express was shunted out in ten minutes, leaving the platform free of parcels. We made bold to extend the scheme to other trains arriving in the morning including Kalka mail. The improvement in platform occupation was palpable. Operating staff were relieved to find the empty rakes could be drawn out quickly and commercial staff could attend to the parcels with less tension. We conveyed the good news to Sachdev on our next meeting, with actual figures of platform occupation. Never quick to pat any one on the back, Sachdev only told me to send a note on the subject to HC Johari, Additional COPS (Coaching).

I drafted a brief note comparing the platform occupation figures for the period after the experiment and an equivalent period before the experiment was started. Johari called when he got the note. He was critical from the word go. Why did I send the note? Why did we start the experiment at all? Why didn't we tell him? Why did I pick up that period for comparison? It was obvious that he was peeved at being left out. He thought that I had bypassed him deliberately to gain favour with Sachdev. I got fed up after a while and told him that we took up the experiment at the instance COPS and, since it was successful, I had sent him a note as desired by COPS. He could do whatever he liked with it.

The next call I got was from Secretary to General Manager. Simoes, the GM wanted to talk to me. While I was wondering what might have angered the old man, Simoes came on the line. He was in an effusive mood. 'Ramarao' he said, ‘you'll are doing excellent work in Howrah. I just called to congratulate you. Keep it up.' It appears Johari had put up my note to COPS with his own comments and Sachdev had forwarded it to GM for his information. I was elated that my efforts had elicited this praise from the head of the railway.

But the story did not end there. BM Kaul, Member Traffic, Railway Board came on a visit to Calcutta and stayed in his saloon parked in the VIP siding between platform numbers 8 & 9. Next morning, he observed that trains arriving on the two adjacent platforms were vacating the platforms much faster than in the past. His curiosity, and I dare say, suspicion, was aroused. He stormed at Sachdev when the latter met him and demanded an explanation. Sachdev and Johari put him wise about the experiment. Kaul was impressed. He asked Sachdev to get a paper prepared for the forthcoming conference of COPSs of all Indian railway zones. The task was passed on to me through Johari, who instructed me to show him the draft beforehand. A commerce graduate and a gold medalist to boot, Johari believed, like many others, that compared to students in humanities, those who came from the science stream lack the ability to make a decent composition. He tore into my draft, changing the syntax and paraphrasing, dotting imaginary 'i's and cutting non-existent 't's ad absurdum.

That reminds me of an anecdote. Since my return to Eastern Railway in June 1975, I used to regularly join the group of officers who would meet for lunch in Johari's room every day. Even after I left head office for Howrah division I would be there when I went to meet someone in COPS office. Johari and MP Shrivastava were the only non-science graduates in the group. KC Pandia and K Balasubramanian had M Sc degrees while Ashok Bhatnagar was an engineer from Roorkee. We were talking about our college days. Pandia and I recalled how after Matriculation, the best students would join science colleges in math stream, the second best in biology stream and the rest would join Arts college. Those who could not get admission in any of the above went on to do B Com, we recalled with our tongues in our cheeks! All Johari could do was to smile sheepishly.

I retrieved the draft and rewrote it, incorporating some of the changes made by Johari. Sachdev told me later that Kaul told all COPSs to read the paper and asked them to emulate the example of Howrah division. Sachdev also told me to send the paper to Indian Railways magazine for publication. It was published in the September 1976 issue of the magazine under the title An Experiment in Platform Occupation and republished in the January-March 1977 issue of the Journal of Institute of Rail Transport, the official publication of IRT. We continued with this method of handling parcels so long as I was Sr DOS Howrah, even after the Emergency was lifted and indiscipline returned to working conditions. After I left Howrah Division, due to a lapse in monitoring the operations, the resultant delay in placement of parcels led to extensive deterioration of perishables. The experiment was abandoned in panic.

Time tabling of goods trains During the steam locomotive era goods trains were ordered as per a schedule published alongside the passenger timetable. This was both necessary and convenient because of the prevailing conditions. Steam locos had to spend up to eight hours every day in loco sheds for coaling, watering, cleaning and maintenance. They would, therefore, be available for traffic only when the loco shed offered them. At the same time, steam hauled goods trains could be run economically only outside what came to be known as the 'mail block', the period during which important mail and express trains were time tabled to run. Accordingly, goods trains were ordered on paths that would make it possible for them to reach the end of their run without too much detention for crossing or giving precedence to passenger trains.

With the introduction of diesel and electric traction the situation changed dramatically. Diesel and electric locos had to go to loco shed for maintenance only once a week for minor attention and once a month for detailed maintenance. Diesel locos had to be fuelled often but the fuelling could be done in traffic yard within a short time. Traffic department had to find loads for the locos instead of locos for loads. Moreover, unlike steam locos. the cost of diesel and electric locomotives was extremely high compared to the loads they hauled, making it imperative to keep them moving.

Electric and diesel were, therefore, assigned to the first available loads, even if the loco had to be moved light over a distance and irrespective of the availability of economic paths. Very often, the loco would be attached to a load, but the train could not find a passage between passenger trains to commence its journey. Goods trains would get stuck up at stations en route for hours to give preference to mail, express, slow passenger and suburban trains. This resulted in wastage of fuel for diesels and power for electricity. Crew would often have to relieved midway to their scheduled runs. Most operating officers, including Gujral, believed that it was uneconomical, if not impossible, to run goods trains hauled by diesel and electric locos on fixed schedules, except for short distance shuttles like the ones Gujral had organized on Asansol division. Unfortunately, IR did not, and still does not, have an effective way of assessing the actual economic implications of the available options using statistical methods. The word of the boss prevails, even if it leads one up the garden path.

I always believed that it is better to keep a loco in the shed than waiting for signals at a roadside station, with its attendant waste of fuel and crew, and that the wisdom of this can be mathematically demonstrated. Sachdev felt likewise but lacked the courage of conviction to issue orders to his operating officers to arrange schedules for goods trains. But he asked me on one his visits to Howrah station why we could not schedule goods trains running between Asansol, Howrah and Sealdah divisions. These goods trains ran in a closed circuit and they had to negotiate suburban sections in two divisions. It made sense to schedule them to run on the best paths. Since I was the senior most of the three Sr DOSs, - Dyutish Sarkar in Asansol and SK Julka in Sealdah were both of 1960 batch, Sachdev wanted me to start the scheme and monitor it. I spoke to both and put my reliable Movement Inspector Deepak Ganguli on the job of finding economical paths passing through the three divisions.

Dyutish and Julka played along because COPS wanted it but showed no real enthusiasm. When the trains began to run, they kept time in Howrah division but went out of schedule in the other two divisions, even if they arrived at the interchange point on time. Sachdev did not instruct Peter Impett and Ashim Mitra to monitor the trains. Inevitably, the experiment was abandoned without a fair trial.

Fuel economy - GRS of steam locos. During the lean season in 1976, BM Kaul, Member Traffic asked all COPSs attending the Operating Conference in Delhi to reduce consumption of coal by shutting down unwanted services, keeping the surplus locos in Good Repair Store (GRS) until traffic picks up. On his way back from Delhi, Sachdev halted in Moghul Sarai to inspect the yard and advise Sr DOS on the services to be suspended. From there, he sent a message to all divisions to start the exercise of identifying redundant services. When I met him at Howrah station the next morning, he repeated the same instructions and told me that he had set a target of 100 locos for the railway.

“Let us see how many you can contribute?” he said, as he got into the staff car.

I promised to do my best and show him my proposals by lunch time. I began to work on it immediately. While I was still at it, Ashim Mitra called saying that COPS wanted to know how many locos I was offering for GRS. I told him that I had promised to give the figure to COPS by lunch.

When I had worked out my scheme, I went to Fairlie Place with the papers. It was lunch time, so I headed for Johari's room. As I entered the room there was a chorus of voices of HC Johari, MP Shrivastava, Ashok Bhatnagar and others declaring that the boss had been sulking the whole morning and they hoped I could change his mood. I did not waste more time with them and went to see Sachdev. On the way, I met Ashim Mitra, who told me that the boss was upset because they could muster only 70 locos thus far for GRS from the remaining four divisions.

I found Sachdev in his chair, looking glum. He looked at me with a hangdog expression when I wished him.

“So, what is your contribution?” he asked, in a voice lined with doubt.

“I am offering 31 locos, Sir” I replied.

The gloom seemed to lift from the room. Sachdev called Ashim Mitra on the intercom.

"Mr Ramarao is here" he said in a buoyant tone.

The change in mood was not lost on Mitra. Sachdev asked him for the count and was pleased to find the total had crossed 100. He got busy dictating notes and talking to the Board. I left him and returned to Johari's room to give the others the news of the change in the boss's mood.

Sachdev displayed the pleasant side of his personality at work only occasionally, however. But I had gained his confidence. He displayed his trust in me in various ways in my subsequent assignments.


More by :  Ramarao Annavarapu

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Views: 3358      Comments: 1

Comment "Unfortunately, IR did not, ... even if it leads one up the garden path."
This is most appreciated.
If Operating had kept pace with Theory of Operations Research and practised it our operations would have been far superior. Put simply and directly terms, objective function of Operations is Maximisation of throughput subject to constraints of path, crew and rolling stock - subject matter of OR. With so much of computing power now available it would quite easy to develop useful algorithms for it.

Madhukar Sinha
19-Apr-2020 07:34 AM

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