[stextbox id=”info”]This is the second post in सिर्फ़ News‘ series on the way the Ministry of Railways is being handled under its celebrated minister Suresh Prabhu[/stextbox]

If the painful culmination of Rail Vikas Shivir with the news of the Kanpur accident on 20 November were not enough, there was yet another derailment, this time in the North Frontier Railway on 6 December that killed 2 and disrupted rail traffic severely. How trains need to be run when the stores and the treasury are depleted, as argued here, was on full display again on the same day when a freight locomotive went up in flames.

Knee-jerk reaction by clueless management

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The locomotive that caught fire had a certain protection circuit in bypassed condition. This triggered a knee-jerk reaction of suspending a young officer who had just returned from a sanctioned leave. Already, Railways has ceased to attract young people in technical services; such a reaction by the management resulted in a massive outcry or protest.

In the instant case, neither the locomotive nor the crew belonged to the team that was acted against — they just happened to be the unfortunate ones in whose division this incident happened.

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Second page of the protest letter bearing signatures of the officers concerned

Seldom do officers get to sign such letters together. The administration is bound to take this suspension back, but the damage has been done. A youngster with a few years of service manning frontline position would be even more tempted to park himself in the sidelines and resist from taking decisions.

On the issue of the practice of bypassing the safety circuits, it is as though Railways has suddenly discovered this. It’s a silent price that has been paid for running the system on fumes for long. Each operating decision by engineers today is like a roll of the dice.

Quelling the disquiet in Railways

Railways 3Some time ago, an interesting letter emerged (adjoining image). This amounted to a gag order, though one could not have faulted the letter on the rules. Old timers were left wondering whether the government had a right to ban associations of employees and muzzle genuine voices of dissent.

Following the devastating Kanpur accident, the Railway Ministry had summoned chief safety officers from 6 railway zones that had witnessed an increase in derailments. Surprisingly, this meeting was not attended by the chairman of the Railway Board. More amusing was the fact that selected gangmen from these zones attended the meeting, too — a move seen adversely by the watchers.

Happening barely within a fortnight of the massive idea crowdsourcing exercise, Railways, as argued here, has been left gasping and gaping. In yet another knee-jerk reaction, yet another committee has been formed!

Railways 4Amazing lack of ideas stares out from the next letter (adjoining image). This, when there has been a safety directorate in railway board, when barely a fortnight ago, there was a massive crowdsourcing exercise carried in the carried by McKinsey, with safety as one of the themes.

Going wrong on fundamentals

Avoidance of conflict of interest is a key consideration of organisational design. However, through a recent decision, the leadership muddled this up. Production units operate under the pressure of meeting the target. Historically, it has been a settled practice that key safety items were given to the Research Designs and Standards Organisation to keep approvals and inspections away from the pressure of deliveries.

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If the RDSO had to be divested of vendor management, the easiest way was to create a separate entity by carving out what are known as Quality Assurance Directorates at the RDSO, which are under a separate administrative structure. By bringing vendor management to production units, the principle of avoidance of conflict interest gets sacrificed. Production units operate under a very different set of pressures which are well known to railwaymen.

Thus, yet another decision (under the name of a one-man Sreedharan Committee’s recommendations) was adopted without necessary foresight and managerial clarity. If improvement of quality and probity were the objectives, these are the precise aspects that have been compromised.

Reorganisation: misplaced, misled, misdirected

The year 2016 has been one when a major organisational change has been attempted. In an ill-timed and badly sequenced decision, the decision makers yet again signalled that frontline engineering departments, which bear the brunt of the elements, are subordinated to armchair services. The clever ploy of bringing the procurement service in line with rest of the services is pretty neat, casting a long shadow on the purportedly impartial approach of the ministry.

Railways 5In the process, as argued in this column before, a golden opportunity to reform and restructure railways is being lost by the day. The first signal should have been that the leadership means business and that leadership recognises the ground realities. The troika about Railways Minister Prabhu has insulated him from the groundswell of anger and frustration. What would the deck hands do when the captain’s nest is busy in optics, inured to the course of the ship?

The historic mandate and support the current political leadership of the Ministry of Railways enjoys is being wasted in what would be remembered as a monumental blunder when the cold scalpel of history would sift through the decisions taken and directions given. Some day someone would write a tome, ‘All the MR’s Men’, as an epitaph of the great institution led asunder by the clueless.