Colonial Era protocols and practices: the bane of Indian Railways

On June 5, this correspondent took the 10:48 am local train from CBD Belapur towards Kurla on the harbour line of Mumbai’s suburban network to attend a press conference at the Kurla car shed. That rake happened to be a rickety old one but in railway lingo, it had been retrofitted.

More than an hour later, addressing the media, Rajesh Agrawal, Member-Rolling Stock, Railway Board proudly announced that old rakes on Mumbai suburban were a thing of the past. There were several officers from the Mumbai area including the DRM of Mumbai division who were present, but no one dared to differ. Or was it that the information provided to the higher-ups did not present a true picture.

The media on its part was quick to call out the bluff.

The fact is that old rickety rakes still run on the trans-harbour branch between Thane and Vashi/Nerul/Panvel and some rakes also run on the harbour branch.

 Whatever the reason, it raises an important point – why are higher-ups mostly detached from ground reality? Sample this: the senior officer community of Indian Railways (IR) availing railway quarters in Mumbai stay in plush South Mumbai neighbourhoods; Malabar Hill, Churchgate and Badhwar Park, and are driven down by chauffeurs to their offices.

If they have never experienced Mumbai suburban as a common man before joining IR, chances are, they never would. As these officers usually travel first class with their subordinates in tow during non-peak hours or in the motorman/guard cabin, they do not possess first-hand experience of peak hour rush.

Colonial era customs

Pre-independence colonial-era customs followed by the British are still prevalent on IR which is hampering the behemoth’s progress.

The first and foremost is the three-tier organization structure of IR’s operations adopted from the British – board level, zone level and division level. The board level does the policy-making and the division level is where the implementation happens. In this era of technology, instant communication and several tools to ease work, the existence of zones should be reviewed, justified and only if they are relevant, the existing structure should be left alone. Zones should not just be vehicles of providing promotions to their employees.

Departmental In-fighting

IR’s growth is also stunted due to perennial bickering between departments. A classic case is the issue of Train -18 where the media is full of write-ups detailing the fight between the Mechanical and the Electrical departments.

The fact is departmentalism has crippled IR. It is not just the one stated above but every department has a grouse against every other and the undercurrent of being loyal to one’s department is so strong that employees forget that they work for IR and not their department or division or zone.

This has been extensively dealt with all the committees which were constituted to make recommendations for improving IR, including the latest, the Bibek Debroy Committee, but to no avail. Being a monopoly and a ministry under the Central Government, employees especially at the higher echelons seem to care two hoots about its customers and know at their back of their minds that the IR is too-big-to-fail and the government is bound to step in the country’s interest come what may. This creates a moral hazard.

Orderlies and the Saloon effect

In late 2017, the then Chairman, Railway Board issued an order to ensure that safety staff at the Group D level are not used as bungalow peons /orderlies. It was expected to unlock 30000 employees from such work. It is still a work –in –progress.

The saloon is an exclusive air-conditioned compartment is given to higher-ups in the IR of the rank of SAG (Senior Administrative Grade) level and above. It is seen as a prestige among railway staff and has an aura. Though the earlier NDA government had suggested that saloon travel should be avoided, it seems that its abolition is still a work-in-progress.

Stay in a same place using the merry- go- round principle

There are several officers who stick to the same town /city /metro by ensuring that they are transferred in and around for decades together. For example officers in Delhi can work in the Railway Board / Northern Railway Zonal Headquarters/ Delhi Division besides rail PSUs such as IRCON, CRIS RITES, IRCTC and the like and ensure that they stay in and around New Delhi. In Mumbai, one has the choice of Western Railway and Central Railway headquarters, the workshops in and around Mumbai, divisional headquarters of Mumbai, Mumbai Rail Vikas Corporation and even the state government on deputation.

Suspensions and transfers

Whenever a major accident occurs due to lapses on the part of railway employees, such employees are suspended or removed from service for their lapses. However, a GM of that zone is sent on leave or DRM of that division is usually transferred. According to IR establishment rules transfer of an employee is not a punishment. Obviously, such a transfer is done only to show the public that action has been taken, though it just ensures that the incumbent is taken away from the firing line. This means that officials responsible for getting the work done from frontline staff have all powers according to their position in the hierarchy but no accountability.

Other practices

Other objectionable practices that prevail include harassment of superannuating staff. This is done by demanding money for doing their full and final settlement on time.

Also prevalent is the misuse of privilege passes by railway employees. Mis-use of their position by vigilance department staff to make money from offenders instead of booking them for malpractices is also prevalent.

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About the Author: Raghavendra Rao


  1. What needs to be looked at is whether IR can continue to function as a single business entity at this point of time. Rolling stock needs to be spun off, either into a private firm or a public listed PSU under the Ministry of Heavy Industries. Train service operations and fixed infrastructure construction need to be two separate business heads, each with own management and finances, so one isn’t dependent on the other. Rolling stock policies may have to go under PMO scrutiny as it is often the face of the railway network.

    Most of these are actually suggested by Bibek Debroy in his report – his key word is ‘unbundling’. That’s also how railways in Europe and Japan work – as multiple, specialised entities working together. China is much like us, with everything under China Rail, but they make it a State Policy so Government and Party top brass takes a lot more interest (while here our ruling parties often treat it as a token for an alliance partner) in modernisation of railways, especially high-speed railway.

    1. Thanks for writing in. Only two points in the story actually coincide with the Debroy report (three tier structure and departmentalism).
      The Bibek Debroy Committee report actually pointed out this open secret known to anyone tracking IR for several years and is obvious to the onlooker including the committee..The creation of 7 new zones at the urn of the century and now another one was done more to satisfy the bureaucracy’s urge to occupy positions of power as there was a general feeling that people close to the zonal headquarters were getting promotions, positions and others were being ignored. For example in the 1980s and 90s employees and officers from Bihar felt that they were not being given a fair chance for promotion though 4 zones passed through it- ER/SER/NER and NFR. Though a case against the government’s decision of creating new zones, the apex court struck it down. This duel is as old as India’s independence. N Gopalaswwamy Ayyangar the then rail minister wanted only 5 zones while the bureaucracy led by the Chief Commissioner of Railways (as the Chairman Railway Board was then called) K C Bakhle wanted 9 zones. Bakhle resigned and was picked up by the Tatas to head Air India. However better sense prevailed and the subsequent ministers created 4 additional zones making it 9. Nine zones eventually became 16.
      Departmentalism is another bane which is obvious to people who interact with railwaymen. The links to the stories which have highlighted the infighting within the organisation over the Train -18 is a case in point. However this is not the only example but the most recent one in public domain. Talk to any railwayman and one would know it is an organisation -wide phenomenon with every department having a grouse against every other.


    2. Looking at railways in the UK, and impact of privatization, I would say, no. Japan too has its struggles as a result. We should be looking at ways to improve IR, instead of dismantling it in favor of privatization.

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