The last few weeks has seen news of railway employees testing positive for Covid-19. This has resulted in establishments being closed for two to three days until the entire premises have been disinfected.
As a result, the personnel worked from home before normalcy returned till the next positive case was detected. This has happened at the Railway Board, the Northern Railway headquarters (HQ), the Southern Railway HQ, and the Chennai Divisional HQ.
However, a Divisional HQ getting disinfected is matter of concern as it houses the Control Office – the nerve centre of all railway operations in a division. When goods trains, workmen specials, parcel trains, specials for passengers and Shramik specials are being operated, it needs a fully functional Control Office.
Hence, it is imperative that the control office is manned, even if, by a vastly reduced workforce. “It is next to impossible to close down a control office without affecting the operations,” said Simon J.E., a retired Station Manager with extensive experience in train operations at the control office.
“It is extremely difficult to sit elsewhere without access to the equipment and facilities available in the control office,” he added.
Echoing this view is another officer who works in the Central Control. Though not as elaborate as the Divisional Control Office, the Central Control of a zone receives, collates and processes all inputs from the divisional level for further action, analysis, and transmission to the Railway Board.
What is Divisional Control?
The Control Office at the divisional level is the nerve centre of operations. Various departments have their staff to get a bird’s eye view of the operations under their portfolio – traffic, signal and telecom, commercial, security, traction power, engineering, etc.
Each department has a deputy chief controller for the shift assisted by the required number of controllers.
A chief controller oversees all the operations and reports to the Senior Divisional Operations Manager (Sr DOM). In addition, the respective division departmental heads are responsible for departments under their control.
Most of these operations are computerized. There is a host of applications running – most important of all, the Control Office Application, or the COA. The traffic control is divided into boards (sections) for easy controlling since the jurisdiction of a division can be unwieldy.
How Chennai Division Operates
The Chennai Division, for example, has boards for traffic between
* Chennai and Tiruvallur
* Tiruvallur and Katpadi,
* Katpadi and Jolarpettai,
* Arakkonam and Renigunta,
* Chennai Beach/Central to Gudur, and
*Chennai Beach to Villupuram
There are also separate boards dealing exclusively with suburban Chennai traffic on the Tambaram, Arakkonam, and the MRTS lines.
A Disaster Recovery Plan
Cut to an emergency situation such as floods, COVID-19, earthquake or even a fire. What is the preparedness of the Control Office for disaster management?
Surprisingly, there has been no plan as on date.
“A Sr DOM named Asit Chaturvedi, more than two decades ago, proposed the creation of a ready-to-use Control Office at the Moore Market Complex in addition to the main one at the Divisional HQ,” said a railway officer on the condition of anonymity.
“For some reason, that was shot down and today we are forced to operate with extremely small numbers in a crisis.” Working multiple boards or manning the phones for 12 hours is a stressful job. A very senior officer of South Western Railway (SWR) admitted that the entire set up of the Divisional Control Office needed a backup for disaster management.
“It is feasible, but needs exclusive funds,” he added.
The official observed that an exact replica of the existing Divisional Control Offices was required so that all the connected staff could just plug and play in the new place. “With most operations computerized, this should make the task easier. Of course, the real estate plus designing a complete office is to be accounted,” he felt.
CRIS, Railnet and Communications Portability
The Centre for Railway Information Systems (CRIS) – the IT arm of Indian Railways (IR) has centralized almost all the critical applications which are used on IR.
This is to ensure that the data rests at a secure location. Hence, in theory, given a network connection, section controllers and other department controllers can work from home or from almost any other location where an internet connection is available.
However, as on date, these applications are available only on the Railways own intranet called the ‘Railnet’ probably due to security concerns.
Railnet connections nowadays are given liberally to officers. Other operational locations and similar connections can also be extended to key controllers’ homes or temporary offices.
The Railways have a robust data backbone through which a virtual control office can be set up from almost any place. However, what they still lack is a communication system which can withstand the kind of upheaval caused by a Covid-19 like event.
While the communication systems in the Control Offices are extremely robust and safe, they are not portable to another location for seamless operations. The Control Offices rely on fast, reliable and safe communication, and if there is any disruption on that front, it can result in chaos.
While in some sections, the Control communications are on fibre optic channels, most still rely on old copper telephone cables and circuits. Hence, what the Railways need to do is set up a system of “Anywhere Communications” which can be rolled out from almost any location including from the homes of the various controllers. For this, IP telephony may be used so that the existing internet/intranet backbone can be utilized to set up a working control office virtually from anywhere.
One Time Investment for Redundancy
What the system needs is an urgent high-availability replication of the control office in its entirety. It will be a one-time investment, with probably minimal recurring maintenance expenses. But the benefit it offers is manifold.
There would no stress whatsoever- be it a fire, flood, earthquake or a pandemic -disrupting the entire set up, forcing a handful to work out of the same location for want of alternate infrastructure.
Even if one division in each zone manages to implement such a move, it will be a good beginning.