In late December 2019, the Ministry of Railways announced the start of structural overhaul of the Indian Railways organization. The creation of a contentious Indian Railways Management Service and a reorganization of the Railway Board began with the announcement.
The idea of restructuring the Indian Railways organization is not new. It has been decades in the making. The concept was first mooted by the Prakash Tandon Committee report in 1994.
The restructuring should begin at the top, with the Board and the zones redefining their functioning. Briefly, the Board would comprise a number of Members who would also be Secretaries to Government, jointly and severally responsible for a broadly defined set of functions.The Prakash Tandon Committee Report, 1994
The functions suggested were:
- Bulk Freight Services
- Passenger Services
- Inter-modal Services
- Moving assets
- Finance and Planning
- HRD, Research and Quality
The Tandon Committee said that the zonal level must focus on marketing, customer development, movement and maintenance. It also recommended a three-year term for the Railway Board Chairman and its Members.
A Unified Indian Railways Service
The idea of the Indian Railways Management Service also dates back to 1994.
The Tandon committee was the first to recommend a unified railway service. All the different disciplines of engineering, technology, finance, personnel and stores would be combined into a single railway service, it suggested.
Persons recruited from each discipline were required to be trained and assigned in their discipline during the initial years. Then, they were to be given cross disciplinary postings to train these specialists into generalist working.
Selection for General Management positions such as DRM/GM was to be based on an incumbent offering oneself to apply and selected finally based on suitability and merit.
The specialists who preferred not to apply were to be developed in their own areas.
Indian Railways have been looked at by more Committees, Groups and Commissions than any other activity in India, except perhaps banking; [..] Yet, the desire for improvement appears not to have been matched by a desire to accept change and therefore there has been little action.The Prakash Tandon Committee Report, 1994
Reorganization and Redesignations on Indian Railways in the first half of the 20th Century
The 1901 Thomas Robertson recommendations
Rewind to October 19, 1901. Thomas Robertson, C.V.O., arrived in India to investigate the working of Indian Railways; recommend a development plan besides advising on managing railways, developing traffic, enhancing public convenience and improving revenue.
He concluded that government control over railways was the best option. Robertson recommended the creation of a small three-member Railway Board composed of specially qualified railwaymen.
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The Board was accountable to the Governor-General in Council, yet free to administer railways, construct lines, handle finances and was to be judged by results.
The Board consisted of a President or Chief Commissioner and two Members. The President was to be a member of the Viceroy’s Council for railways’ matters.
Organization of departments
The departments were organized as follows: an Agent or Manager akin to a General Manager; a traffic Manager who was the goods manager as well as superintendent of the line; a civil engineer and a locomotive superintendent.
In 1905, the Railway Board’s powers were formalised by Lord Curzon’s government. The Board reported to the Department of Commerce and Industry of the British Indian Government.
Mackay Committee (also called Inchcape committee) – October 1908
In October 1908, Sir James Mackay’s Railway Finance Committee introduced the following changes:
The Chairman Railway Board was re-named President, Railway Board with enhanced powers and direct access to the Viceroy.
In 1909 the post of Director of Railway Construction was abolished and a Chief Engineer appointed to advise the Railway Board on Civil Engineering matters.
In January 1914, one Member with commercial and financial experience was appointed. This modified the earlier rule that the President and Members of the Railway Board should all be men of large experience in railways’ working.
This arrangement was altered in 1920 when it was decided that all the three members of the Board should possess railway experience. A Financial Adviser’s post was created to assist the Railway Board.
Meanwhile the Construction branch was split in 1916 into two- one Assistant Secretary looking after Projects and another Assistant Secretary looking after ‘way and works’. Both reported to the Secretary or Chief Engineer.
By 1922, the charge of the ‘Way and Works’ branch was further divided between the Assistant Secretary in charge of Projects and the Assistant Secretary in charge of Stores.
In November 1922, the first Chief Mechanical Engineer was appointed to advise the Board on matters connected with mechanical engineering.
Acworth Committee Report in 1921
The Acworth Committee’s report in August 1921 recommended the separation of the Railway Budget from the General Budget. It also mooted freeing up of the railway management from the control of the Finance Department of the Government of India.
The Railway Board had a Chief Commissioner of Railways and four Commissioners. Of the four Commissioners, one was in charge of finance, organisation and staff with the other three in charge Western, Eastern and Southern divisions of Indian Railways.
The Railway Board was reconstituted with effect from April 1, 1924. It consisted of the Chief Commissioner, a Financial Commissioner and two members. One was responsible for ways and works, and projects and stores. The other was responsible for general administration, staff and traffic.
Creation of Member – Staff
In 1929, a new post for Member Staff was created. In April, 1951 the post of Chief Commissioner of Railways was done away with.
The senior-most member among the five was re-designated as Chairman –Railway Board (CRB).
By October 1954, the CRB was made a Secretary to the Government of India. The number of Board Members was again increased to five.
Recommendations of Several Committees Post Independence
Other Railway Committees had their own prescription for IR’s organizational woes.
The Bibek Debroy Committee (2015) gave two options: One was a unified service for all Group A services.
The second option was a consolidation into two services: one IR Tech Service, merging all five technical streams (IRSE, ISEE, IRSME, IRSSE, IRSS), and the other IR Logistics Service (IRTS, IRAS and IRPS).
Deliberations with different stakeholders indicate that amongst various causes, existence of the silo structure of the multifarious Group A services is a major contributor to perpetuation of this tendency to nurture the tribe even at the cost of the organization. This is nurtured even at the top management level, as they also compete for resources.Bibek Debroy Committee Report – 2015
The India Transport Report – National Transport Development Committee (2014) recommended abolition of recruitment via Engineering Services and Civil Services exams. It mooted an upgrade of the Special Class Railway Apprentice (SCRA) into two graduate schemes – IR Tech Service and IR Logistics Service.
It also said that IR should be restructured as a statutory corporation not under Companies Act with the Railway Board as IR Executive Board, the Chairman as CEO.
The current structure encourages excessive departmentalism at the management level and often leads to priorities being set not for the organisation as a whole, but on departmental considerationsFrom the National Transport Development Committee 2014
The Sam Pitroda Committee (2012) again recommended the functional restructuring of the Railway Board (Member-Passenger and Member Freight) with the CRB appointment not based on seniority.
It batted for lateral entry of specialists and wanted the Railway Board to be free from parliamentary functions
Organizational reforms are essential to ensure that IR is able to achieve the goals set out for modernization. The structure of the IR has remained largely unchanged for decades and it remains a functionally oriented institution that is organized around its cadres instead of around its businesses or customersFrom the Expert Group Report under Sam Pitroda in 2012
The Rakesh Mohan Committee (2001) gave a copybook remedy and said that the Railway should be made a Railway Executive Board while preparing for privatization.
Finally, the Gupta Narain Committee (1994) also mooted a unified cadre. However, the committee said no to a separate management cadre besides doing away with the UPSC mode of recruitment.
Also recommended was that CRB ought to be given powers to overrule other Members.
Departmentalism Over Decades, Key Changes In Railway Board Structure
The post of Member – Electrical was created in 1988. He was responsible for matters related to the electrical branch- locos, traction, electrification, signal and telecommunication.
Increasing electrification of the IR network since the 1990s and IR’s latest decision to fully electrify its broad gauge network has seen the near-phasing out of steam locos and the systematic reduction of diesel locos.
This increased friction between the officers of electrical and mechanical branches. To contain this, Indian Railways in August 2016 re-jigged the portfolios of Member – Electrical and Member – Mechanical.
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Member – Electrical was renamed as Member – Traction and was made in-charge of all locos, fuels, OHE etc. Member – Mechanical was re-named as Member – Rolling Stock and was in-charge of carriages, wagons, train-sets, and electrical maintenance of all coaching stock.
Nevertheless, key issues remained unsolved.
The conflict reached a crescendo during the trials and commissioning of the Train-18 trainset, later put into service as Vande Bharat Express, in late 2018 and early 2019. An ugly spat between the two branches was openly fought in the public domain.
A rare success in the form of modern trainset design developed locally became a casualty of the infighting. Out of the 20 trainsets that should have been produced by now, only two were rolled out.
By April 2019, two more Members were added to the Railway Board- Member Signal & telecommunications and Member – Materials Management.
Creation of the Indian Railways Management Service
With the Indian Railways lagging behind on virtually every target and execution plan, the Government of India made up its mind to go for broke. In December 2019, the Government of India decided to merge all eight services into one – Indian Railway Management Service (IRMS).
The intention to uproot departmentalism started in the right earnest. However, the engineer- versus non-engineer conflict in IR is a battle in the ratio 18:7.
The process to recruit staff into the new service will likely be announced over the next few months.
Expectedly, the move led to another round of inter-departmental squabbles – this time between the technical and the non-technical services. Furious and panic-stricken letters flew from both services to the Railway Board and were dutifully leaked to the media.
The fury spilt over to social media. A war ensued with the hashtag #NotoIRMS and #YestoTwoServices being trended on twitter by supporters.
The Indian Railways, already burdened by an out of proportion wage and pension bills, has been hit hard by the double-whammy of COVID-19 and a crashing economy.
The bureaucracy will have to adapt to the new normal and tear down departmental silos to save the organization.
Will they do it? Only time will tell.