The railways is finally out of the shadow of the British
On December 25, 2019, the Union Cabinet approved an organisational restructuring of the Indian Railways (IR), including the Railway Board (RB), the apex body of the organisation. These organisational changes have been talked about for a while. Committees led by Prakash Tandon (1994), Rakesh Mohan (2001), Sam Pitroda (2012), and most recently, Bibek Debroy (2015), had made related recommendations to reform the IR.
To understand why these reforms were necessary, one needs to understand the existing work process of the IR. The organisation still carries the British legacy of departmentalisation. The eight key departments — accounts, civil, electrical, mechanical, personnel, signal and telecom, stores and traffic — are integrated vertically, and have their own hierarchies. Each department works in silos, with reporting staying within the department. They also hire individuals who specialise in one particular function and rise through the ranks as super-specialists in one particular department. This same system, where there are task owners but no process or project owners, extends right up to the RB.
Thanks to this silo-approach, cross-functional or transformational projects often get caught in conflicts. In such an environment, bringing about any meaningful change is difficult. For instance, take the case of the Vande Bharat Express. The train was designed and built by the Integral Coach Factory at Perambur, Chennai, under the Make in India initiative. But it took time to scale-up because of inter-departmental conflicts. Even for relatively small things such as the ownership of diesel locomotives, there were turf wars among departments. Then there is the case of total electrification of IR, which is facing blockades due to a turf war. The inter-departmental rivalry has resulted in a shortage of loco-pilots who are experienced in operating electrical locomotives. These inter-departmental issues were leading to three problems. One, the IR cannot take up mega projects at a pace that gives it market advantages. Second, there are frequent time and cost overruns. Third, much time in the IR bureaucracy is spent in resolving routine conflicts.
The government has now grouped eight Class A services into the Indian Railways Management Service (IRMS). This integration will make IRMS officers “Railways specialists” rather than accounting or traffic specialists. They will be given cross-functional experiences; they will learn about IR as a whole, and protect the interests of the IR, while taking ownership of complex projects, rather than executing siloed tasks.
These changes, the government hopes, will also lead to faster decision making as each project will have single-point ownership. Faster implementation of projects will eventually lead to cost savings. There will be opportunities within the organisation, allowing qualified employees to rise through the ranks more efficiently, and take greater responsibility in the progress and development of the IR.
The reorganisation of the RB is also transformational. In the new setup, the RB will have a chief executive officer (CEO), with four members looking after finance, infrastructure and rolling stock, and operations and business development.
The CEO will manage the human resource through a senior official. The RB will also have a few independent members. The selection to the top posts will be open, with no departmental vetoes on any roles.
These changes were preceded by few other decisions taken by minister Piyush Goyal. Fifty RB officers have been already shifted to field roles to strengthen operations. Last year, the IR said it had seen no passenger deaths, a first of its kind occurrence in over 166 years of IR history.
The IR is proposing to undertake Rs 50 lakh crore investment over the next 12 years to modernise the IR service and bring world-class operating safety, customer service and train speeds to India. Such investments also requires a motivated, efficient and driven execution engine. The introduction of the IRMS and the reorganisation of the RB from departmental lines to functional lines will bring to the table the critical execution capacity to make the most of the ambitious investment plan. Creating functional specialisations will eventually lead to the emergence of home-grown IR specialists.