Indian Railways – Tracking a path to productivity and safety

The Railways’ future depends on new technology which can be handled by a smaller but better trained workforce

There have been reports in the media recently of a large number of safety-related posts in the Railways lying vacant. With an alarmingly high level of accidents lately, officialdom seems to be trying to justify stepping up recruitment on grounds of safety.

But Indian Railways is grossly overstaffed. “In terms of productivity (traffic units/employees), IR is way behind many of the railways,” says its Vision 2020 document. The document also shows IR coming behind Russia and China in terms of both freight (net tonne km per employee) and passenger (passenger km per employee) productivity.

Low productivity translates into low margins, with the railways staring at straightforward losses in the near future. The operating ratio (working expenses to gross earnings) has gone up (meaning falling surplus) steadily from 75.9 per cent in 2007-08 to a budgeted 94.6 per cent for the current year (2017-18).

Foreseeing this, the railways had “set itself a goal of 1 per cent reduction in the sanctioned strength per annum” (3 per cent annual natural attrition minus 2 per cent recruitment) “to reach an equilibrium level of right-sized staff strength”. But staff strength is not going down. In 2015-16, IR employed the same 1.33 million that it did in 2010-11.

However, staff costs almost doubled from ₹52,000 crore to ₹93,000 crore during 2011-16, according to a 2015 white paper. Wages, pensions and other staff expenses (2014-15 budget) account for over half (51.5 per cent) of total expenditure. Since the railways have no control over salary and pension levels which are fixed by the pay commission, they will sink unless they reduce head count.

Rigour is crucial

This has to be done by slowly reducing staff strength while simultaneously inducting new technology to perform the same operations. This ties in with improving safety. The railways have a future only if they introduce new technology which can be handled by a smaller but better trained workforce.

The attempt to justify higher recruitment to enhance safety has led to one report (attributed to PTI) quoting the minister of state for railways telling Parliament that the number of posts vacant in “safety cadres” is 1,28, 942. In fact, there is no “safety” cadre as such in the railways. The report further contrasts this with the number of vacancies in “all loco running including drivers” at 17,457.

Typically, the recruitment of drivers is given high priority. A new driver takes a year to train, a shortage of drivers results in higher overtime payment and, what is more serious, overworked drivers tend to make mistakes.

To get an idea of what impact technology can have, take the business of track inspection. Manual track inspection is undertaken by staff and officers travelling in trolleys. These used to be push trollies which were physically pushed by two men at a time.

The push trollies have now nearly all been replaced by motor trollies. Push trollies can be physically lifted off the tracks when a train has to be passed through, whereas motor trollies cannot; when they are at work a section of the tracks is “blocked” in the same way as when more elaborate track repairs have to be undertaken.

In developed economies, most of the manual inspection has been replaced by machine inspection which is less prone to error and of course needs fewer hands.

Man vs machine

The man versus machine argument is highlighted by the debate going on within Indian Railways for years now over whether to do away with guards in trains.

The guard’s functions are performed in developed economies mostly through technology. The cardinal logic for introducing more technology is to reduce the scope for human error; for the railways human error lies behind around 80 per cent of accidents.

There can be two reasons why speeded up recruitment is being sought to be justified. The development agenda of the Government is suffering. What better way to deliver on jobs than by speedier recruitment by the railways, a major employer, by justifying the recruitment on grounds of safety.

On the other hand, the railways are run through departments working in silos. A key measure of the importance of a department is its head count — the greater the headcount, the weightier the department.

The logic for greater use of technology with fewer hands lies in the relative number of different categories of staff. Group A and B staff account for 1.3 per cent of the total staff strength. Group C, under which a lot of the running staff (whose functions can be related to safety) come, account for 92.4 per cent of the staff (according to the 2015-16 year book of the railways).

Three years ago the railways unveiled massive investment plans — spending ₹8.5 lakh crore over five years — to induct new technology and capacity. New technology will enhance safety, more staff will not.

by Subir Roy. The writer, is a Senior Journalist

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