* Neenu Ittyerah is the principal chief operations manager of the Southern Railway

* There been many changes in the service since she joined in 1988

It’s 7.15am, and Neenu Ittyerah is already on the phone, calling up officials from her vast department. She has to check on multiple matters — from the movement of the day’s freight wagons to the trains that ran the previous day. But then life as the principal chief operations manager (PCOM) of the Southern Railway (SR) is a hard grind.

By 9.30am, she is in her office at the SR headquarters in Chennai, and again caught in a flurry of phone calls. SR handles a large number of passenger and mail trains, though during the lockdown it was mostly dealing with the departure of Shramik Specials carrying inter-state workers.

Ittyerah also has to coordinate with other railway departments on policy issues laid down by the Railway Board. “The zonal headquarters ensures policy formulated at the Board is passed down to the divisions for execution and we also observe how it works on the field, analyse it and suggest changes, if any, to the Board,” the Indian Railway Traffic Service (IRTS) officer says. And then there are the surprise and routine inspections of railway stations and interactions with ground-level staff on maintenance issues.


Neenu Ittyerah


Ittyerah, 55, took over as the PCOM in December 2019. The last six months have been challenging, particularly since the lockdown period has overturned old time-tables and ushered in new work. As essential commodities needed to be moved, she had to liaison with district administrations on freight wagons of food grains.

Then there were the 387 Shramik Specials that ran from May 1 to June 6, from Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Puducherry and Mangaluru to various destinations up north. “It involved teamwork and liaison with officers from other zones, the Railway Board, and with the state governments. The hours of work are long, and one is on call 24X 7. This is true for every single PCOM in Indian Railways. While we have always run special trains, this is the first time we are running trains where the passengers register their demand for travel with the state government,” she explains.

Ittyerah, of course, is no stranger to demanding jobs. She was earlier the divisional railway manager of Madurai Division, a job she describes as physically more taxing. But, she adds, the role of the PCOM is challenging because of the need to be in constant sync with the socio-economic requirements of the region, and since it has a direct impact on the overall goals of the organisation and the demands of freight and passenger traffic.

“Being PCOM of SR gives me the opportunity to manage suburban traffic, which is integral to the city of Chennai. As the head of the traffic department I am also responsible for my officers and staff, all of whom interact directly with train operations, as well as form the front-line staff at every station. It is my job to keep them motivated,” she says. Stress on the job is a given, but when she has the time, she delves into her reading, non-fiction especially. “I like Atul Gawande; and when I need a little pick-me-up, I turn to Bill Bryson’s travel stories.”

Ittyerah is not the first woman PCOM — Jaya Verma Sinha of South Eastern Railway and Utpalparna Hazarika of North Frontier Railway preceded her. But she is the first woman to hold the post in SR.

She points out that there have been many changes in the service since she joined in 1988. There were few women in the service then, possibly because it was a demanding job that involved considerable field work, she stresses.

However, she emphasises, women do not have to contend with a glass ceiling in the IRTS service any more. “The work has demands, and if one can meet them, then the administration does take cognisance of it,” Ittyerah says. Now, with lockdowns in most states winding down, the immediate focus of the Railways is the phased resumption of train services and infrastructure building work.

Ittyerah is originally from Kerala, but did most of her schooling in Agra. She read botany in Miranda House, Delhi, and then did her master’s from Delhi University. In 1988, she qualified both in the RBI Officers’ exam and the UPSC but plumped for the IRTS service as she did not want to be “bound by a desk job”.

Ask her about storming male bastions and she minces no words. “Being a woman has not made it any more difficult for me as I face my own fair share of patriarchy, which is unfortunately still a part of the social fabric. But I have worked with incredibly fine male officers who have treated me as an equal,” she says.

Ittyerah knows the import of that, for she comes from a family where women have always worked. Her mother stepped out of her home in Kerala at the age of 16 in 1935, and travelled more than 2,000km to study medicine in Uttar Pradesh (UP) and then went on to work in Madhya Pradesh and UP. Her sister is the editor of Amar Chitra Katha, a publishing house known for comics on mythology. “I have seen women co-exist with men in the workplace,” Ittyerah says. She, for one, is certainly not cowed down by challenges. Ittyerah, clearly, is on track.

Vinay Kamath