A railwayman’s chronicle

| Updated on March 11, 2018 Published on March 11, 2018

Title: Up the Down Stair Case: The Story of The Indian Railways. Author: Abraham Jacob, Publisher: Vanathi Pathipakkam Price: ₹250

Jacob recounts his stint at the Railways, exposing departmental tribalism, caste divisions, and more


Abraham Jacob is a railway officer through and through, and his working autobiography — in which even his family barely figure — is a remarkable story of the Indian Railways from the inside, something which very few of the eight billion people who use the railways every year can ever see.

Jacob, who started his 35-year career in 1976 and concluded it as an Additional Member of the Railway Board, soon learnt that he was in what looked like a secret service. There were bewildering abbreviations and opaque codes of hierarchy and decorum, not to mention rules and procedures which shackled as much as they regulated and empowered. Seniors could be arbitrary and even brutal; very soon after the author had started, he was shockingly abused by a divisional superintendent. Another senior told Jacob later that he should have worn long sleeves and a tie to the meeting; that particular divisional superintendent features later in the book too.

Jacob nevertheless showed his mental and physical strength, taking the work seriously and learning wherever he was sent, including the guard’s van, the footplate, and the loco sheds. He is blunt about the apparently continuing condition of the guard’s vans, and about life in remote divisional headquarters towns. The Railways, unlike the army and other public bodies, would send staff to set up new centres first and would build the accommodation later; the staff lived and worked in disused railway sheds, and life for the men’s wives was even worse. Passing locomotives were often the only water-supply.

Seniors could also be a problem; one would arrive late, after a huge breakfast, and then start meetings at 12.30pm; he would talk non-stop for hours, always to avoid addressing key issues, and subordinates would stagger out hungry and exhausted. One senior, though, unexpectedly revealed another side; when Jacob had worked non-stop for 72 hours in a crisis, his boss responded to a call from headquarters by asking them what they, in their air-conditioned offices, knew about real railway work.

Tough journey

As for operations, those were the days of management by wagon-counting, which with equipment failures, especially on the old four-wheeled oil-lubricated wagons, meant that the position reports all sections had to file bore no relation to the targets set from above; the wagons also had to be returned to home sections, which meant large numbers of empty freight trains. The steam locomotives, gleaming and magnificent when they worked, were already falling apart; they were ‘dirty, hot and temperamental’, needing 12 hours to get steam up and then running only when incessantly fed with coal. They also needed water every 100 kilometres — and had to be returned to their home sheds daily.

Jacob worked in almost every department, from catering (which he shows is easy money for outside contractors with political contacts) through accounts to the commercial and passenger side. He showed his capacity for leadership throughout, getting to know his staff at all levels and making them feel part of the wider organisation. A former national-level sprinter, he coped easily with the tough (and sometimes repulsive) conditions on the compulsory Territorial Army placements, and led one of his platoons to a better performance than regular army units.

The social side had its own problems, and the author recounts the undisguised revulsion various Brahmin officers showed when he, a Christian and a meat-eater, attended functions. At work, he encountered bitter resistance not just to change but to improvement, and he was well aware of a form of caste-ranking in which the temporary engineers — some of the finest colleagues he had — were on far worse terms and conditions than the permanent staff.

Jacob never stopped proposing improvements, many of which were introduced when MS Gujral became chairman of the Railway Board. The new eight-wheeled wagons, far more reliable with their sealed roller-bearings, were segregated from the old ones, and rakes replaced wagons as the running units; welded rails also caused much less wear to wagons. With whole trains running end-to-end and diesel locomotives giving five times the range of steam, almost every area of operations improved.

Moreover, major stations started telephoning berth availabilities to stations further along, which meant TTEs could no longer triple their salaries by selling berths. Gujral also ended the Territorial Army duties, and was tough but wise in his dealings with what seem to have been increasingly obstructive and truculent unions.

Straight talking

Yet, the Gujral reforms were almost the victim of their own success, particularly as the need for intensive maintenance diminished. From the early 1990s onwards, the craze for outsourcing — often through very expensive foreign contracts and inflated domestic ones — turned experienced technical officers into contract managers and almost eliminated the railways’ technical expertise. Jacob is also caustic about the tendering process, about sycophancy and rumoured corruption at the upper levels, and above all about the persistent lack of transparency and longer-term planning throughout the railways. India’s route length has expanded from 54,000 kilometres at Independence to 67,000 today, while China has gone from 27,000 in 1945 to 1,27,000 today.

Worse still, India’s rail freight — the main earner — now relies overwhelmingly on low-value bulk goods like coal, foodgrains, and cement. High-value finished goods go by road. Further, apart from Mumbai, India’s cities lack the extensive, but rarely lucrative, suburban rail networks. Jacob considers the main internal problems to be departmental tribalism and virulent caste divisions. This straight-talking and utterly dedicated officer’s criticisms may well hurt, but he also shows what could be done and how it could be done, and with his Master’s in English literature he writes almost lyrically of the best things about the railways. It is, as he says, almost a miracle that the railways function at all — but they could do so much better.

The reviewer teaches at IIT-Madras and Asian College of Journalism


Meet the Author: Abraham Jacob is a former additional member of the Railway Board. He has spent over 35 years with the Railways.

Published on March 11, 2018
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