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Railways shone while Lalu was away

November 23, 2005 11:01 IST

Railway Minister Lalu Prasad's Rashtriya Janata Dal has been vanquished in Bihar. While Bihar should heave a sigh of relief, the Indian Railways may not.

Lalu Prasad has hardly been seen in Rail Bhavan in New Delhi during the last several months. So busy he has been with electoral politics in Bihar that he found little time to pay attention to the railway ministry. Even for presenting the railway budget last February, Lalu Prasad had to work hard to excuse himself from Bihar and be present in the Lok Sabha to read out the railway budget speech.

That may well have been a blessing in disguise. In Lalu Prasad's long absence, his officials took charge of the Indian Railways and drove it rather well.

For instance, the target for incremental growth in freight movement for the whole of the current financial year was reached by October-end. That was a record. Similarly, the Railways is on track as far as all other efficiency parameters are concerned.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh may have given Lalu Prasad credit for ensuring all-round improvement in the performance of the Indian Railways. But it is an open secret that Lalu Prasad's preoccupation with politics in Bihar left him with little time for anything else and that gave the Rail Bhavan mandarins a free hand to do what is good for the Indian Railways.

So, what did the officials do while the minister was away in Bihar? Well, they discovered the Gujral formula and put that to effective use.

The Gujral formula had a three-pronged strategy. One, increase the freight load of each wagon by 8 tonnes. Two, ensure a longer and extended run by freight trains without changing the locomotive engines. And three, reduce the frequency of checking wagons and tracks during a journey.

The originator of this formula was none else than M S Gujral, who was the chairman of the Railway Board during the 1980s. His formula worked wonders for the Indian Railways as its freight load carriage performance saw a dramatic improvement.

And why not? Adding 8 tonnes of extra load per wagon meant an increase in the Indian Railways' freight carrying capacity at least by a third. If the normal practice was to change the locomotive engine for a goods train on its Howrah-Delhi run at two or four points during the journey, the Gujral formula restricted the number of engine changes at one or two points and thus reduced the time a rake took to reach its destination.

Similarly, a reduction in the frequency of manual checks on wagons and the tracks at different stations on the route ensured that there were fewer causes of delay.

All this was possible because technology had changed and Mr Gujral was bold enough to experiment with that. Mind you, he did not change the rules pertaining to the load-carrying capacity of wagons or in the frequency of changes in the locomotive engines.

He introduced these innovations on an experimental basis. This was a clever ploy. The engineering departments and those entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring safety could not raise objections as the new system ostensibly was introduced only for a trial period.

Not surprisingly, the Gujral formula was given a quiet burial soon after he quit the Indian Railways to take charge of Coal India Ltd as its chief executive.

Almost 25 years later, the Gujral formula has been revived by Railway Board mandarins and the effect on the Indian Railways' freight carriage performance is for all to see. Once again, these changes have been introduced on an experimental basis, so that objections from the engineering departments can be set aside.

There is no denying that the Gujral formula has obvious consequences for the safety of the railway track system. The Railway Board mandarins must not look for quick fame. The changes introduced ostensibly on an experimental basis must be subjected to a proper scrutiny so that their continuation is reviewed from all angles.

The problem is that if such a review takes place now, the experimentation has to come to an end and the Indian Railways' performance will naturally take a hit.

With Lalu Prasad to be seen more often in Rail Bhavan, prospects of such a review look very dim. Can Lalu Prasad afford a marginal decline in the performance of the Indian Railways so that the effects of his officers' experimentation can be properly studied?

A man whose party just tasted defeat at the hustings will be reluctant to suffer a decline in the performance of his ministry so soon after returning to Rail Bhavan.

Yet, it will be in the long-term interest of the Indian Railways and its safety that such experimentation is closely studied before it can be continued any further. There are many other pressing issues before the Indian Railways.

The monopoly of container movements, enjoyed by the Indian Railways, has to be dismantled, as was promised by Lalu Prasad in his last budget. A freight corridor project to connect all the four metropolitan cities is also on the anvil. Work has to begin on both these projects as well.

Lalu Prasad's agenda as the railway minister will be full. He will also have time to focus on the railways. But that, ironically, may not augur too well for the Indian Railways.

A K Bhattacharya