The Invincible Railway Traffic Official


Between the Lines: A Railman's Journey, by Annavarapu Ramarao; Notion Press, 2022; pages 540, Rs 575.


THERE WAS BUT A NARROW strip of roadway that led out eastward from the town of Kamptee leading on to the small village of Kanhan that lay beyond the river. The roadway, which was never too busy a hundred years ago, passed through the cantonment of Kamptee, running beside the railway line to Bilaspur, before passing over the mighty bridge that spanned the river Kanhan. This road bridge, running alongside a parallel rail bridge and built of several sandstone arches still stands, although now lying forlorn and abandoned on account of its advancing age. Its decorative iron railings are still in place, carrying underneath its sweeping arches the quiet waters of the meandering Kanhan.

     On this bridge could be seen many years ago a simple young lad, about ten years of age, satchel in hand, trudging back home on weekends with his siblings and friends after attending the Hindi primary school in the nearby town of Kamptee. The walk along the solitary roadway was a leisurely exercise and always great fun; the boys laughed, treating themselves to tidbits. A little way down the line they halted, and hurled stones at fruit trees, picking up guavas that dropped to the ground. 

     The young lad whose fortunes seem to us worthy to record here belonged in fact to a family of railwaymen. His father served as Station Master of Kanhan Junction, a station on the Bengal Nagpur Railway; and what is even more remarkable, his grandfather too had served on the railway at one time in the distant past.

     And so the boy with the satchel walked on under the sun, his gaze darting hither and thither, thinking of his games and laughing with friends, lost in a world of his own. Who would have ever imagined in his wildest dreams that the lad, frolicking with his friends on his way home would go on to hold the office of Chief Operating Superintendent on the railways one day!

     The book under consideration here is an autobiographical account of an Indian Railway Traffic Service Officer, beginning with young Ramarao's boyhood days spent in railway quarters in Kanhan in the late nineteen thirties and early nineteen forties. Within its pages is woven a narrative that sets forth events of the author's days beginning with home life, education, and his selection for railway service, and going on to describe in considerable detail his subsequent career as a senior Officer of the Indian Railway Traffic Service. 

     Growing up in railway quarters in Kanhan in the forties, Shri Ramarao tells us that railway families in small towns often reared cows for milk, and he fondly remembers the time when he and his brothers played with toy trains the boys had made themselves using matchboxes and torch batteries. His tryst with the primary school in Kamptee soon over, the lad was sent to Nagpur, a bare twenty kilometers away, to attend high school, to be followed by college education. There were trials and privations to be endured along the way, but with understanding and supportive parents the boy emerged victorious in a few years time, armed with a master's degree in Chemistry. 

     The young man now stood at the crossroads of life. His very first assignment would take him to Jabalpur where he found work as a college lecturer in Chemistry. Fortune favours the brave and the ambitious it is said, and young Ramarao possessed both these attributes in no small measure. The turning point in his career would come when he appeared for the Central Services examination in 1956. The outcome of this bold move was far from certain. If he succeeded, it would propel the young man on towards a bright and promising career. Would he succeed in clearing the much dreaded UPSC examination?

     Annavarapu Ramarao did perform well, both in the written test as well as the interview that followed. A year later there came a letter through the post. It was an appointment order asking him to report to the Eastern Railway headquarters in Calcutta. Ramarao had been appointed to the Superior Revenue Establishment of the Traffic (Transportation) and Commercial Establishments of the Indian Railways, the forerunner of the Indian Railway Traffic Service, and to begin with, would serve as a probationary officer on the establishment.

     Much like a train that begins to pick up speed soon after it has cleared the yard, the book really begins to take off from here. We now begin to see how a trainee officer in the railways learned his trade from scratch. Other than familiarising himself with the General Rules, the new entrant had to learn basic train operations from goods clerks, station masters, yard masters, guards and others. Trainees were made to work as goods train guards, even travelling on locomotives of coal pilots that shuttled between the yard and the several collieries situated in the coal belt of eastern India. They were required to keep meticulous notes of the yards and signal cabins they visited, their progress being carefully monitored by senior officials assigned with the task of supervision.    

     The author's first posting was as Assistant Commercial Superintendent holding charge over Howrah station and Parcel sheds. It was an imposing responsibility and one of the first things he would discover on his arrival here was that there was a great deal he had yet to learn. And yet, learn he must, if he would succeed. He ploughed on steadily, growing in stature whilst at the same time establishing a reputation for himself as a sincere and honest official. In the meantime, he would also go on to make new friends, get to know trade union leaders, and familiarise himself with the system as a whole.

     As the reader can well imagine, the scope of activities at Howrah station was tremendous, and the organisation itself, a vast one. Reading this account one can almost sense the frenzied rush on Howrah station, the ceaseless flurry of activity at the goods sheds, and the surging, restless crowds that characterised the working of this busy terminal on Eastern Railway.

     The early chapters of the book are going to find great favour with steam locomotive enthusiasts, for Shri Ramarao's assignments would lead him to spend a great many years in the coal belt of eastern India. 

     His first job here would take him to Asansol on the post of Divisional Operating Superintendent (Goods). Here in the very heart of the coal mining industry, we are told that as many as two thousand wagons loaded with coal would originate each day. There were over 300 sidings on the division serving mostly underground mines. Empty wagons drawn out from major yards in the division would make their way to these sidings each day, hauled by steam locomotives. The coal pilots, as they were known, were loaded with coal at the sidings and would return to the yard for onward despatch of coal. As may be expected, the air was thick with coal dust, and although electrification was in progress, steam locomotives were still very much in operation.

     Following a serious train collision at Dumraon station in the early sixties, safety had become a matter of paramount importance. We may savor the pleasure of accompanying Shri Ramarao as he travelled on motor trolleys carrying out station inspections wirhin his jurisdiction to assess if station staff were conversant with safety procedures and rules. He would also go on to inspect yards and sidings, looking for possible causes leading to shunting accidents. 

     Asansol West Yard in particular was the site of frequent derailments and would afford the young railwayman his first opportunity to put his investigative skills to use. He turned his attention to study the problem closely and soon made the discovery that the prime cause for these mishaps occurring on the 'king point' of the yard lay in the poor visibility of the summit of the hump from the yard cabin that mechanically operated the points. It had been a recurrent problem for years. Shri Ramarao had the system altered by having locally operated points installed close enough to the offending point, thereby eradicating the trouble altogether. 

     As a traffic officer Shri Ramarao would show himself to be a great innovator, his analytical mind teeming with new and unconventional ideas. He possessed the uncanny knack of devising ingenious solutions to problems which often presented themselves as insurmountable barriers in the area of railway operation in those times.

     He recollects his days when posted as Divisional Operating Superintendent of Eastern Railway, Howrah, when an opportunity presented itself where he tried out a new innovation he had devised to speed up the clearance of parcels on the station. Being the busiest terminal on Eastern Railway, Howrah had to deal with a large number of trains each day. Unloading parcel vans and handling deliveries was proving to be an ordeal, with the whole process taking place amidst the mayhem resulting from passengers having to pick their way through heaps of packets strewn all around the platform. Given these conditions, dealing with parcel vans was necessarily a time consuming affair resulting in considerable detention to trains arriving at the station. This in turn often led to perishable products like fish and vegetables going bad, besides causing detention at signals to incoming trains for want of platform space.

     It must be understood that this was a perennial trouble at Howrah station in those days, and operating officials were in despair, there being no clear way out of the trouble in sight. But this time Shri Ramarao held charge, and he was not one to easily accept defeat. In consultation with his colleagues, he instructed the Chief Yard Master of the coaching yard to shunt out each arriving passenger train within minutes of its arrival without touching the parcel vans, uncouple the train in the yard, and hustle away parcel vans to the parcel shed platform where goods could be handled without hindrance of any kind. 

     The method was first applied to the Doon Express and later extended to other trains. It was an unconventional procedure by all accounts, but proved to be a great success winning the appreciation of Railway Board officials besides freeing the main platforms of Howrah of the persistent problems of congestion and filth.

     There were numerous other instances, no less demanding, where Shri Ramarao would be called upon to bring his superior abilities and judgment to bear upon situations of a serious nature which had baffled rail transport officials all along and which apparently didn't admit of a solution.

     The book dwells at great length on the subject of Mughalsarai, home to India's famed marshalling yard, and we may take a fascinating tour of the yard and study its evolution and working.

     Towards the 1960s new kind of goods wagons, called BOX wagons had begun to make an appearance on the railways. These were fitted with four-wheeled bogies and modern coupling arrangements designed to withstand larger stresses. The new centre buffer couplers (CBC), as they were known, were a great improvement on the screw couplings found on older four wheeled wagons, but with this advantage came the drawback of having two different kinds of wagons to deal with in the goods yard. Steel devices, known as transition couplers were designed for joining wagons fitted with CBCs to screw coupling wagons.

     Wagons fitted with CBCs proliferated in the 1970s, with the  introduction of covered eight-wheelers (BCX) and covered four-wheelers (CRT), and their incompatibility with screw coupling stock led to serious congestion in railway marshalling yards across the country. Transition Couplers were in short supply because they were prone to theft.

     Shri Ramarao, posted at the time in Mughalsarai as Joint Director, Rail Movement could see the source of the trouble and put forward the idea of collecting CBC wagons on a separate line in the sorting yard, and thereafter re-sorting them into groups according to destination, but his proposals were turned down by Eastern Railway officers.

     Shri Ramarao had also identified another pressing issue, namely, a huge wastage of both time and engine power resulting from changing electric and diesel locomotive of all trains at Mughalsarai, this being an interchange point between Eastern and Northern Railways. His attempts to convince higher officials to change the system was treated with indifference. The intrinsic value of his ideas could only be gauged by a man of the genius of the legendary M S Gujral, who was then posted as Director General (Transportation) in the Railway Board. Taking the cue from Shri Ramarao, Gujral introduced two path breaking innovations, namely, the running of CBC fitted covered wagons in full train loads named Jumbo rakes, and secondly, the abolition of locomotive changes to some trains at Mughalsarai. These innovations became the starting point for Gujral to extend these ideas on an all India basis when he took over as Chairman of the Railway Board a couple of years later.

     The new system, when put into practice, led to a phenomenal improvement in the performance of goods yards at a time when Indian Railways had sunk to an abysmally low level of performance, and forms in large part the basis of goods train operation to be found on the railways today. 

Annavarapu Ramarao as Divisional
Railway Manager of Lucknow Division
of North Eastern Railway in 1982

     As a railway traffic official Shri Ramarao was unexcelled in performance. He possessed a profound understanding of the railway yards under his charge, and when faced with challenging situations he was ever prepared to abandon coventional wisdom and adopt new contrivances if they offered the promise of better returns.

     But other than delighting us with tales of his exploits in the field, Shri Ramarao also gives the reader enough historical context to give him the feel of the times, thus conveying a vivid portrayal of the work culture and social milieu to be found on the railways of the time with particular reference to the eastern zone. 

     Relations between senior railway managers and subordinates were often characterised by an overbearing 'rule of the master' attitude in the early days, a legacy undoubtedly inherited from colonial times. The author having had a first hand experience in this regard while serving as a probationary officer himself, vowed never to achieve subordination amongst his juniors employing such demeaning conduct when the occasion arose.

     The reader will come upon a delightful account here describing how different cadres in the railway organisation arose : the traffic and transportation department, the engineering wing, the Special Class Railway Apprentice 'Gymmy boys' of Jamalpur, as well as other services. Feelings of superiority amongst staff were bound to arise, as they do in any organisation, leading to barriers that impeded the growth of healthy interpersonal relationships between staff belonging to different cadres of the railways. 

     We also have a picture here of civil disturbances, industrial unrest, gheraos of railway officials, workers grievances and trade unions in the railways. The protests periodically launched by workers unions could seriously disrupt rail services leading to significant repercussions elsewhere. 

     We read of a time when a flash strike was launched by railway staff in Dhanbad in the sixties bringing train operations to a dead standstill. Taking along a few trusted Traffic Inspectors with him, Shri Ramarao rushed to Kusunda where the men took over the despatch of coal trains, coupling wagons and setting points and signals all by themselves. Being a successful traffic officer on Eastern Railway clearly called for both presence of mind and a wide range of skills. 

     During the span of his career, the author had twice been on deputation to the Fertilizer Corporation of India to serve as a Traffic Manager. In his later days he would be called upon to visit Ghana as a member of a RITES team sent to infuse new life into an inefficient and shabbily run railway system. Its economy in a shambles, Ghana was served by a narrow gauge railway that seemed to be on the brink of collapse with poorly maintained engines and rolling stock, unremunerative operating practices and the absence of telephonic links. The team got to grips with the battered railway and improvements soon began to follow. A major concern was the consistent derailing of trains, and on close examination this was traced to improper choice of gauge of locomotive wheels during manufacture. Henschel of Germany, who had manufactured these locos, were called in and following negotiations, agreed to replace the wheel tyres free of cost.

     Shri Annavarapu Ramarao had a chequered career, serving four terms as Divisional Railway Manager in the Eastern and North Eastern Railway zones, besides holding top ranking operating positions all throughout his career. 

     His final assignment was as Chief Operating Superintendent of Eastern Railway, Kolkata, an office that was shortly afterwards renamed as Chief Operations Manager. He had begun his career with Eastern Railway, and it was fitting that he should end his career at the place where he had begun. He cast his gaze over the station he had known for so long. It had been through a major refurbishment under Shri Ramarao's own direction some years ago during his tenure as Divisional Railway Manager here. The facelift given to Howrah station had included both cosmetic changes as well as vastly improved passenger amenities, resulting in a monumental transformation that had drawn effusive words of praise from all quarters. Now with only a few more years to go, Shri Ramarao could look upon the edifice of the station with a sense of pride and satisfaction. This would be his last significant contribution towards the functioning and betterment of this great railway he had devoted his life to. 

     Between the Lines makes for intensely absorbing reading, holding a rich historical record within its pages. It lifts the veil giving a rare glimpse into the inside working of the operating and other related departments of the Indian Railways in the latter half of the twentieth century: that fascinating human machinery which planned out railway movements and worked out strategies, all with the single objective of bringing about expeditious, safe and economical transportation of men and materials on rails. 

     Unquestionably a work of great educational value, Shri Ramarao's narrative is also an action packed drama with exciting events unfolding before the reader's eye as he goes along. The student of railway history would do well to devote himself to a thoughtful study of this masterly work that issues from the desk of one who has been an ardent and highly skilled practitioner of the art of railway traffic management.


Shri Annavarapu Ramarao (b. 1933) retired from the Indian Railway Traffic Service in 1991 as Chief Operating Superintendent of Eastern Railway, Kolkata. Other books on railway themes authored by him include Line Clear to India, Trailing Window: A Journey into Rail History, Nemesis: A Tale of the Emergency, and The Tiger of Bhanwar Nalla and Other Stories. Now settled in Bangalore, where he and his wife live with his younger son and family, Shri Ramarao spends most of his leisure in reading, writing, and watching cricket on television.


Ravindra Bhalerao