Railways has been one of the legacy organisations of India.It has a 150 year old history and has been part of almost every Indian’s life. From its role in independence to its importance in war, it remains one of the most important player for India’s emotional, economic and political landscape.However, India’s most romanticized organisation has entered into a phase of midlife crisis .Changes are inevitable part of any organisation, the slow pace of change in railways and increasing aspirations of people have finally driven the railways to the stage of fear, confusion and chaos.The merger of services,private trains and trimming of costs are those situations which have left railways in a state of awe and uncertainty. Railways , clearly, today is facing a serious psychological and structural challenge.This phase can be compared to what is called a midlife crisis.

A midlife crisis is nothing but a phase of transition of identity and self-confidence that can occur when one usually enters one’s 30’s and 40’s.Considering the age of railways, this has come quite late in railways’ life.The phenomenon is described as a psychological crisis that produces feelings of intense depression, remorse, and high levels of anxiety, or make drastic changes to their current lifestyle or feel the wish to change past decisions and events.The aforementioned state of mind is clearly visible in railways from top to bottom and everyone is thinking when this anxiety will get some peace. Every officer and staff has an idea but there is no unanimity on how to come out of this crisis.Also, the inertia of past is weighing heavily on the organisation’s attempt to change.So, the moot question is will railways be able to come out of this crisis more stronger and bolder or will it develop suicidal tendencies with more pain in offering?

The only solution to midlife crisis is to undergo a deep introspection and understand one’s strength and weaknesses.Railways’ strength is its unique place in economy and its potential to decrease the logistic cost from 14% to 10% similar to those of developed economies. Despite railways shrinking share in freight, it remains undoubtedly the most efficient mode of transportation considering the Indian landscape.The inherent ‘rail-wheel’ efficiency is the biggest strength of railways and there is a need to capitalize on that.But why railway is not able to attract more freight players?

Railways freight business is characterized by  average quality of service delivery and lack of customer orientation.For example, railways still continues to use penalties like ‘demurrage’ and ‘wharfage’ to penalize the customers. On the other hand, if it would have been some private party , it would have capitalized by creating value added service like warehousing and last mile delivery and charge extra for that.The attitude that customer has to run after the railways to get its product transported is a major reason for freight to shift to road. In one of my inspections, I was surprised to see a 500 strong fleet of lorries outside a cement plant which was only giving one rake per day to railway. One rake can be no more than equivalent to around 50 trucks.Let us be very clear, it is not cheaper to transport by road but it is definitely safer and reliable to transport by road and customer prefer the later. Further, railways’ lack of integration with last mile delivery makes it unattractive option for companies who don’t want waste their energy on logistic management but want to focus on their core business.

Covid 19 has provided railways the right opportunity to take bold decisions.The first is to move permanently away from short distance passenger trains.The habits of passengers are likely to get changed due to covid and railways should make up its mind to let short distance passenger business go to road.Secondly, lockdown happening in different parts of the country along with rising fuel prices presents railways a once in a lifetime opportunity to reclaim its glory in freight business.But for this to happen, it will require that railways should time-table the freight trains and invite private freight marketing companies to provide high-notch end-use facility with least bureaucratic intervention.Third party end-user facilities are important part of creating a high value supply chain as it is the weakest point in the whole system.Lastly, railways need a high quality inter-modal rolling stock and creating players in that arena is going to give long term gains.

Apart from building on its strengths, railways should also avoid mistakes.One such mistake will be a poorly designed human resource reform known as merger.No matter who is the winner in this merger, the system will be the biggest loser.Every promotion will witness a court case and a permanent chaos will set in the organisation.This one single action has the potential to deform the organisation and it will not be speculative to say that it can lead to permanent shattering of India’s Economic dream.The confidence that private sector alone can run railway is not only naive but also lacks evidence keeping in mind the global experience.Thus, railways should focus on its strength and avoid making blunders. Corporatisation, increasing private participation and trimming costs are all welcome move and should be encouraged but what needs to be avoided is risking the morale of existing human resources as humans take emotions very seriously.Thus, railways should push hard for structural changes while carefully treading human resource reforms which require more of consolidation than merger.