Indian Railways are the largest rail network in Asia and the second largest in the world under one management. Indian Railways is a great national asset. As per the statistics published in a White Paper by the Ministry of Railways, Govt. of India, a single transport network connecting far flung areas of the country, it is one of the largest transportation and logistics network of the world which runs 19,000 trains. It runs 12,000 trains to carry over 23 million passengers per day connecting about 8,000 stations spread across the sub-continent. It is equivalent to moving the entire population of Australia. It runs more than 7,000 freight trains per day carrying about 3 million tonnes of freight every day. Its network of 65,000 route kilometers is more than one and half times the circumference of the earth. As a fact picked up from another source, it is interestingly described that the total distance covered by the total trains running everyday in the Indian Railways equals three and half times the distance to the Moon. It is also one of the largest employers of the world employing around 1.55 million people. In an earlier era, looking to its gigantic size and scale, the Indian Railways have also been described as “imperium in imperio”, an empire within an empire.

The pivot of this large operation that is underway round the clock without any break round the year is the Station Master who holds the charge of eight thousand stations throughout the length and breadth of the country. Small stations operating at village levels far outnumber large stations at large towns and cities of the country. Our focus is on the small stations which lie within the rural areas of the country.

At every moment the operation of Indian Railways at a small station is worth watching where the station master leads the whole scene. A small station at a village is the epicenter of public transport serving numerous villages in the surrounding area. Unlike large stations which have a completely closed and monitored area which restrict and regulate the movements of non-traveling people, small stations operating in the midst or at the edge of a village form an integral part of the rustic scene with people as well as cattle having a free entry at the platform with free movements across and along the railway tracks. With almost no security staff the station master with one pointsman and often without him flags off the passage of numerous trains in the course of his eight hours’ duty at times extending by an hour or two till the reliever reaches to take the charge and sometimes readies himself up to serve a second shift in continuation.

He maintains a high level of alertness and vigilance all through the long hours of his duty every minute and even through a single minute every few seconds. He can manage to relax a bit when there is a comfortable gap between passage of trains. Even then he has to monitor the blocks given for maintenance on the tracks in his range. It is the unhindered, safe and timely movement of trains station by station and in between that is the key to the successful operation of Railways and this is what the Station Master focuses all his energies and attention on.

But this is only the technical side to his performance; there is the human and commercial side too.

At a small station the station master sells tickets too. He ensures the sale of tickets in a proper duration neither too long before nor too close to the arrival of a train. An unduly early booking gives him the worry that if for some unforeseen cause the train gets delayed, booked passengers might turn restless and get in a dispute mode with him. On the other hand last moment booking close to the arrival of the train worries him for the safety of the passengers who hurry from the ticket window to the train and struggle into it through the crowded gates of the often overloaded unreserved coaches of the passenger (non-express) trains. And yet passengers rush in at the last moment to buy tickets and again the Station Master sees to it as far as his time and system allows him that they get tickets and board the train safely. Here his human concern that it might be some emergency that has some passenger rushing in at the last moment goes side by side with his concern and engagement with the safe operation of trains through his station. On either side of his station there might be level crossings where road transport intersects rail transport and the Station Master has to ensure that the gates at the level-crossings are timely closed and opened for a safe and yet undelayed passage of people crossing them.

The movement of passengers at small stations is often too leisurely or too hectic to be safe. Often these stations have no foot overbridges and with some track occupied by some standing train the passengers have to cross the track from under the train. Thus the safe movement of passengers is a constant concern of the Station Master. He takes all pains to ensure passengers are not run over by any systemic lacunae and as far as possible by their own unwise or innocent movements.

Despite all safety measures if any passenger or non-passenger gets run over the key role to be played again falls to the share of the Station Master. As he has to ensure that the dead body is removed quickly and that too under police supervision so that train wheels don’t halt and police investigation on the accident commences quickly and gets on to the right track.

They keep low profile and yet command the scene at their work place. Facing the varied lot of passengers in varying situations with concern as well as command, meeting the maintenance needs of the railways through a variety of teams seeking his attention for a block in regular operation at a certain track and a proper and smooth handling of a small team that helps him in the timely and safe operation of trains, simultaneously keeping a watchful eye on each and every bogey of a fast passing goods train just to check all its bogeys are in good shape and order and no loss of goods under transportation is imminent, all its wheels are moving smoothly and none is jammed to harm the track or give rise to fire, that none of its doors are hanging open and none of other parts dangling loose to damage the signals close to the tracks disrupting further operation of trains. All this infuses a rare quality of continual vigilance that informs not only his humanly concern for the conduct of passengers at his station but also the due passage of trains through it. As a train proceeds to its destination every ten kilometers a Station Master along with his pointsman keeps vigil, from its engine as it passes opposite his operating chamber till the guard’s coach, flagging it off with the implication that the whole train is in proper shape and order and its journey ahead is safe in regard to the passengers, goods or the operating system as a whole. Though all operations at his station whether related to maintenance or some new construction or addition of some new facility or even supervision or inspection by his senior officers are conducted by different teams, the Station Master is always in an executive role as he presides over the timely operation of trains as the wheels should never unduly come to a halt.

His human and operational concerns go hand in hand and are duly performed within his systemic and administrative limits.Though he is part and parcel of a far larger system, he stakes even his normal health concerns for the sake of his duties. He fights against nature as he works in night shifts. His normal routine and his health concerns turn topsy-turvy and often culminate into major health risks. His duties are so binding that he cannot leave them even in the case of the demise of a near and dear one unless a reliever is available to relieve him. At times it virtually happens. Thus his commitment to his duties though a sine qua none for his job is consummate and it flows through him lightheartedly and unfailingly. Though systemic lapse on his part, even of a few seconds, is electronically recorded and has him chargesheeted, he is rarely guided and governed by the control and command of the authority supervising over him. Had it been so he would break under the burden of his duties and the official and the systemic pressure he continually works under. What controls and commands him is the human concern that even a slight lapse on his part may result in a major accident and may claim numerous lives. One Station Master described to me the faith people repose in their system that how they go to sleep without any worry for their safety. It is the lovable burden of fellow human lives who repose complete faith in his work that lightens his feet in the long and heavy hours of his duties.

Does he just manage or quietly lead? Is his work mere routine or the heartthrob of a vibrant system which Indians proudly call and feel to be the lifeline of the nation? What truly defines Indian Railways? The rampant corruption that is brought to focus every now and then or the devoted lot of its employees who pour in their precious lifeblood every moment to the regular upkeep of all its vital mechanics to ensure that the people it transports travel on its wheels not only safely and punctually but also confidently and comfortably. To me every act to manage a small part of a large system with the value consciousness of concern for human life is an act in leadership. A far-seeing vision to lead humanity to a larger good and goal can never come to fruition if every act and step on the path is not guided by a live concern for safe movement. In ensuring safe movement and transportation of people and goods, it also ensures a smooth and fast-paced growth of the nation.

Located at the centers of the rural and the urban landscapes, railway stations continue to be the focal point of major business and economic dynamics not only in India but all over the world. With passangers starting or completing their journey there; parcels booked, received and delivered there; outward and inward freight cargo handled at the adjacent goods sheds, stations remain the center of transaction for all rail business. Station Master is in overall charge of the station.

With the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi pleading for the Indian Railways not just as a mode of transport but as “the backbone of India’s economic development”, the Station Masters, being at the center of the operation of the Indian Railways, can be seen literally as the real drivers of the Indian Economic Development.