Work hard in silence, let your success be your noise.

                                                                         — Frank Ocean, American musician (b.1987)

In the last quarter of nineteenth century, railroads fundamentally altered the competitive landscape of business. The history of railway electrification[1] dates back to 1895-6 when the first electric tramways were introduced in cities like BerlinLondon, and New York. The first electric train ran in India with the inauguration of services between Bombay Victoria Terminus (VT) and Kurla Harbour on 3rd February 1925. Initially, the sections were electrified by 1500 Volts DC and later 3000 Volts DC. As a result of the extensive research and trials in Europe, particularly in French Railways (SNCF), 25 kilo Volts (kV) AC system of traction emerged as an economical system of Electrification. Indian Railways decided in 1957 to adopt 25 kV AC system of electrification as a standard, with SNCF as their consultant in the initial stages. Madras Beach – Tambaram section of Southern Railway was converted to 25 kV AC system by 1968.

As the movement of Electric locomotives need uninterrupted power, typically for every forty Kilometres (from the logistics perspective of maintenance and minimising down-time in case of failures) a centralised Traction Power Management system is in place. The core of such a management system is Supervisory Remote Control (SRC) Equipment.

Indian Telephone Industries Limited (ITI) established in 1948 as a Public-sector undertaking to manufacture Telecommunication equipments was given the responsibility of developing SRC equipment during the late 1960s. Initially SRC equipment was developed using discrete Semi-conductor devices like transistors[2].  With the invention of Very Large Scale Integrated Circuits (VLSI) during early 1974 ITI management decided to modernise SRC equipment to meet the requirements of not only Railways, but also the Power Distribution Networks of Electricity Boards and Integrated Steel Plants. Thus, I was one of the three fresh Electronics engineers posted to SRC & Telemetry section of N –Development department during 1974, the other two being Padmanabhan (TGP) and Subrahmanian (Subbu).

Having made the decision to modernise the SRC & Telemetry system, ITI management decided to find a suitable international company who’d be willing to do transfer of Technology for ITI to manufacture the SRC/Telemetry equipment. One French company that was keen to collaborate with ITI flew down their senior engineer and a technician with a working model of Telemetry system based on modular design.

During 1970s, not only the computer companies led the way towards a new industry structure that made use of fast information processing capabilities, but also promoted modularity[3] in building hardware system. Modular design mainly enables to decompose complex systems into simple modules in order to more efficiently organise the designs and processes.[4] Thus, by organising sub-assemblies and components as distinct building blocks (modules) that can be integrated through configuration to fulfil various customers and engineering requirements.

While marathon discussions spread over three days covering all aspects of technology transfer were going on one side, the technician could put together all the modules and demonstrated various functional features of the  system in a couple of days’ time! I even joined a diploma program in French language at Alliance Françoise. But lo! There was a change at Engineer-in-chief level; the collaboration proposal was dropped and a decision was taken to develop the system in-house. However, I went ahead and completed not one, but both Pre-diploma and Diploma courses with ‘tres bien’ grade (means very good!

Three of us, TGP, Subbu and me formed a formidable design team! Though TGP was older and more qualified in the subject than me and Subbu, as a person he was more a soft-spoken introvert and focussed mainly on work. He was also a voracious reader. I and Subbu being extroverts, mingled easily with engineers of other R & D groups. This helped in exchanging ideas and sometimes even in getting the required resources – components, computer time, etc. Subbu, being my junior in school often visited my house, thus became closer.

After finalising the system requirements, we three distributed design of different functional modules among ourselves and Subbu took additional responsibility of writing the codes for the logical flow of operations. The development process happened in three stages:

  • Bread-board design – in this stage the components were interconnected by wiring
  • Printed Circuit Board (PCB) design, fabrication and assembly of modules
  • Integrated testing of the system (at the department and later field).

Perhaps, because of my Post-graduate Diploma in Industrial Management which I had completed during 1974-75 (Evening Course), I was assigned additional responsibility of managing the Technical Assistant, Planning and six wiremen. This helped us in getting the jobs – organising materials, assembling the boards and wiring, done faster (compared to normal time taken in a typical government set-up). In the process of developing the system, we had to work with other groups – power-supply, fabrication, transmission, purchase, PCB, Computer and documentation. Networking abilities of Subbu and me came handy to informally get things done, while TGP was taking care of assembly and testing. In between we had review meetings with section-head, department head and once in three months with management.

The first proto-type of SRC system was ready sometime during mid 1976 and the field-trial was decided to be held in Neral-Bhivpuri-Vangni section which forms a part of Bombay VT – Karjat line coming under the jurisdiction of Western Railways. The Master or Control station was at Neral and the two Slave stations that have to be remotely controlled were at Bhivpuri and Vangni. While equipment were despatched by road, the installation team went by train to Bombay. I, TGP, Sriram, an engineer from transmission department along with two wiremen formed the installation team. Getting the equipment cleared from Bombay Octroi and moving them to site was an arduous process! We had to get it done with the help of Railways and ITI Regional office.

We stayed at the ITI guest-house situated in an old building near the VT Central Station. Almost every day TGP got up around 4.00 am and after everyone else got ready, he’d wake me up by 5.10 am so that we all could leave for breakfast by 5.30 am. We had to leave the restaurant latest by 6.05 am to catch Karjat fast leaving VT station at 6.22 am. While Bhivpuri and Vangni were small villages and the stations did not have any restaurants, Neral was a slightly bigger village. We had to manage with Vada Pav and tea for lunch. We spent a whole week in installing and testing the system.

Being my first major field work outside Bangalore (I did visit Bangalore Trunk Exchange on several occasions for testing the Key-sender during 1975), it was a great learning for me to lead an installation team apart from managing meetings with ITI Regional office and Office of Chief engineer, Western Railways for smooth coordination. This learning laid the foundation for me to handle installation of SRC equipment for Southern Railways (Madras – Delhi section) during late 1970s and for Calcutta Metro during early 1980s.

For the SRC equipment to go to production floor, we had to coordinate with System engineering and documentation section apart from attending several meetings with the production department. We had to also work with Sales department for preparing quotations against tenders floated by Railways & Electricity Boards – for the purpose of costing as well as to answer all the technical questions. Thus, working in R & D provided me an insight into most of the management functions at an early stage of my working life, motivating me to become an entrepreneur at a later stage.

[1] Railway electrification is the development of powering trains and locomotives using electricity instead of diesel or steam power.

[2] A discrete transistor is a standalone semiconductor device used to amplify or switch electronic signals. It is composed of a solid piece of semiconductor material with at least three terminals for connection to an external circuit.

[3] Building a complex product or process from smaller subsystems that can be designed independently, yet function together as a whole.

[4] Starr MK (1965) Modular production-A new concept, Harvard Business  Review 43(6), Pages 131–142


MAY 25 , 2024 | Ravi 78