Great Builder of Modern India : Story of Metro Man E. Sreedharan

Product Managers are builders. They build products. They are encouraged to ship fast and break things. They launch and iterate until they find the right product-market fit. But there is another class of builders who don’t have this luxury. These builders need to get it right in the first go. They cannot fail for on them rests millions of hopes. They are the class of nation builders. One such great builder of modern India is the Metro Man E. Sreedharan.

I happen to read Sreedharan’s biography recently. The biography is a translation of author’s original book in Malyalam. The book titled “Karmayogi” gives a detailed sketch of Sreedharan’s career spanning over 50 years but it does leave an engineer in me wanting to know more on the engineering challenges that Sreedharan faced in the gargantuan projects that he undertook.

After graduating from college, Sreedharan started preparing for Indian Railway Service Examination (IRSE) while supporting himself as a college lecturer. Once exam was over, he took up a job as a Port Engineer in Bombay. With in a year results were out. Sreedharan had secured an all India IRES rank of 7th. Sreedharan rose quickly in Railways to become the youngest divisional manager at the age of 26 years. G. P. Warrier, a stalwart in Railways, recognized the spark in Sreedharan and gave him early opportunities to work on Pampan Bridge and later on Calcutta metro project.

Pampan Bridge, an engineering marvel built by Britishers in 1914, connects the holy town of Rameshwaram to mainland India. The bridge suffered severe damages in the cyclone of 1964. Sreedharan was given an impossible task to make the bridge operational in 3 months. Cyclone had washed all 126 girders. It would require months to manufacture and ship girders to the venue. Sreedharan’s out of box thinking and his early tryst with Port Engineering came to his rescue. He fished all 126 girders from the sea using specially crafted cranes and skilled laborers finishing the repair project in record time.

Bridge has a double-leaf bascule section midway, which can be raised to let ships and barges pass through. Courtesy

Sreedharan’s next major project was the Calcutta metro project. Here he got the opportunity to attend a week long conference on metro systems in Tokyo, Japan. The conference was an eye opener for Sreedharan which exposed him to the technologies that go behind building a metro system. He even managed to get technical drawings of Tokyo Metro system back to India. But Sreedharan realized that caught between the state government and Railways, Calcutta Metro was a nightmare to execute. After four year of stay at Calcutta, Sreedharan moved back to Mysore.

Sreedharan soon found himself on deputation to Cochin Shipyards as its CMD where he rolled out India’s first indigenously built ship Rani Padmini. He joined back Railways finally retiring in 1990.

Sreedharan’s crowning glory - the Konkan Railway and Delhi Metro happened post his retirement from Railways. After a long years of service, when it was time for Sreedharan to take the well deserved break, he was appointed as CMD of Konkan Railway Corporation Limited (KRCL).

Konkan Railways run through four states of Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka and Kerala.The treacherous railway line of 760km has 92 tunnels and 2000+ bridges reducing the distance between Mumbai and Mangalore by 1,127 km. Sreedharan moved swiftly. He handpicked his core team, hired 400 bikers to conduct fresh survey of the terrain, created an SPV to raise funds for the project and successfully rehabilitated 43,000 affected families. Stretch of 760 km was divided into 7 manageable zones of 100–120km each. Chief Engineers were appointed for each zone and power was delegated from Chief Engineer to field executives to take decisions. KRCL Contractors were chosen on their technical prowess and KRCL used to release 75% of the payment within 48 hours of contractor reporting completion of work. From Shreedharan’s speech we learn that KRCL employed many cutting edge technologies such as incremental launching method for girders, ballastless track for easy maintenance of rails, high speed turnout to support a speed of up to 160km/hr, gas pressure welding which allowed for on-site welding, and special tunnel ventilation systems for long tunnels. It was Sreedharan’s Project Management skills and his relentless resolve which which made it possible for KRCL to deliver a project of this scale within record time of 7 years. KRCL has been operationally profitable from day one but it has been criticized for not living up to its economical expectation. As of FY 2016, it is in Rs. 1500 crore debt but had a net profit of Rs. 120 crore. KRCL has now taken up track-doubling and electrification of the route. New ports such as Jaigarh (Maharashtra) and Karwar (Karnataka) once fully developed will lead to increased revenue.

Konkan Railways passes through treacherous terrain. Panval Viaduct connects two hills and has 12 spans and 10 pillars, 6 of which are taller than the Qutub Minar !courtesy

After dedicating KRCL to the nation, Sreedharan got another call of duty. Governments in Delhi could trust no one but Sreedharan to fulfill the dreams of giving Delhi and the surrounding capital region a modern transport system. Sreedharan was appointed as head of Delhi Metro Rail Corporation in May 1995. Unlike the no man’s land of Konkan, Delhi Metro was to be built through densely populated areas of the capital city. DMRC launched special programs to directly interface with local population, avoided disturbing existing electric and water lines and prudently planned diversions to minimize impact on traffic. Against a stipulated timeline of 7 years, first phase of Delhi Metro was ready in just 5 years. Delhi Metro has done wonders for Delhi NCR region. Its more than 200km long metro line is connecting far flung areas providing one of the cheapest, fastest and pollution free modes of transport. As of Mar 2017, Delhi Metro’s ridership had touched 1 Billion commutes a year. After completion of the second phase, Sreedharan decided to call it a day. He handed over the reign to his team and moved back to his home town. Now over 80s year old, Sreedharan counsels Kochi Metro Rail Limited as its Principal Advisor.

Sreedharan’s inspirational biography is a story of a relentless Karmayogi who built two institutions DMRC and KRCL from the ground up and delivered world class products to millions of Indians at an affordable price. Winners of multiple prestigious awards, Sreedharan will always occupy a special place in the hearts of Indians as one of the greatest builders of modern India!