It must have been some forty years ago, ’79 or thereabouts that I was travelling to the Railway Staff College at Vadodara for a training course. As was common in those days, none of the messages from Jamalpur (where I was staying) had been received in New Delhi, India and there was no reservation on the Frontier Mail in my name. After checking all the coach reservation charts, I button-holed the Conductor Guard. “Sorry Sir “, he said, after looking at my railway pass, “No vacant berth anywhere.” With little option I got into the first-class cabin marked ‘Ratlam Quota’, hoping that on an outside chance some passenger would not turn up at that station.

It was an empty first-class compartment and having ensconced myself on a berth near the door, I took out a book and sat down to read. Ratlam would be a few hours away and at least the wait would be well spent.

About half-an-hour after the train started, three T.T.s(travelling ticket-checkers) in uniform black coats and white trousers, came into the compartment and occupied the seats near the windows. They took out their papers and started doing some calculations on the small table provided there.

Their calculations did not seem to go well as they scratched out their figures and repeated the calculations several times. Then in apparent frustration they told the Attendant to fetch somebody called Ghosh-da. This individual turned out to be another ‘black coat’ somewhat their senior. Together they went about their work again with no better result.

By now my curiosity was aroused and I asked them the nature of their problem. It turned out that a police officer who was travelling on transfer in the next coach, had filled up the corridor with his luggage. They had measured his luggage by volume and were trying to assess the excess charge to be levied.

The Ticket-checkers had been issued a new Commercial Guide, which said that for luggage measured by volume, the rates would be calculated based on so many rupees for every 28.4 cubic decimetres. So, they had measured all the offending luggage in inches, converted that into centimetres and then decimetres. Then they had to calculate the volume into cubic decimeters and divide by 28.4. Having got this far they then had to multiply by the rate to arrive at the final figure. There were at least a dozen pieces of luggage in the corridor, and their calculation always came up with absurd answers.

Normally a rate would be fixed at so much per unit of volume. The volume unit in common use were centimetre cube, litres or cubic metres. Decimetres did not exist outside school arithmetic books, and why 28.4 cubic decimetres? On a hunch I converted one cubic foot into cubic decimetres. It was 28.4. Somebody not quite comfortable with numbers had written the Commercial Guide!

Once the Ticket-checkers knew that it was just a metric version of the cubic foot, they could do their calculations in a jiffy, much of it mentally. When they had finished their work, they then asked where I was going, and did I have a reservation? My answer in the negative sent them to the Conductor Guard. At the next station the Conductor came up to my compartment, said “Sorry for the inconvenience Sir, but we have found a berth for you.”

A decade later, as an ADRM (additional divisional railway manager) on Chakradharpur Division, I happened to check the Guide again. It still quoted rate for every twenty-eight point four cubic decimetres!