Better Safety and Connectivity: Modernising S&T systems on railway networks

Modernising S&T systems on railway networks

The demand for signalling and telecommunication (S&T) technologies in Indian Railways (IR) has grown substantially in recent years. This is primarily due to the alarming capacity utilisation levels and an increasing number of accidents on its network. IR has laid emphasis on deploying modern signalling equipment in order to modernise the railway network, improve efficiency in operations and address the issue of safety. IR’s telecommunication infrastructure has also improved significantly in the past five years. While there exists a framework for Make in India and indigenisation, the pace of technology adoption is still quite slow.

Investment requirements

Given the poor safety record and low budgetary allocations for S&T, IR has envisioned an investment requirement of Rs 101 billion to meet the S&T targets for the period 2017-18 to 2019-20. It is estimated that funding of Rs 152.3 billion will be required for S&T over the next five years (2017-18 to 2021-22) to replace obsolete mechanical S&T systems and install automatic train protection systems to enhance safety across the IR network. Of this amount, Rs 101.4 billion (66.57 per cent) will be allocated under the Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh (RRSK) and Rs 50.9 billion from the Depreciation Reserve Fund/Special Railway Safety Fund. Of the total fund allocation under the RRSK, 27.12 per cent will be allocated towards the installation of train protection warning systems (TPWS)/train collision avoidance systems (TCAS), 25.05 per cent towards replacing existing signalling equipment, 18 per cent towards the provision of mobile train radio communication devices, and 16.07 per cent towards the upgradation of interlocking systems. Taking cognisance of this requirement, an amount of Rs 25.05 billion has been allocated for S&T in Union Budget 2018-19, which is marginally lower than the revised estimates for 2017-18.

From 2014-15 to 2017-18, there has been a trend of downward revisions in budgetary allocations towards S&T. The maximum decline was in fact in 2015-16, when the allocation was revised downwards by almost 24 per cent to Rs 8.52 billion.

Recent initiatives

The Ministry of Railways has accorded the highest priority to passenger safety and has undertaken several initiatives such as the deployment of various signalling components such as train detection systems, point machines, on-board train protection, and LED signals, among others to augment S&T systems across the railway network.

In line with the Make in India directive to produce S&T technology domestically, the Cross Approval Policy has mandated that all imported products, approved so far by the Research Designs and Standards Organisation, be indigenised. IR offers an opportunity to Indian original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to collaborate with the carrier in developing and indegenising modern signalling equipment with low failure and system hanging rates, especially those that are more suited to India’s tropical climate. Currently, key modern signalling equipment such as electronic interlocking (EI) and digital axle counters (DACs) of foreign OEMs have been indigenised.

Besides, IR has also deployed new technologies such as TPWS, TCAS and anti-collision services with the aim to prevent accidents caused due to overspeeding and negligence by providing automatic train protection. At present, TPWS is under implementation on about 10,000 route km. TPWS has been made operational on the Chennai-Gummidipundi sub-urban section of Southern Railway (50 route km), the Hazrat Nizamuddin-Agra section of Northern/North Central Railway (200 route km) and the Dum Dum-Kavi Subhash section of the Kolkata metro (25 route km).

In a bid to modernise S&T systems, signalling infrastructure is being automated from semaphore mechanical to route relay interlocking (RRI) and EI. An EI and a massive yard remodelling project was commissioned on the busiest section of the Delhi-Howrah section at Dadri ailway station in Uttar Pradesh in April 2017. India’s largest EI system of 800 routes has been commissioned at Kharagpur station in West Bengal, replacing the old RRI system of 423 routes. Further, NITI Aayog has approved several signalling and safety improvement measures under the project for raising train speeds on the 1,483 route km New Delhi-Mumbai route (including Vadodara-Ahmedabad) and the 1,525 route km New Delhi-Howrah route (including Kanpur-Lucknow) at a combined estimated cost of Rs 181.63 billion.

Further, the number of LED-lit stations increased at an rate of 3.22 per cent in 2016-17. The number of locations with track circuiting also increased by 1,317 in 2016-17 to a total of 33,054 locations. There was a marginal increase in automatic block signalling of 11 route km covered in the first eight months of 2017-18. For deployment of TCAS, trials are being undertaken in sections spanning 250 km with 40 locomotives. For real-time monitoring, a web-enabled track management system has been launched across railway divisions to manage all track maintenance-related activities, enabling planned maintenance.

Regarding telecommunication initiatives, the RailTel Corporation has accelerated its adoption of the latest telecom technologies across the railway network. RailTel (in partnership with Google) is undertaking the station Wi-Fi project aimed at providing Wi-Fi at 400 Category A1 and A stations. As of July 2017, RailTel had launched Wi-Fi services at 128 stations. Work at the balance stations is expected to be completed by March 2020. It has also set up a state-of the-art multiprotocol label switching network that is used for providing internet and Layer 3-VPN services. Till March 31, 2017, RailTel had also laid 47,536 km of optic fibre cable (OFC) and works are in various stage of execution on another 6,700 km. Besides, it has also deployed nx 10G capacities on its core network using dense wavelength division multiplexing (DWDM) on over 25,500 route km across 85 cities to provide capacities up to 800G. During 2016-17, RailTel upgraded the Mumbai-Chennai DWDM path to 100G capacity on a single channel.

To provide a single-window interface, a new integrated mobile app, Rail SAARTHI, was launched which provides various services like e-ticket booking, unreserved ticketing, complaint management, on-board cleaning, passenger enquiry, etc. Further, as a pilot project for setting up Wi-Fi hotspots at 200 rural railway stations, RailTel has signed an agreement with the Ministry of Communications. As per the agreement, Wi-Fi kiosks will also be set up at these stations. Another pilot project for providing hand-held terminals (HHTs) to travelling ticket examiners has been implemented on some trains. During 2016-17, use of HHTs for booking of unreserved tickets at point of sale was initiated at Hazrat Nizamuddin railway station.

Key issues and challenges

Even though there has been a push towards the domestic production of signalling systems through different policies, several issues still persist. At present, there are very few vendors manufacturing modern signalling systems such as EI, DACs, and universal fail-safe block interface (UFSBI), resulting in a limited scope for competition, which could help introduce more efficient, successful products. There are currently only two indigenous OEMs approved for the manufacturing of UFSBIs.

On the technology side, a major challenge faced in the case of DACs is adapting them to  IR’s operating environment. The equipment is unable to withstand tropical weather conditions. There have also been difficulties in isolating train failures and system hanging cases. System hanging failures are common and need to be eliminated.

With regard to telecommunication issues, IR still uses traditional means of extracting data from information systems and the use of such systems makes it difficult to address modifications in data and demand “software spaghetti” solutions, which are very expensive to support and maintain. Finally, there exists a considerable shortage of skilled services for telecommunication devices and systems.

The way forward

At present, India is at a nascent state with regard to the adoption of advanced S&T systems used by developed railway systems globally. However, in the next two to three years, IR plans to undertake several initiatives to move towards modernised S&T infrastructure. To eliminate signalling failure, IR plans to deploy remote monitoring of signalling systems using artificial intelligence to predict failures. In order to improve speed and line capacity, it also plans to implement an advanced version of European train control system Level II on its entire broad gauge network of 60,000 route km. Further, to contribute towards the Digital India initiative, IR also plans to deploy internet kiosks (citizen centres) at stations using the existing OFC network, supported by the Universal Service Obligation Fund for last-mile infrastructure. IR aims to achieve “communication anytime anywhere” throughout its network and undertake migration to IP-based systems for all communication networks.

In addition, with the growing complexities of railway operations, there exists a demand for skilled employees capable of performing tasks effectively in their respective spheres. Better training will be important to upgrade staff skills. Besides, to identify areas of preventive maintenance, there is a need to adopt IoT, which could facilitate the categorisation of faults. Going forward, augmentation of S&T systems with modern technologies will be crucial to improving safety levels in the sector.