Views of Ghanshyam Singh: “PPP provides additional money but is not efficient for capacity augmentation”

“PPP provides additional money but is not efficient for capacity augmentation”

The cost of energy has always been a matter of great concern for Indian Railways (IR). Electrification of the existing network has attracted considerable attention and big targets have been set. In a move to expedite the complete electrification of the rail network, IR has advanced the deadline for 100 per cent electrification of the broad gauge network by two years to 2020-21. While the process of electrification is under way, IR is also engaged in diversifying its energy mix in favour of renewables. Though the pace of electrification has certainly improved, the task at hand is daunting. Speaking at the third annual conference on Energy Needs of Indian Railways, Ghanshyam Singh, member, traction, Railway Board, shares his views on IR’s plan for electrification and the industry’s crucial role in implenting plans on the anvil. Excerpts from his address…

What are the key features of Mission Electrification? What is the likely impact?

Coupled with the aim of reducing the cost of operations, the railway minister is targeting 100 per cent electrification of tracks. This is not an ambitious decision but a purely economic one. Over a period of 60 years IR has electrified 25,000 route km of its 63,000 km network. In the past, there have been different philosophies and principles for electrification and India has transitioned from steam to electric to diesel engines.

Electric traction is important to us, especially since diesel is imported and hence, costlier. Moreover, the cost of operations using diesel is double that of electric traction. Energy sources such as coal, hydro, solar and wind required to generate electricity are available within the country. Gas-based power plants are limited in number and their contribution is minimal. Electric traction is cleaner and with 100 per cent electric traction, India will be able to reduce carbon emissions by 3.8 billion tonnes per annum.

Electrification is expected to reduce the fuel bill and increase the speed of trains. The aim is to double the speed of goods trains from an average of 22.5 km per hour (kmph) to 46-50 kmph and of passenger trains from 50 kmph to 100 kmph. To meet this goal, we plan to electrify the entire network in the next four to five years. It is important to mention that we are not going to eliminate diesel engines; they will continue to operate at the required base level to meet the needs in strategic areas and for disaster management. Any surplus diesel engines will be converted into electric ones.

What is the biggest challenge facing electrification plans?

The biggest challenge is the huge inventory of diesel engines, roughly 600 billion. However, thanks to the high level of engineering skills, the design to convert diesel engines to electric ones was finalised in a period of two months, and the first engine was converted within a span of about two months. When this concept was first discussed with the industry, it was said that the first engine would come out in July but we decided to examine it ourselves and in 68 days we were able to convert a 2,800 horsepower (HP) diesel engine to a 5,000 HP electric engine.

Recently, the prime minister flagged off a 12,000 HP locomotive, which was manufactured in IR’s Madhepura factory as a joint venture between IR and Alstom of France. The imported components of the first six locomotives are being assembled. After these, up to 800 locomotives will be manufactured in India (at the Madhepura factory) and their assembly and subassembly components will also be manufactured in the country.

Further, the car body shells of the third locomotive are being manufactured by Texmaco, Kolkata, and the propulsion system is being manufactured at Coimbatore, as part of the Make in India initiative. The diesel to electric engine conversion too is part of the initiative.

Firms in the business of electric/diesel locomotives and rail electrification need to come forward so that the country develops as a whole and sets an example for the rest of the world. According to reports by a reputed firm, the cost of electrical infrastructure development will be around Rs 80 million per km. However, we expect this cost to be Rs 10 million per km. We aim to bring it down further to Rs 5 million-Rs 6 million per km, with a speed potential of 200 kmph.

The role of private players is critical in the process of nation building. Their motive should not be restricted to making profits alone. Our goal is to build the highest quality and most cost effective electrical infrastructure. The aim of engineers both in industry and IR is not to create an engineering marvel, but to create affordable, economical and feasible infrastructure which will provide world-class services to people.

What are the various steps being taken to meet IR’s energy requirements?

We are committed to the reduction of our energy consumption and carbon footprint. While no other rail system in the world (or institution in the country) can confirm 100 per cent installation of LED lamps, all the railway stations in India are now lit by LED lamps alone, reducing the recurring cost by 30-40 per cent.

IR is committed to the use of renewable energy resources. Around 50 MW of solar power plants are operational and the aim is to increase to 1,000 MW, for use in both traction and non-traction work. There are 37.5 MW of windmills operational and 16 MW will be added soon. IR has also initiated the process of power procurement for traction through open access. Of the total requirement of 2,000 MW, around 1,000 MW is procured through open competitive bidding, which provides power at a much lower rate, almost half of that under the controlled regime.

During the process of installing overhead lines, the first step is to lay the foundation. Given the manpower situation today, it is possible to lay at the most 350 foundations per day, that is, 10-15 km only. At the rate of 10 km per day, 38,000 route km will require 10 years or more and therefore mechanisation is urgently called for. Instead of the earlier methods of contracting, IR has moved to the engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) mode and is open to suggestions for better delivery.

How is Mission 41K proceeding?

Mission 41K has been able to produce the desired results and has surpassed expectations. We would not be surprised if at the end of the decade it becomes Mission 51K or 61K. 41K was a conservative estimate but we are trying to expand the scope beyond this.

From the foundation point of view, how many route km was electrified during 2017-18 and what is the target for 2018-19?

During 2017-18, IR has successfully electrified around 4,087 route km as compared to 1,600 route km during 2016-17. If we take the average of the previous four to five years it comes to around 600 route km. The baseline target for 2018-19 is 6,000 route km and we would want it to go up to 11,000 route km.

What is your take on skill shortage and other capacity constraints?

Theoretically, the capacity available with the approved vendors is more than sufficient to create 10,500 route km per year, be it steel structure, lever parts or concrete and catenary. However, in reality we find that certain industry partners are dormant, and contractors are procuring material from only four to five vendors. We plan to issue directives to contractors to not place orders with firms that already have their hands full. There is no point in industry having, say, 5 million tonnes of steel fabrication per month and 10 firms with erection orders going to only one vendor and then chasing him for material.

Are you satisfied with the progress in the use of renewable energy?

Not at all. I will be satisfied only when 100 per cent of our energy needs are met by renewables. India is blessed with 300 days of insolation in a year, but there are certain technical challenges with the use of solar energy. For instance, we cannot stop trains at night due to the unavailability of the sun and hence, a blend of renewable and thermal energy will continue to be used till technology advancements enable round-the-clock power supply. The biggest challenge with renewable energy is its storage. I think research is in progress and we will soon have dependable and compact storage devices at an affordable cost.

In which areas do you think foreign technology is desirable?

If we do not have a particular technology, I do not mind examining foreign alternatives and if it turns out to be beneficial to my fellow countrymen, then I have no objection to using it. However, if a comparable technology exists in India, I would like to nurture our technology and develop our industry so that it can also compete overseas.

With the current emphasis on electrification, will we still see diesel locos in the future? What kind of mix can we expect to see in terms of electrical and diesel engines?

As I said earlier, some diesel engines will continue to operate. I hope to see 10 to 15 per cent of diesel engines and 85 to 90 per cent of electric engines in the future. Electric engines are environment friendly and with a reduction in the cost of electricity, they are more cost efficient as well. The limitation with diesel engines is that high HP engines cannot be produced due to issues with packing power in them.

Given the lack of implementation capacity in electrification, are you looking at public-private partnership (PPP) models similar to those used by other ministries?

PPPs provide additional money but are not efficient for capacity augmentation. In order to increase capacity, we need component manufacturers to augment their capacity. Erection contractors need to take the mechanisation route. We can also increase manpower to build capacity. To this end, I am willing to provide free-of-cost training after verifying from erection contractors that the labour is employed by them.

It cannot possibly be that the reason that the sector has failed to perform well is linked to the shortcomings of industry alone. What is IR doing to hasten and smoothen the process of implementation?

IR has changed and reviewed its design, which will support mechanisation, and has also changed the method of contracting from item rate to EPC. We have also changed the size of contracts which now starts from Rs 5 billion to Rs 10 billion, an increase from an earlier maximum of Rs 1 billion. We are prepared to modify this further, if need be, for faster execution.