The railway sector offers a unique opportunity for growth. However, there are several issues that need to be dealt with on an immediate basis, which the government has been working on. At the Smart Railways Conclave organised by FICCI, Piyush Goyal, Union Minister, Ministry of Railways and Ministry of Coal, shared his views on the small yet significant interventions and the adoption of new technologies that have enabled the railways to better serve the needs of the people…
During the period 2009-14, the total investment in the railways sector stood at Rs 2.3 trillion. From 2014 onwards, the government successfully ramped up this figure to Rs 5.3 trillion. Further, by merging the railway budget with the union budget, it has done away with the practice of indiscriminately announcing new projects every year. As small amounts of funds were being parcelled out over different projects, it resulted in huge cost and time overruns. Given these issues, Indian Railways’ (IR) infrastructure grew by only 12 per cent till 2014. This highlights the need for smarter planning, with a focus on projects that can provide outcomes and are value for money.
In its pursuit of the development of a smart railway network, the government has engaged in leveraging digital technology. The central government is working towards providing internet and fibre optic connectivity to the remotest parts of the country, and IR is working towards adopting technological solutions across its entire network. The optic fibre network has grown from 358 km in May 2014 to 230,000 km till date. Around 60 per cent of the villages are already connected with optic fibre and within the next 15-20 months, the entire country is expected to be covered. IR is working on ensuring last-mile connectivity and within the next six to eight months, all railway stations (around 6,000), except the halt stations, will have Wi-Fi connectivity. Currently, about 700 stations are Wi-Fi enabled.
There is a need to take small steps, which will give hugely incremental results. A case in point is the Gatimaan Express, the fastest train in the country. Its route was extended from Delhi-Agra to Gwalior and then to Jhansi. This was done to leverage its speed and thus connect the national capital with one of the remotest parts of the country at almost zero incremental cost.
Despite the fact that over 60 per cent of India’s rail routes are over 100 per cent utilised, the potential for growth is huge. This can be accomplished by switching to a smarter signalling system, removing permanent speed restrictions and auditing the 150,000 bridges to identify the ones to be improved. Punctuality has been a major issue. To address this issue, the government eliminated the practice of manually recording punctuality performance and put in place data loggers at all interchange points. It came into effect on April 1, 2018, and has helped in increasing the punctuality performance from 62 per cent in April 2018 to 74 per cent at present. IR plans to improve this figure to 90 per cent in the near future. Another major step expected to be taken is the installation of GPS devices on every locomotive, which will help users plan their journeys better.
One of IR’s major focus areas is electrification, which is expected to result in savings of $2 billion annually. It is also working on solutions to convert the existing diesel engines to electric ones at the cost incurred for periodic overhauls of these diesel engines. These steps will help in reducing the carbon imprint of the country and the cost of maintenance, spares and training. IR is also working on broad-gauging of all railway tracks and extending railway connectivity to all ports. IR is also looking at standardisation of train configurations to reduce the pressure on spares, introduction of smarter timetables and simplification of processes. There is a need to leverage economies of scale, which will enable companies to plan for the future. Going forward, data needs to be leveraged for predictive maintenance, better monitoring and utilisation of assets, and improved services to passengers. These can help in making IR smarter and bringing about the change that it has been yearning for decades.