Recent Initiatives: Transforming railways for improved passenger service and safety

Transforming railways for improved passenger service and safety

In the past few years, Indian Railways (IR) has focused on providing world-class facilities to its passengers by offering improved basic amenities on trains and at platforms, ensuring safety and security, and introducing digital initiatives, new trains and railway lines. Also, steps are being taken to reform the existing policies and regulations and transform age-old technologies. The successful roll-out of indigenously manufactured advanced trains such as the Vande Bharat Express (or Train 18) and high horse power (HP) electric locomotives under the Make in India initiative has not only aided in reducing the cost of manufacturing of rolling stock but also improved operational efficiency. Further, the freight segment has also received a push through initiatives such as the introduction of double-stack dwarf container and international cargo services, besides introduction of roll-on roll-off (ro-ro) faciltiies. To  improve operational efficiency, steps are being taken to adopt modern signalling systems such as the European Train Control System (ETCS), Level II and Ultrasonic Broken Rail Detection (UBRD).

Nonetheless, the slow pace of project implementation, cost and time overruns, high dependence on the gross budgetary support, low technology penetration and lack of private sector participation are issues that continue to depress growth.

Indian Infrastructure tracks recent key developments in the sector…

Policy developments

Introduction of new policies and amendment to existing ones is being done by IR to improve its functioning. One such scheme, called the Generalised Purpose Wagon Investment Scheme (GPWIS), was launched in April 2018. Under this, IR opened up private investments in general-purpose wagons and in railcars that can move multiple commodities, including coal, without the need for any special approval. Further, in this regard, an amendment was introduced on November 16, 2018, that mandates parties to pay a per rake terminal access charge in case they utilise railway-owned terminals. Through this, IR aims to cater to long-term demand of railway freight customers.

Earlier, in March 2018, IR came out with a “no bill-no fee” policy to tackle the issue of overcharging on trains.  As part of this initiative, a message is displayed on trains to avoid exploitation of passengers. Another guideline introduced in June 2018 mandates provision of escalators at stations with a minimum footfall of 0.1 million passengers per day. Apart from this, Mission Satyanishta was launched on July 27, 2018 to sensitise IR employees about the need to adhere to good ethics and maintain high standards of integrity at work.

Make in India initiative

In the past one year, a number of initiatives and steps have been taken by IR to roll out indigenously manufactured trains and wagons under the Make in India initiative. The first engine-less train, Train 18, was rolled out on October 29, 2018. The train has a design speed of 180 kmph. Initial trial runs were conducted on the Kota-Sawai Madhopur section, post which it was commercially operationalised on February 15, 2019.

Apart from this, on February 19, 2019, the first 10,000 HP diesel-to-electric converted freighter locomotive was flagged off at the Deisel Locomotive Works (DLW), Varanasi. For this, the DLW remodelled two WDG3A diesel locomotives of 2,600 HP each into twin WAGC3 locomotives.

Another initiative taken by IR is the conversion of two 4,000 HP diesel locomotives to a 12,000 HP electric locomotive. It was rolled out by the DLW in January 2019 and is currently undergoing trial runs. This freight engine has been designed to run at a speed of 105 kmph.

Digital transformation

Digital transformation of the railways has been on IR’s priority list for a long time. Over the past few years, IR has successfully developed mobile-based applications for most of the passenger services that it provides. It has IRCTC for booking tickets, SAARTHI for cleaning coaches,  Railways Parcel to book services such as parcels, and UTS for unreserved tickets, to name a few. The UTS application allows the booking of unreserved tickets including season and platform tickets for all non-suburban sections of zonal railways. Further, Rail MADAD (Mobile Application for Desired Assistance During travel) application enables travellers to lodge complaints and get solutions to problems on a real-time basis.

Recently, in February 2019, the Ministry of Railways (MoR) launched an online portal called Rail Drishti to provide commuters with a single dashboard for all key information. Information from various sources is collated on this single dashboard which enhances transparency and accountability.

Apart from this, other digital initiatives such as an SMS-based passenger complaint and suggestion system (SPCSS), an online vendor registration system, a geographic information system portal, a next-generation e-ticketing system, an SMS-based passenger complaint and suggestion system, modern optical character recognition kiosk machines for printing of tickets, a web portal called Rail Sahyog and Wi-Fi facilities at stations have been introduced.

Passenger segment initiatives

IR has also taken a number of initiatives to improve passenger comfort and travel experience. In October 2018, IR reviewed and rationalised the Flexi Fare Scheme. Upon rationalisation, 15 trains with an average monthly occupancy of less than 50 per cent throughout the previous year have been completely removed from the scheme.

Further, the scheme has been discontinued for 32 trains during the lean period (February, March and August). In all classes, the maximum cap has been revised from the current cap of 1.5 times the fare to 1.4 times. For improving the occupancy of less patronised classes, a graded discount of 20 per cent will be provided on the last fare of all the trains with flexi fares and Humsafar trains where occupancy of a particular class is less than 60 per cent.

Fare discounts for passenger reservation system (PRS) counter tickets has been introduced in case the payment is made through the unified payment interface (UPI) including the BHIM application. In addition, a 5 per cent discount (available till June 13, 2019) is also being offered on the total value of the base fare for the minimum ticket fare of Rs 100 and above, with a maximum discount of Rs 50.

Further, the MoR has revised its passenger reservation form to benefit passengers booking tickets through PRS counters across the country, extending the VIKALP scheme option to bookings made through reservation windows. IR is also offering discounts for season tickets on suburban sections, provided the payment is made through a credit/debit card.

Another key initiative being taken by the MoR is the large-scale redevelopment of 600 stations to offer world-class infrastructure. This is being taken up as part of a Rs 1 trillion redevelopment programme. In Phase I, work of redeveloping 42 railways stations is being undertaken. Further, in October 2018, approval for redevelopment of 13 railway stations by Indian Railway Stations Development Corporation Limited (IRSDC) as the nodal agency, through simplified procedures and a 99 year lease tenor has been given. At present, work of remodelling the Gandhinagar and Habibganj stations is in progress and is expected to be completed by July 2019. Further, contracts have been awarded for the Gomti Nagar and Charbagh stations. Besides this, bids for the redevelopment of Anand Vihar, Bijwasan, Chandigarh, Jammu Tawi, Kozhikode, Surat and Puducherry stations have been invited and are currently under evaluation.

Improving freight services

To capture lost traffic and enhance freight revenue, IR has introduced several noteworthy initiatives. Double-stack dwarf container services for transporting domestic cargo have been introduced. Under this new delivery model, dwarf containers that are 162 mm wider than regular containers are being used. The first such freight train was flagged off on July 7, 2018, from Western Railway’s Rajkot station for its maiden commercial run. This has resulted in increasing IR’s revenue by Rs 1.85 million. Further, international freight services commenced in April 2018, for which a container train on a pilot basis was started between Dhaka and Kolkata. IR commenced ro-ro services on a commercial basis on Central Railway and Western Railways in September 2018, a part of the new delivery system that aims to provide a multimodal transport mix. The first rake started from Konkan Railway’s Surathkal goods shed in Karnataka on September 20, 2018, and reached Western Railway’s Karambeli goods shed in Gujarat on September 21, 2018.

Technological interventions

In August 2018, IR received its first smart coach with a diagnostic system that monitors bearing vibrations to provide real-time information of the health of bearing wheels and tracks. This smart coach is also equipped with a wheel slip protection monitoring system. Other features include a fire and smoke detection unit integrated with a passenger announcement and information system, a video analytics system with phased detection and an unusual occurrence feature to enhance safety and security. As per IR’s plans, close to 100 such coaches will be manufactured by the Modern Coach Factory in Raebareli under the Make in India initiative.

Another key technological upgrade proposed by IR is the adoption of ETCS, Level II to improve safety and prevent accidents. Trials are currently being conducted on the Ghaziabad-Mughalsarai stretch. Another 850 km stretch between Mathura and Vadodara has also been identified for deploying the ETCS, Level II, technology.

Other technology interventions include introduction of the UBRD system for tracks, a GPS-enabled tracker system, and an insulated gate bipolar transistor system for coaches.

Next steps

Overall, IR has taken a number of initiatives to improve passenger comfort, and increase the share of freight traffic and revenue. It has introduced new technologies and systems for improving train operations and digitalising services. The sector has grown substantially over the past year. Continuous government support by way of new policies, schemes and programmes and new services have helped in sector development.

Going forward, areas such as station redevelopment, modernisation of rolling stock and signalling and telecommunications, and high speed rail corridors will offer vast opportunities for investments by foreign as well as domestic players. However, there is a need to promote new ideas and concepts to enhance use of technology, improve safety levels and increase non-fare revenues.