Modernisation of Indian Railways (IR) has been on the cards for a long time now. Over the past few years, the government has taken several initiatives to improve the quality of infrastructure and services being provided by IR.
Indian Infrastructure along with Dassault Systèmes conducted a seminar to discuss the way forward for the modernisation of IR. The main aim of the seminar was to highlight the role of technology in IR’s modernisation and digital transformation efforts. In particular, aspects such as rail planning, design, construction, and enhancement of operational efficiency were discussed. The discussions also revolved around the types of technologies and solutions available for improving the efficiency and effectiveness of rail operations, the emerging efficiency improvement solutions being considered by IR, and the key challenges being faced in adoption of technology solutions. The key takeaways from the seminar are as follows…
Focus on rail planning, design and construction
In the past few years, IR has witnessed a sea change in the scale and scope of projects being implemented in the sector. This has highlighted new design and technology requirements.
A case in point is the much-talked-about Mumbai-Ahmedabad high speed rail (HSR) project. With a design speed of 350 kmph (operational speed of 320 kmph), the National High Speed Rail Corporation has turned to Japan to deploy its technology, which has been fatality-free since 1965. For the HSR project, the Lidar survey and geotechnical surveys have already been carried out. The entire length of the corridor is either elevated or underground, none of it being on the surface level, overcoming the issues related to fencing. Upgraded electrical systems are being deployed, as the HSR system has almost double the power requirements. It is planned that by the end of the current fiscal year, packages for all civil works related to the project will be awarded. The timeline for project completion is 2023, which is understood to be ambitious.
The task at hand is to construct 490 km of viaduct in about four years, translating to about 1.5 km of viaduct development per day – an uphill task. For the electrical and signalling components, Japan’s digital automatic train control technology will be deployed. Besides, the HSR system will have an integrated system with 13.8 tonne axle load. By 2023, the target is to run 105 trains in each direction with a frequency of 20 minutes, which will later be reduced to about 7 minutes (in countries such as Japan, the frequency is about 5 minutes).
Another key point of discussion was whether the choice of technology to be deployed by IR should be need based or availability based. Unfortunately, so far, technology decisions have been guided by availability. It was highlighted that to enhance capacity, there is a need to switch 1,080 grade steel to have greater yield stress. In this regard, IR is already in talks with the Bhilai Steel Plant for the supply of steel. Another requirement is to deploy wider and heavier sleepers. From August 2019, IR plans to induct these as well. Other technology upgradation options would be the use of sleeper pads, ballast mats and geogrids. To this end, trials have already been ordered by the Railway Board.
For the design of rail projects, data handling is one of the biggest missed opportunities. Challenges exist in the form of various departments working in silos. This problem has been overcome in the HSR project, with an integrated systemic model. With regard to station design, the Indian Railway Stations Development Corporation highlighted that it mainly executed works
via empanelled project management consultants of international stature. Another issue that was highlighted pertained to maintenance corridors, which is currently not being addressed.
Enhancing operational efficiency by leveraging technology
The railway sector has received a lot of attention in the past couple of years. There has been an increase in activity in terms of the launch of big-ticket programmes and schemes, introduction of a number of digital solutions and an increase in project uptake.
However, much remains to be done. The sector is still mired in political uncertainty, which hampers the business model, thereby affecting service delivery and financial health. Besides, there is a plethora of other factors that have been impeding growth in the sector – adoption of technological solutions in bits and pieces, lack of an integrated approach in technology adoption, multiplicity of agencies, etc.
Recent technology induction
Technology seems to be the latest success potion for IR. It has introduced a number of solutions to improve railway efficiency. One of the noteworthy initiatives taken for long-term research for improving the overall functioning of IR is the launch of the Special Railway Establishment for Strategic Technology and Holistic Advancement (SRESTHA). Though IR already has a research arm, the Research Design and Standards Organisation (RDSO), there have been several issues related to the organisation. The RDSO is mostly occupied in finalising the standards and specifications for new equipment to be acquired by IR and is not able to do in-house research work on various technologies required for upgradation work. SRESTHA will be responsible for long-term research for improving the overall functioning of IR. It will comprise mostly scientists and railway experts. Another notable initiative taken to promote IR’s transparency and accountability was the launch of the Rail Drishti dashboard. The dashboard brings information from various sources on a single platform and gives access to key statistics and parameters. Further, the application is mobile optimised for ease of use by the public.
IR has also started mapping all fixed railway assets including land on a geographic information system of Bhuvan satellite imagery of the Indian Space Research Organisation. It is integrated with IR’s track management system. The system will provide the status of railway land whether encroached on or not, and will thus be helpful in tackling the menace of encroachment. In addition, the central government is also eyeing an investment of Rs 50 trillion in the railways by 2030. The funds are likely to be spent towards increasing the safety of passengers, expansion of the network, increasing the share of freight traffic in the total traffic, etc. Besides, IR is teaming up with the Ministry of Shipping and the Ministry of Defence to follow an integrated approach towards technology adoption in the sector.
Key suggestions and the way forward
The railway sector is poised to become one of the major drivers for economic growth in the country given the huge investments planned in the next four-five years. This investment will go towards network decongestion, network expansion and safety-related works with the aim of addressing the carrier’s major concerns of safety, operational efficiency and overall competitiveness. Further, with the commissioning of big-ticket projects such as the dedicated freight corridors, regional rapid transit systems and suburban rail networks, market opportunities in the sector will be abundant. Besides, IR has also been taking requisite steps to make bookings and rail travel easier and much more comfortable for passengers.
However, to reap the benefits of all the aforementioned initiatives, it is imperative for IR to have a comprehensive approach to capacity addition. Instead of focusing on a number of areas, IR needs to prioritise the key areas and work towards improving them. In this respect, one of the areas which requires attention is the ability to plan transversely across departments and to be able to come up with projects which cut across departmental boundaries. Further, new technologies need to be inducted both at the operational and strategic level, and the right organisational structure is a prerequisite for this. Sustained development of indigenous technology is also required as many of the existing technological solutions are being imported from China. However, at the same time, technology adoption is not considered to be the only solution for improving the deteriorating operational efficiency of the sector.
Net net, what remains to be seen is how IR will integrate the concepts of artificial intelligence, predictive maintenance and machine learning into its day to day operations.