In the past five years, the railway sector has seen incremental improvement but now it is gearing up towards taking a quantum jump in infrastructure development. In the next ten years, we are looking towards huge investments in the sector. At a recent industry event, Vinod Kumar Yadav, chairman, Railway Board, talked about the existing and upcoming plans for network expansion, upgradation, decongestion and electrification, key issues and challenges facing Indian Railways (IR), digital initiatives and the way forward. Excerpts…
It is true that IR faces a lot of capacity constraints. Today, there is no lack of demand; there is a lack of capacity, whether it is in the passenger segment or the freight segment. IR has no hesitation in accepting that we are not able to cope with the demand in the passenger segment or even the freight segment. Being a government organisation, the passenger segment is very important for us, but if you talk in the real business sense, we are losing money in this segment, and this is creating problems for the freight segment. Everybody knows that we are cross-subsidising by increasing freight rates. If we really have the freedom to fix rates for the passenger segment, I am very sure that freight rates can be rationalised, but these issues have to be sorted out one by one. I have absolutely no hesitation in saying that the infrastructure development that should have taken place in IR in the past 25-30 years has not happened due to various reasons.
Over the past five years, IR has been trying to take steps with respect to infrastructure development. Whether it is the creation of new lines, line doubling/tripling or railway electrification, we have made good progress. But this is not enough. If we have to create capacity for handling passenger and freight traffic to keep pace with the rate at which they are growing, we really have to improve our infrastructure.
As far as infrastructure development is concerned, the dedicated freight corridor (DFC) project needs to be completed at the earliest. I fully agree that unless the Eastern and Western DFCs are fully commissioned from one end to the other, benefits cannot be derived. I was a part of the DFC project in the initial years from 2007 to 2011 and that was the time when we negotiated funding with the World Bank and the Japan International Cooperation Agency. In 2007, we were looking at 2017 as the target for both the corridors and that was an achievable target of 10 years. But it is unfortunate that in our country a lot of linear projects are getting delayed due to problems related to land acquisition and forest clearances. Though we have taken a number of initiatives to sort out these issues, it is a fact that even today, on both corridors there are some stretches where the land issue is yet to be sorted out. The system in the country cannot be changed completely. What we can do is try and make our best efforts to sort out the existing issues within the available system. For the eastern corridor, we are trying to commission 60-70 per cent of the line this year and the remaining next year. Once completed, the DFC project will present a lot of opportunities for everyone.
The government has taken a decision to electrify all the tracks and we are targeting the completion of our railway electrification work in the next three years. In fact, railway electrification has taken a quantum jump. Five years ago, we were electrifying around 600 km per year. This year, we have already completed around 5,300 km. So, rail electrification is taking place as per our target. The doubling and tripling of railway lines has also increased significantly. Very soon, we will also undertake maintenance of electrification and signalling systems.
Several initiatives have been taken including the deployment of digital systems and smart technologies. All our asset management, civil engineering, plants, bridges and tunnels are digitalised. Another initiative that we have launched and hope to complete within this financial year is the real-time train information system. The system is being implemented in cooperation with the Indian Space Research Organisation. Around 4,200 locomotives have already been fitted with GPS equipment and we are targeting fixing GPS equipment on the entire locomotive fleet by the end of 2019-20. The locomotives on which GPS equipment has been installed are providing great results as we are able to get the real-time situation of the train, allowing us to monitor its exact location and speed. The system has already been integrated with our control office application and we are getting this data automatically and seamlessly. In some of the important routes, we have started automatic charting of trains to decide which train should be given precedence and how the train should move. That is certainly going to give us some advantage in pushing more trains on the same route and even increasing the average speed.
Another area is ease of doing business. We have already implemented IR’s e-procurement system. Almost 100 per cent of the supply tenders are being uploaded on this platform. Around 30 per cent of works contracts are also being handled and, very soon, maybe in the next three-four months, the percentage of these contracts will also increase. Every month, around 35,000 tenders with a value of around Rs 150 billion are being finalised on the platform. Even the sale of scrap is being handled on it. So, our sincere efforts have been towards bringing in transparency and ease of doing business in procurement contracts.
Various measures have also been taken under the Make in India initiative. We have taken steps to see that the best coaches, wagons and electric locomotives are manufactured in the country. Diesel locomotives have been discontinued and the Diesel Locomotive Works is also making only electric locomotives. Various options are being considered including the corporatisation of our production units to achieve this. No final decision has been taken yet, but the idea is that we should be able to domestically manufacture our rolling stock, be it metro coaches, passenger coaches, wagons, locomotives or even the coaches required for bullet trains like the upcoming Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train. Work under the project is progressing satisfactorily but, right from the beginning, we have taken measures to see that technology transfer takes place and after initial supply of coaches from global manufacturers we are able to manufacture them in India itself.
The way we have been implementing our infrastructure projects also needs a lot of improvement. This is one of the weakest areas for IR. Our projects are suffering due to various reasons and taking a lot of time which creates problems as investments get blocked. We are therefore not able to get good returns. So, a lot of work is being done in this area. Apart from deploying the digital platform, we have also identified various bottlenecks other than the land acquisition and forest clearance issues. There is a lack of coordination between different stakeholders. For this, a coordination mechanism with the concerned ministries and state governments has been put in place in the past six months. Another bottleneck for project implementation has been the finalisation of drawings and designs. After the contract award, when the contractor is ready to do the work, we are not ready with our design and drawings. To address this, we have made a few changes and the first change is that we have taken a decision to invite tenders only when all the designs and drawings are frozen. The designs should be a part of the tender document so that when a contractor is quoting the rates, he knows the final shape and should be able to start work immediately after the contract is awarded. The second step is that we have brought the approval of drawings on to a digital platform. We have already implemented this on a pilot phase basis a few months ago. We are going to roll out the initiative on a pan-India basis very soon. So, with respect to project implementation, we are taking a lot of steps to ensure that infrastructure projects are implemented in a time-bound manner.
The eastern and western railway corridors are the busiest routes for us. In fact, the eastern corridor is so busy that in some of the sections traffic is at 130-140 per cent. This is creating safety problems as well. For this, we are upgrading speeds on the Delhi-Mumbai and Delhi-Kolkata routes to 160 kmph, so that by the time the DFC is commissioned, these routes are fit to run passenger trains at 160 kmph.
Another very important aspect of IR’s infrastructure is the signalling system, which has not kept pace with technological advancements. We have now taken an in-principle decision to see that the signalling system on the entire railway network is improved in a phased manner. The first priority will obviously be given to the Golden Quadrilateral and its diagonals. We have already tendered 650 km on a pilot basis using global technology. Simultaneously, we have developed our own technology known as the train collision avoidance system. We have also started the tendering process for 1,300 km with Indian technology. Our vision is to improve the entire signalling system in a phased manner as it is also interlinked with the type of rolling stock we can run on our system.
So, we are making efforts to catch up with whatever opportunity we have lost in the past 25-30 years. It is very motivating at least for IR officers that the government has announced such a huge investment plan for the railway sector.
“The way we have been implementing our infrastructure projects also needs a lot of improvement. This is one of the weakest areas for IR.”