Bridging the Gaps: Initiatives and plans for rail-port connectivity

Initiatives and plans for rail-port connectivity

Connectivity to the hinterland is an important determinant of a port’s economic performance. In India, this has been a long-pending concern. However, in recent years, connectivity has received the much-needed attention from the government. Of the four pillars identified under the Sagarmala programme, the maximum investment has been envisaged for the port connectivity component. At present, there are over 500 projects under Sagarmala, entailing an investment of over Rs 4 trillion. Of this, projects worth over Rs 2 trillion relate to port connectivity works. Under this component, modes such as railways, roads, inland waterways, and pipelines have been considered. Construction of dry ports and multimodal logistics hubs has also been considered under the port connectivity component. Considering the modal split of connectivity at major ports (for handling bulk commodities), roads have been the most preferred mode, followed by railways. This is owing to the advantage of providing a seamless last-mile connection (in comparison to all other modes). However, high costs and growing environmental concerns are making a strong case for a higher share of railways. As a result, the government is taking noteworthy measures on this front. Establishment of Indian Port Rail and Ropeway Corporation Limited (IPRCL) is one such step. The entity has been mandated with the implementation of last-mile rail connectivity projects at major ports, based on the recommendation of a technical consultant. Such projects are not limited to major ports alone and similar viable projects at non-major ports may be considered as well. IPRCL’s projects typically consist of laying new railway lines, gauge conversion of existing tracks, installation of signalling systems, construction of overbridges and port loading platforms, among others.

Progress so far

As of January 2020, IPRCL had a portfolio of over 50 projects worth about Rs 22 billion, of which 13 worth Rs 3.17 billion stood completed, while a significant share of 24 projects worth Rs 18.33 billion were under way. About 14 other connectivity projects were in the initial stages (preparation of detailed project report (DPR), etc.), and are likely to be taken up in the near to medium term.

Steps to be taken

  • Integrated port planning: Traditionally, hinterland connectivity has not been a priority in the port planning process. However, steps are now being taken to mark a departure from this approach towards a more integrated port planning approach. The latter must incorporate transport planning as a key aspect so as to enable optimum utilisation of the port and associated infrastructure.
  • Extended gate system: An extended gate is an inland terminal directly connected to the port. From this gate, consumers can drop off or pick up containers, thereby ensuring minimal congestion at the port premises. This can be a possible solution for ports at Chennai, Mumbai, Kolkata, etc.
  • To reduce turnaround time and increase efficiency at ports, there exists significant scope for improving intra-port activities, interface activities and hinterland connectivity. With regard to intra-port activities, initiatives to be taken include mechanisation, creating full rake handling capacity, adoption of modern track and signalling systems, etc. As far as interface activities are concerned, issues pertaining to holding yards, loco/crew availability, traction mismatch, speed restrictions, etc. need attention. In terms of hinterland connectivity, pre-arrival and post-departure issues call for immediate solutions.

In sum

Overall, there is general consensus in the industry on increasing the share of railways to move cargo to and from port facilities. To this end, addition, alteration and improvement in last-mile connectivity to and from ports will be key. Besides, efficient management of internal port-rail systems is also critical. In this regard, productivity improvement for faster cargo evacuation will prove fruitful. Financing hurdles can be addressed by tapping equity participation in large-scale, multi-beneficiary connectivity projects (Salegaon-Paradipa and Indore-Manmad are cases in point). Besides, Indian Railways’ participative models (especially the joint venture format and the non-government railway format) can continue to be the route to enhance private participation in the sector.

Based on a presentation by Anoop Kumar Agrawal, Managing Director, IPRCL, at a recent India Infrastructure conference