With freight trains operational throughout the lockdown period, Indian Railways (IR) emerged as a lifeline, transporting essential items across the length and breadth of the country. Also, as passenger services remained curtailed due to Covid-19, the railway sector has now turned to the freight segment to combat its losses. Several measures have been introduced in the past few months to unlock capacity in the freight segment. In a recent media interaction held on August 20, 2020, Vinod Kumar Yadav, spoke about enhancing IR’s freight capacity and rationalising tariff, as well as other measures that are being taken to give an impetus to freight operations. Excerpts…
IR is undergoing massive transformation to improve its freight operations. There has been substantial focus on enhancing the railways’ freight capacity. And the fact that the freight loading for August 2020 has been higher than last year’s levels despite the challenges created by the pandemic is a major positive development. This has been made possible due to several initiatives that have been taken by the Ministry of Railways to improve freight operations.
We have increased the speed of freight trains considerably. Speeds have almost doubled as compared to the previous year, providing quicker turnaround times for wagons. Further, we are planning to maintain the high speed levels for goods trains even when passenger services resume in a post-Covid scenario. IR is coming up with a zero-based timetable under which separate time slots will be dedicated to running passenger trains and freight trains and also for maintenance activities. It will allow us to optimise our operations, improve speed and efficiency and run more freight trains on the same network. IR is also setting up business development units at all three levels – divisions, zones and the Railway Board. Through these units, we are interacting with stakeholders and their suggestions are being taken on board to encourage the use of railways for transportation of more and more commodities. Moreover, a business development partnership portal will be introduced soon.
We have also launched a slew of tariff and non-tariff measures to improve freight volumes and, therefore, revenues from the segment. Some recently introduced tariff rationalisation initiatives are withdrawal of the 15 per cent busy season surcharge for all sectors except coal, iron ore and containers; withdrawal of the 5 per cent surcharge on two-point/mini rakes; and provision of concessions for long-lead and short-lead traffic. Further, the Round Trip Traffic Policy and the Alternate Terminal Scheme have been liberalised. A 5 per cent discount on loaded containers has also been given. The rationalisation of tariffs is a continuous process and we will take further steps depending upon suggestions from the stakeholders.
A lot of non-tariff measures have also been taken to attract more companies to transport freight via railways. The electronic transmission of railway receipts has been allowed on a pan-India basis as the physical submission of receipts has been a challenge during this period. The distance restrictions for mini and two-point rakes have also been eased. Further, a reduction in permissible carrying capacity of pet coke and steel pipelines has been made. We have liberalised the Private Freight Terminal Policy and the General Purpose Wagon Investment Scheme. Also, two-point unloading has been permitted for automobile traffic and the limit on the number of co-users for private siding for all sectors has been removed.
We have introduced timetabled parcel special trains during the pandemic. Around 4,701 timetabled parcel trains with multiple en route stoppages had been operated till August 20, 2020. Dedicated parcel terminals will also be set up. We have liberalised the policies and all private freight terminals and sidings have been allowed to handle parcel traffic as well. Besides, a robust modern parcel management system will be developed. We have also launched a pilot project with the Department of Posts to provide door-to-door services to customers.
Moreover, Kisan Rail was introduced with multiple stoppages and for multiple commodities and multiple parties. As of now, the Kisan trains have already made two trips. We are planning to introduce more Kisan trains on the basis of demand. We have made an elaborate plan in consultation with the Ministry of Agriculture. At present, the movement of agricultural items including fruits and vegetables is being assessed. The origin-destination pairs have already been mapped out by the Ministry of Agriculture. Further, these trains will be timetabled and loading/unloading will be permitted at any of the en route stoppages. Moreover, we have launched freight cargo express trains known as Vyapar Mala Express Trains.
A lot of emphasis is being laid on opening up of export traffic to neighbouring countries. We have already opened export traffic to Bangladesh for parcels, containers and automobiles. We are also making efforts to minimise the use of imported coal by substituting it with domestic coal. As transportation charges play a major role in the total cost of coal, we are trying to rationalise coal movement in the country.
Another initiative that is being taken by the railways is the improvement of goods sheds and freight terminals. Currently, around 405 major goods sheds have been identified for improvement mission mode. Lighting, road connectivity and labour facilities will be improved at these sheds to enable three-shift operations. Besides, some sort of mechanisation will also be introduced for loading and unloading activities. We are working towards ensuring that once freight is loaded, it reaches the destination taking as little transit time as possible. This gives an advantage not only to the stakeholders but also to the railways as we will able to utilise our wagons in a more efficient manner and run more freight trains.
We are also changing the designs of wagons in such a way that their weight can be reduced. This will allow us to load more freight in them. Besides, we are getting a lot of encouragement with respect to automobile traffic. Therefore, we are working towards converting our old Integrated Coach Factory coaches into New Modified Goods coaches so that we are able to carry more automobile traffic. As far as our Private Wagon Policy is concerned, we have liberalised it to a large extent. But, at the same time, we are still open to liberalising it further based on recommendations and suggestions we receive from stakeholders.
The railways is also leveraging technology in a big way. Our freight operation information system is being completely revamped and the new system will basically act as a one-stop logistics solution. It will provide first-mile to last-mile connectivity and will also work as a freight e-marketplace, thus bringing about greater efficiencies in freight movement. The system is already under development and will be completed by December 2021.
While we have been thinking of incremental growth in freight for the past few years, this is the first time that we are close to realising it. We have achieved this by converting the challenges presented by the pandemic into opportunities. In the past few months, we have taken more measures for improvement in the freight segment than those introduced in the past several years. And these measures have paid dividends as well. They have played a major role in reviving freight activity in the country in these challenging times. In April 2020, due to the impact of Covid-19, freight traffic reduced to 65 per cent of April 2019 levels. While the transportation of foodgrains almost doubled, that of all other commodities dropped in April 2020. However, due to the efforts made by IR, freight volumes started picking up in subsequent months. In May, June and July this year, freight volumes increased to 79 per cent, 92 per cent and 95 per cent, respectively, as compared to levels in the corresponding periods of last year. During the first 18 days of August 2020, loading surpassed last year’s levels by around 7 per cent and this has been very encouraging. In the past few months, we have also been able to attract new streams of commodities that were earlier being carried by road.
Several measures are being taken to expand the network and enhance capacity so that freight rail continues to operate at these levels even after passenger train operations return to pre-Covid levels. Currently, around 50 per cent of the entire network (34,000 km) carries 96 per cent of the total traffic. To decongest the network, IR is working towards doubling 11,500 km of the network that is still single line by March 2024. Further, we will also work towards multitracking the 2,500 km network which is congested even after provision of a double line. Around 2,252 km of gauge conversion will also be completed and, by 2023, our entire network will be 100 per cent electrified. We are making efforts to complete 10 port connectivity and 51 coal connectivity projects by end 2023-24. Our dedicated freight corridors, which will give a massive boost to our freight transportation, will be completed by June 2022. Besides, the Delhi-Mumbai and Delhi-Kolkata routes will be upgraded to run passenger trains at a speed of 160 km per hour. So, with this significant enhancement of IR’s network, we are looking at unlocking our freight potential.
We are looking at making a quantum jump in freight loading. We aim to double our freight loading from the current levels of 1,200 million tonnes (mt) to over 2,000 mt by 2024. While this is a difficult target, IR has adopted a comprehensive approach and is working relentlessly towards achieving the target freight levels by introducing several tariff and non-tariff measures, expanding the network and continuously interacting with stakeholders.