Growing Apace: Initiatives taken for electrification of railway lines

Initiatives taken for electrification of railway lines

Electrification is a major focus area for Indian Railways (IR) in view of cost savings from electric traction and a reduced carbon footprint. The national transporter has set a target of 100 per cent electrification by 2023. This will make IR the first major railway in the world to have a fully electrified broad gauge railway network of such magnitude. In 2014-15, when the capex in the railway sector quadrupled, IR directed much of the investment to its “Mission Electrification”.

Indian Infrastructure takes a look at the recent developments and initiatives with regard to electrification of railway lines…

Progress so far

IR has targeted the electrification of 63,631 route km (rkm) by 2023. Of this, it plans to electrify more than 6,000 rkm during 2020-21. As of April 1, 2020, IR has electrified 39,866 rkm which accounts for 58.49 per cent of the total rkm and 62.65 per cent of total broad gauge rkm in its network. It is expected to electrify the remaining 23,765 rkm in a span of three years.

IR is also working on the ancillary requirements of its electrification system that includes upgradation of signalling systems and procurement of electric locomotives. The entire idea of electrifying the railway lines is to reduce the overall cost of operation and thus the overall cost of transportation by railways, making the sector more sustainable and profitable. In order to ensure timely completion of the electrification projects, constant monitoring is being undertaken by the Traction Distribution Board at the Railway Board level. Besides, separate monitoring is being done by the zonal railways as well.

Overhead lines

With a view to curbing pollution, IR set up a solar plant at Bina, Madhya Pradesh, in July 2020 to directly power railway overhead lines. In a first-of-its-kind initiative, the power generated by the solar power plant will be fed directly to the overhead electricity lines which will in turn power the traction system of electric locomotives to run trains. IR has set up the 1.7 MW solar power plant in collaboration with Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited (BHEL). The plant is expected to generate nearly 2.5 MUs of energy annually, resulting in annual cost savings of Rs 13.7 million. The solar plant at Bina is a pilot project which involves converting direct current to single-phase alternating current. The scope of work for BHEL involved engineering, design, manufacture, supply, construction, erection, testing, commissioning and operation and maintenance based on the inputs provided by IR.

In another development, Western Railway became the country’s pioneering zonal railway to operate a high speed double-stack container train with an overhead wire as high as 7.57 metres. The container train was operated with the help of high-rise pantographs on electric locomotives. The zonal railway also achieved the highest electrification of 664 rkm in 2019-20. With the introduction of electric traction that is pollution-free and more efficient, Western Railway is expected to save nearly Rs 1 billion on fuel expenses.

Digital push

In the past few years, IR has increased its focus on digitalisation of operations to improve efficiency and enhance passenger convenience. As a part of its signalling system upgradation, it has indigenously developed a train collision avoidance system (TCAS), a home-grown system combined with automatic signalling and centralised traffic control. The TCAS ensures that a train stops automatically in case of any manual error such as inadvertent crossing of the red signal or any other malfunction. The initiative is also in line with the government’s Make in India programme aimed at enabling the country to become a manufacturing base for railway equipment. In addition to this, most of the monitoring and inspection of electrification projects are taking place on digital platforms. Digital innovations are expected to reduce human intervention and increase productivity at the same time. Digitalisation, mechanisation and automation assumed greater significance when a nationwide lockdown was imposed to stem the spread of Covid-19. Tata Projects implemented automatic wiring systems in North Frontier Railway, reducing the dependence on traffic blocks by almost one-fourth.

Procurement of electric locomotives

In May 2020, the first of the 12,000 HP electric locomotives, the Prima T8 locomotive was put into commercial service. Built by Alstom and certified by the Ministry of Railways (MoR), the Commissioner of Railway Safety and the Research Design and Standards Organisation, the electric locomotives were built in one of the country’s largest integrated greenfield manufacturing facilities at Madhepura in Bihar. Known as WAG-12, the electric locomotive is the most powerful locomotive to run on IR’s tracks so far. Meanwhile, as a part of the contract between Alstom and the MoR, a total of 800 electric locomotives will be built for IR and will be maintained for a period of 11 years. In line with the Make in India initiative, all the locomotives will be manufactured locally.

Impact of Covid-19

Construction works in the railway sector came to a grinding halt when the first containment measure in the form of nationwide lockdown was announced on March 25, 2020. Many flagship projects including electrification projects experienced delays as a result. The biggest challenges faced were with respect to labour mobilisation (due to the mass migration of the labour force to their native places) and difficulties in procurement of equipment and material. Further, supply chain management and logistics issues aggravated the misery for railway projects, including electrification works. Commodity pricing and the cost of resources also skyrocketed. As a result of the limitations on the movement of people and material, the overall cost of construction increased.

However, in a major positive development, IR has been able to make up for the delay in most of the works and the targeted completion timeline of 2020 for electrification works still remains intact. Companies such as Kalpataru Power Transmission Limited and Tata Power delivered electrification projects ahead of schedule despite the pandemic. Reportedly, nearly 1,000 rkm was electrified before the lockdown and is ready to be commissioned. IR is now in the process of commissioning the electrified routes and is expected to be back on track by March 2021.

Pain points and the road ahead

Even though electrification works have picked up pace, overall project implementation continues to be fraught with issues. One of the key challenges faced by the electrification projects is the lack of proper site clearance. Delays in approval of drawings for projects adds to the delays. Another issue faced during the project execution phase is with respect to the difficulties in dealing with traffic blocks. Contractors also face the problem of clients being unwilling to adapt to and adopt newer technologies.

Hence it is imperative that the government facilitates site clearances and prompt approvals and adopts a problem-solving approach to ensure timely completion of electrification projects. It is also important for contactors and IR to work in collaboration with one another and take proactive measures to avoid delays.

Going forward, IR is expected to take up new line projects and expansion projects after achieving the 100 per cent electrification target. These will include line doubling, tripling and quadrupling in suburban rail systems and high density sections of the Golden Quadrilateral. Laying of new electric cable lines, and setting up of transmission substations and general power equipment are expected to create new opportunities for the stakeholders involved. Meanwhile, operation and maintenance of the existing assets also presents significant opportunities.