Indian Railways (IR) is aiming to achieve 100 per cent electrification of railway lines by December 2023, thus reducing the carbon emission level and improving the functioning and system of transportation. This will make IR the first major railway in the world to have a fully electrified broad gauge railway network of such a size. To achieve the stated target, IR has collaborated with the Central Organisation for Railway Electrification, Power Grid Corporation of India Limited, RITES Limited and the Indian Railway Construction Company. Once the goal is achieved the national transporter will be enable to save around Rs 145 billion annually on the fuel bill. An amount of Rs 63.26 billion has been allocated for railway electrification projects under the rail budget 2020-21.
Accelerated pace of electrification
IR’s network electrification mission has gathered significant momentum since 2014. The 2013-14 annual budget permitted the electrification of only 610 route km (rkm). Since then, the annual targets have been continuously growing, with 6,015 rkm in 2020-21 marking a 10-fold increase. IR accomplished the maximum ever electrification of the network, despite disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic during financial year 2020-21, totalling 6,015 rkm in a single year, exceeding the previous highest of 5,276 rkm recorded in 2018-19. Although electrification projects received minor setbacks during the Covid-19 lockdown, the completion time for the mission remains intact. Over the year, IR has electrified major sections including the Mumbai-Howrah section via Jabalpur, the Chennai-Trichy section, the Gorakhpur-Varanasi section via Aunrihar, the Delhi-Jaipur-Udaipur section and the Mumbai- Marwar section. With the recent electrification of the Nimmita-New Farakka rail stretch, the Eastern Railway zone stands 100 per cent electrified. IR is planning to electrify 28,143 km of railway tracks between 2019-20 and 2023-25. Of this, 5,642 km has been commissioned as of October 2020. Over the past three years, railway electrification projects worth Rs 202.6 billion have been sanctioned.
IR managed to cut down its diesel fuel expenditure by over Rs 80 billion during 2020-21, resulting in a significant amount of savings for the cash-strapped national transporter, due to the increased pace of electrification. Further, as more diesel locomotives were replaced with electric locomotives, IR lowered its diesel consumption from 3.06 billion litres in 2018-19 to 1.43 billion litres in 2020-21.
IR has taken several steps to reduce both traction and non-traction consumption. In order to reduce traction consumption, trailing locomotives of multi-units hauling empty freight trains are switched off to save energy; an auxiliary power unit has been provided in 986 diesel locomotives to reduce fuel consumption when the locomotive is idle; the use of energy efficient three-phase technology with regenerative features for electric locomotives is being promoted; energy consumption on electric locomotives is being monitored through microprocessor-based energy meters; idling of diesel locomotives is being monitored through remote management of locomotives and trains; all diesel locomotives that are over 31 years old are being grounded and a head-on generation system has been introduced in trains to reduce diesel fuel consumption in power cars.
With the adoption of LEDs, renewable energy, and open access in non-traction areas, IR expects to save Rs 11 billion on an annual basis, in terms of its electricity expenditure. Further, a provision has been made for the use of energy efficient LED lights and only star-rated energy efficient equipment in all railway installations, including railway stations, service buildings, residential quarters and coaches. IR has been conducting energy audits at consumption locations on a regular basis. Energy efficiency studies of six production units and four workshops have been conducted so far, with up to 15 per cent improvement in the overall energy efficiency.
IR has adopted an environment-friendly technology called head-on generation (HOG) system for supplying power to passenger coaches, which eliminates the requirement for separate power cars in trains, thus cutting down energy costs. Under the HOG system, power is now obtained from an overhead electric supply system, which previously used to be derived from power generator cars attached to the train’s front and back portions. With the introduction of the HOG system, there has been a substantial amount of saving in terms of diesel fuel consumption of power cars. A total of 1,280 trains have been equipped with the HOG system, as of June 2021. As per IR’s estimation, the adoption of HOG technology will prevent the release of 1,724.6 tonnes of carbon dioxide per annum.
IR is progressing towards becoming the world’s largest green railway network by 2030, with the target of becoming a net-zero carbon emitter. IR is gearing up to meet this target by expediting renewable energy initiatives, including setting up solar plants and wind projects on unutilised railway land on a mega scale. The national transporter aims to generate 20 GW of renewable energy from solar and wind energy projects to meet its annual power requirement of around 21 billion units. Railway Energy Management Company Limited, IR’s public sector undertaking, has placed bids for 3 GW solar projects on vacant railway areas in this regard. It is estimated that setting up solar plants on railway sites is Rs 1,500 billion worth of opportunities for private players. To encourage private sector participation in this initiative, the ministry has included the provision for letter of credit in the event of payment default by IR and has introduced a penalty for delay in payment for solar power companies.
IR has planned to source around 1,000 MW of solar power and 200 MW of wind power by 2021-22 across zonal railways and production units. In a notable development, IR successfully set up a 1.7 MW solar plant at Bina, Madhya Pradesh, to directly power railways’ overhead lines during the Covid-19 pandemic in July 2020. In simple terms, it has enabled the use of solar energy to power trains. The project, an exceptional one not just in India, but the entire world, was set up in partnership with Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited. The construction work for the 50 MW project in Bhilai, Chhattisgarh, has also commenced. This project will have connectivity at the compact tracking unit level and the 50 MW of power generated from the plant will be utilised for operating trains. The Ministry of Railways has commissioned a 2.5 MW solar project at Diwana in Haryana for connectivity with the state transmission utility. Further, a 3 MW solar plant has been installed at the Modern Coach Factory in Rae Bareli for non-traction operations. The railway ministry has commissioned solar panels at over 960 stations and is using solar energy to meet the energy requirements of the railway stations. As per the latest updates, IR currently has 203 MW of installed renewable capacity (100 MW of rooftop solar and 103 MW of wind).
The road ahead
Railway electrification has gained a lot of attention in recent years, mainly due to the target of eliminating the country’s reliance on imported petroleum-based energy products and enhancing energy security in the country. However, the state-wise requirement of railways ranges from 25 MW to 340 MW, which limits the use of renewable energy. While using more renewable energy, IR has to bear an additional financial implication of fixed charges for conventional power. Although IR has been providing capital support for the majority of solar power projects, bank finance is consistently required for private investment to flourish in the coming years. The pace of growth of wind energy projects is quite slow as compared to that of solar power projects leading to delays in electrification. This may lead to a low investor interest in wind energy projects. However, if IR succeeds in achieving its set targets, it will significantly transform the way the country commutes.