Views of Ashwini Vaishnaw: “The railways sector will require significant investments to be made in infrastructure”        

“The railways sector will require significant investments to be made in infrastructure”        

The railway sector has made significant headway in capacity building and efficiency improvement in recent years. Although growth was impacted in 2020 by the Covid-19 pandemic, it recovered to some extent in 2020-21 and reached normalcy during 2021-22. The focus now is on the creation and expansion of dedicated freight corridors (DFCs) and high speed rail (HSR) in order to improve the railways’ load carrying capacity and reduce logistics costs. Infrastructure modernisation and technology upgradation are also receiving attention, as is evident from the station redevelopment programme and the deployment of the train collision avoidance system. Going forward, as part of the National Rail Plan for 2030, Indian Railways (IR) will work towards creating a future-ready railway system. At a recent industry conclave, Ashwini Vaishnaw, minister of railways, communications and electronics and information technology, spoke about the progress in the sector as well as the ministry’s achievements and key focus areas. Edited excerpts…

Development of world-class railway infrastructure

A key element that will help in the holistic transformation of the railways is the upgradation and redevelopment of existing infrastructure. The station redevelopment programme being un­dertaken by IR aims to transform the existing stations into city centres. Under this, plans are being made to create urban spaces on station platforms, which can be used as roof plazas and be integrated with road, metro and bus ser­vices, thereby developing a seamless system of travel. So far, 46 tenders have been iss­ued, 53 designs have been approved and 386 master plans are under preparation for station redevelopment. There is use of new and innovative cons­truction techniques, better monitoring and improved designs. It is expected that in the co­ming 24 to 36 months, 75 stations will be redeveloped. Nearly 3,000 engineers have been trai­n­ed to effectively work on the construction methodology and design philosophy.

Modern trains for enhanced comfort and speed levels

The first version of Vande Bharat – India’s first semi-high speed train – was launched in Fe­b­ruary 2019 with the aim of matching the speed and comfort levels of European train systems. The first prototype is currently operating on two routes, New Delhi-Vaishno Devi, Katra, and New Delhi-Varanasi. The two trains have collectively covered a distance of 1.8 million km since their inaugural run.

IR plans to further improve the ride quality in future prototypes of the Vande Bharat trains. Vande Bharat 2.0 is set to be rolled out from the Integral Coach Factory, Chennai. It will offer a better ride quality, with a ride index of 2.5-3 (the ride index is indirectly proportional to the comfort level of the train), better interiors, seating and comfort level. It will operate at a speed of 180 km per hour.

The designs for the next version of Vande Bharat (Prototype 3) have already been fina­lised. It is expected that the train will operate at a speed of 220 km per hour. The tenders for the third-generation trains are likely to be finali­sed by December 2022. These trains will be rolled out by 2025. Further, in order to achieve the ambitious target of launching 75 Vande Bharat trains by 2023 and 300 Vande Bharat trains by 2028, IR has brought in structural, organisational and fundamental chang­es. The­se include life cycle cost-based tenders, safety and quality control and independent safety as­s­essment of design.

KAVACH for train safety

The indigenously developed KAVACH technology acts as a safety cushion for the train. The technology activates the train braking system if the speed restriction is violated, thereby preventing a collision. Earlier, in March 2022, a suc­cessful trial of the technology was conducted between Gullaguda and Chitgidda railway stations of South Central Railway. Measures are also being taken to build capacity for successful implementation of the train protection system. To this end, nearly 500 engineers have been trained on the system and another 1,000 industry professionals will be trained.

“A key element in the holistic transformation of the railways is the upgradation and redevelopment of existing infrastructure.”

Growing railway share in logistics

The share of railways in logistics has increased to about 28 per cent in recent times. It is ex­pected that with the right reforms, this number will increase to 32 per cent in a few years, whi­ch will significantly bring down logistics costs for the country. As per estimates, if the share of railways can be increased from the current 28 per cent to 50 per cent and that of roads reduced from 70 per cent to 50 per cent, the country’s logistics costs will reduce to 11 per cent of GDP. Despite railways being a more affordable means of logistics transportation, the road sector continues to be the dominant player in the logistics domain. This is one of the key reasons for the growing logistics costs in the country.

In a bid to increase the modal share of railways in logistics, IR plans to launch 9,000 (HP) and 12,000- HP locomotives. These will be rolled out of the Dahod and Varanasi facilities respectively by 2024. Plans are also under way to increase the share of small parcels in the overall cargo carrying capacity of the network. To this end, the railways will roll out freight electric multiple units (EMUs) by end Decem­ber 2022. These are high speed freight trains de­sig­ned exclusively for small parcels. A pilot freight EMU train has been undertaken bet­we­en Surat and Varanasi and the results have been encouraging. A second pilot run is ex­pected to be launched soon. IR is also working on a hybrid freight and passenger train model to in­crease cargo loading. The multi-deck train will carry passengers on the upper deck and cargo in the lower deck. It is expected to be rolled out by 2023.

Development of high speed rail corridors

The Mumbai-Ahmedabad HSR corridor project has witnessed tremendous progress owing to the advanced construction technology being deployed. Pillars have been erected on a route length of 75 km in the Gujarat portion of the HSR project. In order to expedite construction, the full-span launching method has been ad­opted. A straddle carrier is used to handle the full-span precast box girders. Now that all app­rovals and clearances for the project are in place, project execution is expected to accelerate. Once completed, India’s first bullet train will operate at a speed of 320 km per hour and cover the distance between Mumbai and Ah­me­dabad in just three hours.

“The share of railways in logistics has increased to about 28 per cent in recent times. It is expected that with the right reforms, this will increase to 32 per cent in a few years, which will significantly bring down logistics costs for the country.”

Future focus areas

The national transporter has placed an order for 75,000 wagons, the highest ever in the history of the railways. Nearly 1,500 new wagons are being inducted every month into the railway network. This has translated into a record 185 million tonnes (mt) of additional cargo being transported by IR during 2021. We are expecting this load to touch 200 mt by 2022.

Further, the railways requires close to 160,000 wheels every year. Accordingly, IR has floated a tender for a 10-year supply of forged wheels, a new technology. Earlier, these were imported from Russia and Ukraine; however, they will now be manufactured in India. IR is also working on doubling new track-laying to 12 km per day from the current 4-5 km per day.

In another important development, IR’s plans to electrify the country’s broad gauge network by 2023-24 is nearing completion. IR is now also shifting to the 2×25 kV traction system, which is an upgrade from the existing 1×25 kV traction system. To that end, all new electrification work will be executed on 2×25 kV traction and previously electrified routes will be upgraded to the new standard in a phased manner.

Privatisation seems unlikely in the near fu­ture given the financial unviability of private passenger train operations as these cannot provide substantial concessions to customers. At present, IR provides a concession of nearly 55 per cent on every passenger ticket.

Going forward, the railway sector will require significant investments to be made in infrastructure. As per estimates, investments of Rs 3 trillion per year are needed to meet the targets and lower the overall logistics cos­ts of the country.