Growth Momentum: Recent progress in the railway sector

India has the fourth largest railway network in the world after the US, China and Russia. While 2021-22 was primarily a year of recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, 2022-23 has, till now, seen steady growth. Factors such as the increase in the volume and earnings of frei­ght and passenger traffic in 2022-23, tripling of the pace of track construction, and significant progress under the railway electrification scheme have contributed to this growth.

Sector progress

Recovering from the impact of the pandemic, fr­ei­ght volumes reached an all-time high of 1,415 million tonnes (mt) in 2021-22. More­over, Indian Railways’ (IR) freight loading for the first seven months of financial year 2023 (April-October 2022) reached 855.63 mt, surpassing the loading for the corresponding period in the previous year. Further, earnings also improved during April to October 2022 by 17 per cent to reach Rs 923.45 billion, as against Rs 789.21 billion in the corresponding period in 2021-22. Moreover, during the month of October 2022, originating freight loading of 118.94 mt was registered against a loading of 117.34 mt in October 2021 – an improvement of 1.4 per cent.

IR has made continuous efforts to improve the ease of doing business and service delivery at competitive prices. This has resulted in new traffic coming to the railways from both conventional and non-conventional commodity strea­ms. The customer-centric approach and work of business development units, backed up by agile policymaking, helped IR achieve growth in freight loading. In 2022-23, IR is expected to register a freight traffic volume of 868 billion net tonne km (NTKM), 8 per cent higher than the revised estimates for 2021-22 (807 billion NTKM). This is mainly on account of the esti­ma­ted increase in movement of coal, following the national coal crisis.

The passenger segment is also showing a continuous upward growth trajectory. The sector made significant progress by moving 3,061.57 million passengers in the April-Sep­tem­ber 2022 period, an increase of 160 per cent over the corresponding period last year. In 2021-22, IR registered passenger traffic to the tune of 3,542.76 million passengers, an inc­rea­se of 175 per cent over the 2020-21 numbers. Meanwhile, earnings from the passenger segment also witnessed an increase. The total approximate earnings of IR, on originating basis, from April 1, 2022 to October 8, 2022 stood at Rs 334.76 billion, 92 per cent higher than the earnings in the corresponding period last year. This hike in volume and earnin­gs implies that citizens are now willing to travel by rail, post Covid-19.

Rail infrastructure projects related to railway tracks have received a big push as well. The progress of railway track projects, namely new lines, gauge conversion and multi-tracking (doubling/tripling), almost tripled during April-September 2022 (as of September 21, 2022), vis-à-vis the previous year. As of September 21, 2022, IR has completed 1,353 track km (tkm) of new lines, gauge conversion and multitracking projects. Of this, 42 tkm of new lines, 28 tkm of gauge conversion and 1,283 tkm of multitracking have been completed.

In line with the Union Budget 2022-23, IR plans to develop new products and efficient logistics services for small farmers, and small and medium enterprises. It will also take steps towards the integration of pos­tal and railway networks to provide seamless solutions for the movement of parcels. IR is also working to further improve the ride quality in future versions of the Vande Bharat trains. To that end, the upgraded version, Vande Bha­rat 2.0, has been operational on the Gandhi­nagar-Mumbai route since September 2022. It can attain a maximum speed of 160 kmph due to its quicker ac­celeration and deceleration capabilities. The designs for the next version of Vande Bharat (Prototype 3) have also been finalised. IR plans to roll out 400 Vande Bharat trains in the coming three years.

Progress on mega programmes

With the aim of increasing the pace of infrastructure modernisation and technology adoption in the railway sector, mega progra­m­mes – high speed rail corridors (HSRs), dedicated freight corridors (DFC), and station redevelopment and electrification – have also made significant headway. For the Mumbai-Ahme­dabad HSR project, nearly 97 per cent of the land has been acquired (98.97 per cent in Gujarat, 100 per cent in Dadra & Nagar Ha­ve­li, and 95.45 per cent in Maharashtra). Civil works (including construction of stations, brid­ges, viaducts, maintenance depots and tunnels) have al­rea­dy started on a 352 km stretch in Gujarat and Dadra & Nagar Haveli. More­over, 100 km of pier construction has been completed as part of the project.

According to the progress report on the DFCs, nearly 56 per cent of the eastern and western DFCs has been commissioned. Fur­ther, 99 per cent of the land for these projects has been acquired. According to Dedica­ted Frei­ght Corridor Corporation of India Limited, all contracts under the eastern and western DFCs have been awarded. These contracts entail an investment of around Rs 574.41 billion. Mean­while, in October 2022, the 77 km long Mahesana-Sana­nd section of the western DFC was commissioned, along with the 25 km long New Kan­pur-Bhimsen section of the eastern DFC.

The national transporter is targeting complete electrification of its broad gauge network by 2023-24. To that end, IR has electrified more than 81 per cent (53,098 rkm) of its bro­ad-gauge network. During 2022-23, till Sep­tem­ber 2022, IR achieved the electrification of 851 rkm as compared to 562 rkm during the corresponding period of 2021-22, registering an increase of over 51 per cent. This electrification will help in reducing carbon emissions and will help in making India’s railway network carbon-neutral.

To ensure that the infrastructure modernisation stays on track, the Ministry of Railways has accelerated the redevelopment of major stations across the country. As of November 3, 2022, 40 railway stations are being redeveloped on the IR network to provide modern am­e­nities. Another 14 railway stations are under tendering for redevelopment, and are likely to be awarded in the next five months. The redevelopment of railway stations across the country is expected to have a multiplier effect on the economy, increasing job creation and improving economic growth.

Key challenges

Infrastructure growth in the railway sector faces a major challenge in the form of procedural and land acquisition delays. This in turn leads to cost and time overruns. IR depends heavily on gross budgetary support for its gro­wth and expansion. Given that most of its financial resources are spent on meeting operational expenses, IR is left with very few resour­ces to invest in capacity augmentation, which becomes another big challenge. Meanwhile, owing to the growing complexities of railway operations, the demand for skill­ed employees capable of performing tasks ef­fec­tively in their respective spheres has been increasing. It is essential that enhanced training is provided to upgrade staff skills.

What lies ahead

The railways are the primary mode of passenger and freight transportation in the country. The sector has a positive outlook in terms of infrastructure growth, backed by government support in the form of investme­nts and policies. IR’s National Rail Plan has de­fined a roadmap for capacity expansion of the railway network by 2030. It envisages the creation of a future-ready railway system that is able to not only meet passenger demand, but also increase the modal share of the railways in freight to 40-45 per cent from the present level of 26-27 per cent. In 2022-23, IR intends to lay 2,500 rkm of tracks (new line, doubling, gauge conversion) and complete the electrification of another 6,500 rkm. Moreover, Ka­vach, the indigenously de­veloped automatic train protection system, will be deployed ac­ross the entire rail network, starting with 2,000 km in 2022-23. The technology will then be deployed on 4,000 km to 5,000 km of rail network every subsequent year. The freight and passenger segments are ex­pected to be boosted further with the completion of the DFCs and HSRs, and the launch of more Vande Bharat trains. IR is also developing multi-deck trains for freight movement. All the­se initiatives are expected to improve freight efficiency, augment the speed of trains, impro­ve passenger amenities, enhance safety and ensure better connectivity.

Disha Khanna