Digital Solutions: Greater innovation and modernisation in Indian Railways

Indian Railways (IR) has adopted digitalisation across various spheres of its operations. Passenger information systems, train signalling, ticketing, computerised wagon allocation systems, real-time monitoring, traffic ma­­nagement, etc. are currently the key applications of digitalisation in the sector. Further, IR is planning to deploy artificial intelligence with a view to increasing the overall operati­o­nal efficiency of the railway sector.

A snapshot of some important digital initiatives undertaken by IR in the last two years…

Policy push for digitalisation

In an attempt to foster innovation and modernisation in the railway sector, the Indian Rail­way Innovation Policy – Start-ups for Rail­ways was launched in June 2022. The policy provides funding to Indian start-ups as well as micro, small and medium enterprises and en­tre­preneurs for leveraging innovation and technology to increase operational effectiveness and safety measures, and produce the most cutting-edge and affordable solutions. The Ministry of Railways launched a dedicated website and published 11 issue statements to encourage start-ups to come up with next-gen innovative solutions. The primary motive of the policy is to create functional prototypes, inno­va­tive products and cost-effective, implementable solutions to address quality- and maintenance-related issues with IR. It aims to ameliorate these problems through IR’s specific use of the generated products and solutions while moving towards the goal of 100 per cent automation.

Meanwhile, in August 2022, RITES Limited and the Centre for Railway Information Sys­­t­ems entered into an MoU to work on information technology-based opportunities in the railway industry and newer fields. The MoU will enable integration and make it easier for the two organisations to draw on each other’s expertise and work together in order to promote digitalisation of railway technologies. In addition to modernising the sector’s existing technology and telecommunications, the two entities are expected to develop smart, intelligent internet-based solutions for railway operations through this partnership.

Digitalisation interventions

Moving ahead in its journey of digital adoption, IR’s Central Organisation for Modernisation of Workshops approved a contract with the Wab­tec Corporation for the Online Monitoring of Rolling Stock (OMRS) project in March 2022. The idea is to increase the availability of the railways’ fleets of coaches, wagons and locomotives by identifying and fixing defects, and averting in-service breakdowns. The OMRS system is a state-of-the-art high-tech solution that enables operators to optimally plan the inspection and removal of defective bearings and wh­eels based on their condition rather than fixed time-based inspection schedules. This will result in a healthier and more reliable fleet. This is a part of the “smart yard” initiative and will facilitate condition-based predictive maintenance technologies. IR came up with the smart yard initiative in 2020 with the aim of maintaining rolling stock in a more efficient way. IR has also introduced smart coaches with an intelligent sensor-based system that sends notifications to the concerned authorities in case any damage occurs to the coaches while running. In January 2022, two such smart coaches were brought to Thiruvananthapuram division.

As of September 2022, the real-time train information system (RTIS) developed in collaboration with the Indian Space Research Orga­nisation (ISRO), is being installed on trains in order to automatically acquire their movement timings at stations, including arrival, departure and run-through. The updates received are au­to­matically plotted on the control charts of the respective trains through the Control Office Application system. The new system is also integrated with the ongoing train management system so as to enable the controllers to communicate with the drivers and guards using the train number and cab number codes. A broadcast call facility is also available through mo­bile train radio communication technology, for emergencies. Moreover, RTIS offers predefi­ned one-touch dialling to ensure prompt communication. Passenger safety can be ensured by facilitating efficient communication bet­we­en the driver and the control room. With the new system in place, a global positioning system can be used to track where trains are, and determine whether a level crossing is open or closed. As per the latest updates, RTIS devices have been installed on 2,700 locomotives. Us­ing ISRO’s satellite communications hub, Pha­se II will cover 6,000 additional locomotives spread across 50 loco sheds.

As part of the modernisation drive, an AI-based locomotive inspection system was installed at Trip Shed, Bandra Terminus, in the Mumbai division, by the Western Railway Zone in December 2021. The efficiency and quality of the repairs and maintenance, carried out by an AI-based locomotive inspection system, are expected to reduce locomotive outage. The system is able to inspect the sides, underframe and roof of a locomotive. Furthermore, it measures axle box temperatures, detects loose pa­rts, hanging parts, foreign particles, wheel profile, carbon strip defects, brake block thickness, broken roof insulators, cattle guard defe­cts, primary spring cracks, etc., and also raises alarms if intervention is required.

IR plans to deploy Wi-Fi and CCTV cameras in all trains and stations eventually. In July 2022, IR officially commenced the installation of video surveillance systems (VSSs) at the co­untry’s prominent railway stations. Work is be­ing executed with the help of resources provided by the Nirbhaya Fund. Four types of internet protocol cameras, namely, dome type, bullet type, pan tilt zoom type and ultra-HD-4K, are being installed to ensure maximum coverage of railway premises. This will give an extra edge to railway officials in ensuring enhanced security. The task of installing the VSSs has been gi­ven to RailTel. The surveillance system has high resolution CCTV cameras and a storage ca­­pacity of over a month’s worth of footage. According to RailTel, in the first phase of the project, high resolution CCTV cameras will be installed at approximately 756 railway stations across categories A, A1, B and C.

Meanwhile, in March 2022, Ubarni Railway Station in the Lucknow division of Northern Railway became the 6,100th station to join IR’s free Wi-Fi network. This network has helped connect the remote regions of the country, as the majority of the stations on this public Wi-Fi network are located in rural India, which has poor connectivity. IR has come a long way in the race towards digital advancement since the first Wi-Fi facility was installed at the Mumbai railway station in 2016. In related news, at present, nearly 80 per cent of reserved train tickets are purchased online.

Kavach, IR’s indigenously developed automatic train protection system, is also being ins­talled across the railway network in a phased manner. This is being done keeping in view the complexities involved in implementation, which requires all rolling stock, wayside stations and tracks to be equipped with the technology. As of December 2022, Kavach covers 1,455 route km under South Central Railway and 77 locomotives. Work is in progress for nearly 3,000 route km on the Delhi-Mumbai and Del­hi-Howrah corridors. The benefits of Kavach include controlling the speed of trains through the automatic application of brakes when approaching turnouts, the repeating of signal aspects in cabs, and auto whistling at level crossing gates.

The way forward

The digitalisation of railway services and databases in India is an ongoing process. In order to become aatmanirbhar, the Indian rail industry must strive to develop indigenous technology and delve into its enormous potential to provide smart solutions for safety, security, connectivity, seamless operation and sustainability. Technological advancements such as electrified routes and advanced signalling systems have increased the capacity of railway infrastructure. There is reportedly a need for increased usage of technology for crack detection without using trackmen. This is because manual detection is rarely 100 per cent accurate, especially at night. Digitalisation will help the railway sector finally resolve complaints about reliability and insufficient capacity, and help enhance the operational capabilities of both the passenger and freight segments.