Greener Tracks: Sustainable development initiatives in the railway sector

Indian Railways (IR) is moving rapidly to achieve the plan of net zero carbon emissions by 2030. A five-pronged energy efficiency plan has been released by the Ministry of Rail­ways (MoR), with a target to reduce the overall energy use by means of efficient operations and increased use of renewable energy. This is centred on sustainable construction, a cloud-based data monitoring and management portal, power quality and restoration, energy efficiency in equipment and appliances, and capacity building and awareness. A larger fo­cus on the electrification of the railway netwo­rk, reducing energy consumption, and conservation and optimisation of resources at stations are some of the key strategies being ad­op­ted by the sector to ensure sustainable development.

Indian Infrastructure takes a look at these green developments in the sector…

Electrification drive

Electrification in the railway sector has picked up substantially in recent times. It has multiple advantages, apart from its environmental benefits. These include reduced dependence on imported diesel fuel and lowered operating and maintenance costs of electric locomotives. There are different types of transition strategies for electrification such as broad gauge (BG) electrification, head-on generation (HOG), and transition from diesel to electric locomotives. While BG is a standard track of 1,676 mm used by IR, HOG technology allows power to be drawn from the overhead electric supply, instead of generator cars that emit fumes and create noise as well.

A total rail route of 6,366 km has been electrified in 2021-22, the highest thus far. As of February 2023, 85 per cent of the total BG route network has been electrified. In financial year 2022-23, 3,375 rkm of BG rou­tes have been electrified, which is a jump of 38 per cent from 2,452 rkm in 2021-22. The remaining network is targeted for completion by December 2023 by the Central Organisation for Railway Electrifica­tion. The MoR aims to achieve a milestone of 100 per cent electrification along with the completion of 98 years of electric traction systems in the sector. In a related development, doubling-cum-electrification work on the 741 km long Roha-Thokur railway line project was completed in March 2022, which marked the electrification of the entire Konkan region. Further, as of July 31, 2022, 1,080 rakes have been converted to HOG. With this, there has been a reduction in diesel consumption to the tune of 227 million litres per annum and East Coast Railway (ECoR) has been able to save diesel costs of around Rs 1.18 billion bet­ween April and November 2022. Con­se­qu­en­tly, carbon emissions generated by the sector are expected to drop.

Reduction and alternative energy consumption

Regenerative braking is one of the ways to re­duce energy consumption by regenerating elec­tricity through the braking action of the train. The electricity produced is fed back into the grid and then used to accelerate the train. It results in an estimated carbon emission reduction of 1 million tonnes per annum. Vande Bharat Express trains, which are running on 10 routes in the country as of February 2023, use an advanced regenerative braking system that saves approximately 30 per cent of energy. It significantly improves the acceleration and deceleration of the train, allowing timely communication by the driver in the event of an emergency.

Another method of energy optimisation is power procurement from renewable sources. As of August 2022, IR has a solar and wind energy generation capacity of 142 MW and 103 MW respectively, while it taps only 3 to 4 per cent of this capacity. IR has tied up with several solar companies for different power generation projects such as Rewa Ultra Mega Solar Limited for 400 MW, Bundelkhand Saur Urja Limited for 800 MW, the Solar Energy Cor­po­ration of India for 100 MW and Indian Railway Construction Limited’s solar plant for 500 MW. Furthermore, in June 2022, IR won the UIC International Sustainable Railway Award for the best use of “Zero-Carbon Technology” for feeding solar energy directly to a 25 kV alternating current traction system. This included 1.7 MW in Bina, Madhya Pradesh and 2 MW at Diwana, Haryana. To further develop IR’s renewable projects. The Energy and Resources Institute will coll­aborate with Railway Energy Management Company Limited. Both organisations signed an MoU in August 2022, for accelerating work on green buildings, energy efficiency projects, performance audits and research work related to net zero targets of the sector.

Other initiatives

Using different techniques of sustainable construction is another route that IR has chosen. The Udhampur-Srinagar-Baramulla Rail Link has used the waste produced during tunnel construction called “tunnel muck” in the construction process. This helps reduce carbon emissions by up to 80 per cent and project costs by 30 per cent. Moreover, railway stati­ons are being equipped with sustainable re­so­urce management. For instance, the Visa khapatnam railway station of ECoR has adopted the green concept by implementing segregation of waste, setting up and operationalising a 500 kilolitre per day sewage treatment plant for station and colony water, setting up solar panels to conserve power and 100 per cent fitment of LED lighting. With the highest platinum rating, it has also been awarded the Green Railway Station Certification by the Indi­an Green Building Council.

Other methods being used by IR include carbon capture or sequestering by tree plantation. As part of its plans to purchase carbon cr­e­dit, IR aims to offset emissions by planting trees. During 2021-22, it planted 0.72 million saplings and further aims to create an additional sink of 6.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide by 2030. Additionally, water conservation is being practised with mechanised cleaning of tracks and coaches through high pressure jet cleaners, wet and dry vacuum cleaners, etc. Th­is would reduce water wastage and sa­ve ti­me. Automatic coach washing plants have be­en installed, along with the implementation of rainwater harvesting. Other developments include the installation of bio-toilets in the fleet. To this end, IR has installed bio-toilets in 79,269 passenger coaches during 2021-22, which reduced nearly 0.28 million litres of hu­man excreta on tracks every day. It further lowers the pressure of sewerage and wastewater management with the anaerobic process of treatment called “bio-digester technology” conjointly developed with the Defence Research and Development Establishment. A step further towards net zero is the development of dedicated freight corridors (DFCs) across the country, which are estimated to reduce emissions by about 457 million tonnes over a period of 30 years in the first phase. IR has commissioned 1,724 km of a total DFC network of 2,843 km as of February 2023.

Challenges and the way forward

In the Union Budget 2023-24, the central government has proposed to manufacture 35 hy­drogen fuel-based trains, which is a major leap towards carbon neutrality. Additionally, Vision 2024 under the National Rail Plan ai­ms to lo­wer freight transit time by increasing the average speed of freight trains to 50 km per ho­ur for a greener and cheaper network. Pro­jec­ts pro­moting multimodal integration are also be­ing taken up as they are effective in disincentivising private vehicle use, thereby lowering emissions. MoR also plans to deploy technologies such as artificial intelligence and internet of things to monitor its greenhouse gas emissions. Although the sector has faced challenges in this journey, it is expected that non-traction end-uses will increase by 30 per cent by 2030 with the network and infrastructure ex­pansion of IR. This accounts for over 2,100 GW hours of electricity use per year. IR also faces delays in receiving no-objection certificates from some states for procuring power through open access. Banking re­strictions and restricted net metering policies in different states are some of the other constrain­ts in leveraging sustainable opportunities.