On the Upswing: Progress and opportunities in railway construction

India has the fourth largest railway network in the world after the US, China and Russia. Railway tracks play an important role in accelerating the economic growth of a country, as they enable seamless transportation of freight and passenger traffic, as well as revenue generation. Overall, the railway sector has been growing steadily over the past few years, in terms of both infrastructure and investment.

Indian Infrastructure takes a look at the developments related to railway track construction in the recent past…

Progress so far

Between 2016-17 and 2021-22, the railway track network grew at a compound annual growth rate of 0.42 per cent, from 66,918 route km (rkm) in 2016-17 to 68,043 rkm in 2021-22. With respect to new lines/doubling/ gauge conversions, Indian Railways (IR) completed a total length of 2,904 km against a target of 2,400 km in 2021-22 (excluding dedicated freight corridors).

During financial year 2022-23, as of December 12, 2022, IR has already completed 2,022 track km (tkm), including 109 tkm of new lines, 102 tkm of gauge conversion and 1,811 tkm of multi-tracking projects. To contextualise the pace of progress, it may be noted that in 2021-22, this figure was reached only during the first week of March 2022. Between 2014 and 2022, across IR, 20,628 km of sections (3,970 km of new lines, 5,507 km of gauge conversion and 11,151 km of doubling) were commissioned at an average rate of 2,579 km per year, which is 70 per cent higher than the average commissioning during 2009-14 (1,520 km per year). Meanwhile, IR used to commission projects with a track length of about 4.16 km per day during 2006-14. This increased to 7 km per day between 2014 and 2021-22. It further increased to 12 km per day in 2022-23.

As of April 1, 2022, 452 railway infrastructure projects (including 42 gauge conversion and 227 doubling projects), encompassing a le­n­gth of 49,323 km and entailing an investment of about Rs 7.33 trillion, are at different stages of implementation. Of this, 11,518 km has be­en commissioned and an expenditure of nearly Rs 2.35 trillion has been incurred as of March 2022. Besides, of the 452 projects, 183 are new line projects, encompassing 20,937 km and entailing an investment of about Rs 4 trillion. These are at different stages of implemen­ta­tion. Of this, 2,831 km has been commissioned and an expenditure of about Rs 1.13 trillion has been incurred as of March 2022.

The steps being taken by the government for the effective and speedy implementation of rail projects include a substantial increase in the allocation of funds towards priority projects, the delegation of powers at the field le­vel, close monitoring of project progress, and regular follow-ups with state governme­n­ts and concerned authorities for expeditious land acquisition, obtaining forestry, and wild­life clearances and resolution of other issues pertaining to projects.

Recent developments

Budgetary allocation

For railway infrastructure development, under Union Budget 2023-24, Rs 318.5 billion has been allotted to new lines, Rs 46 billion to gauge conversion, Rs 307.49 billion to doubling works, Rs 172.96 billion to track rene­w­als, and Rs 12.55 billion to bridges, tunnel wor­ks and approaches.

1,724 km of DFC commissioned

As of January 31, 2023, Dedicated Freight Co­rri­dor Corporation of India Limited has completed 863 km and 861 km of track work under the Western Dedicated Freight Corridor Project and the Eastern Dedicated Freight Corridor Project respectively.

Record electrification achieved

A record electrification of 6,366 rkm was ac­hieved for the first time in the history of IR during 2021-22. The previous record was 6,015 rkm during 2020-21. Further, a total of 3,375 rkm has been electrified in 2022-23 as of January 31, 2023, compared to 2,452 rkm during the same period in 2021-22, representing a 38 per cent increase. As of December 2022, IR has completed 85 per cent of broad gauge electrification with the aim of reducing India’s reliance on fossil fuels and becoming the world’s largest “green railway”.

Modernisation of railway tracks

Use of full span launching equipment

IR successfully launched the indigenously designed and manufactured full span launching equipment-straddle carrier and girder transporter to expedite the construction of viaduct superstructures for the Mumbai-Ahmedabad hi­gh speed rail corridor in September 2022. The full span launching methodology is employ­ed all over the world, because it is faster than the segment-by-segment launching method, which is commonly used to build viaducts for metro systems. With this, India has joined the small group of countries creating and manufacturing such equipment, which includes Italy, Norway, Korea and China.

Mechanised track maintenance introduced

IR has introduced mechanised track maintenance using technologically advanced equipment, such as high-output tamping and stabilising machines. These machines have improv­ed the results of track maintenance manyfold compared to manual track maintenance. Addi­tionally, technologically advanced track re­cording cars are being used for track inspection. These have the additional ability to video record track components. When carrying out primary track renewal works, modern track str­uctures, consisting of prestressed concrete sleepers and steel channel sleepers on girder bridges, are used. Meanwhile, to detect flaws such as fractures on tracks, ultrasonic testing of rails is being carried out by IR.

As per reports, IR is using a fleet of about 1,364 track machines for various maintenance activities, such as tamping machines with an output of 2,600 sleepers per effective hour.

The road ahead

With numerous prospective and ongoing mega projects, including high speed rail corridors and dedicated freight corridors, railway infrastructure is undergoing rapid expansion. In an important development, IR is planning to build elevated tracks to operate semi-high-speed passenger trains on popular sections. These include Delhi-Jaipur, Mumbai-Pune, Benga­luru­-Chennai and Delhi-Amritsar via Chandi­garh. This will require an investment to the tune of Rs 1.5-1.6 billion per km through dire­ct budgetary support. Reportedly, the zonal railways have been tasked with carrying out studies for laying these tracks, which can be used for intercity fast train services. Most of the routes identified are on the range of 200 km to 300 km, and there is high demand for premium train services in these sections. The construction of elevated railway tracks/corridors is planned on a case-by-case basis based upon factors such as site conditions, land availability, encroachment along the alignment and the density of built-up area.

In November 2022, IR decided to switch from stony ballasted tracks to ballast-less tracks at important stations, including those id­entified for redevelopment. This step was needed to improve cleanliness at stations. The dirt collected on ballast-less tracks can easily be washed off, unlike ballasted tracks. Addi­tionally, ballast-less tracks have smooth concrete or asphalt-like surfaces instead of the usual greyish ballast stones that need to be regularly monitored and replaced. Going forward, IR will explore the inclusion of new features without affecting the scope of the original contract wherever station upgrades are being undertaken, under the engineering, procurement and construction mode.

Meanwhile, IR is working steadily towards reducing the unit cost of logistics to a minimum. To this end, rail infrastructure projects re­lated to railway tracks have been given a big push. The government has ambitious plans for the railways to recapture freight market share and grow from 28 per cent at present to 40 per cent in the next 10 years.