Views of Mukul Saran Mathur: “IR is focusing on the modernisation of its infrastructure”

Mukul Saran Mathur, Principal Executive Director (Infrastructure), Railway Board,

Currently, Indian Railways (IR) is focusing on expanding its infrastructure network, improving efficiency, enhancing customer experience and ease, and swiftly transitioning to sustainable modes of transport. Backed by government support in the form of fund allocations, launch of new rolling stock and trains such as Vande Bharat, and development under big-ticket programmes, IR is progressing towards its goals. At the India Infrastructure Forum 2023, Mukul Saran Mathur, Principal Executive Director (Infrastructure), Railway Board, discussed the progress of the railway sector and the initiatives being taken to accelerate development. Excerpts…

Significant increase in budgetary allocations

Given the railway sector’s instrumental role in the economic and social development of the country, it has been witnessing consistent gro­w­th in budgetary outlay over the past few years. During the 2005-07 period, budgetary allocations ranged between Rs 50 billion and Rs 150 billion. In 2013-14, the allocation doubled from Rs 500 billion to Rs 1,000 billion. In fact, the budget allocation increased by 49 per cent from Rs 1,623 billion in 2022-23 (revised estimates) to Rs 2,413 billion in 2023-24 (budget estima­t­es). The capital expenditure incurred by the sector has also grown over the years. Ear­lier, fund availability was a key challenge for infrastructure growth in the sector. However, in the present scenario, budgetary allocation stands as the predominant source of funding for the sector.

Growing rail fleet

There has been a phenomenal jump in the procurement of coaches and wagons. In 2022-23, IR procured 23,000 wagons. Earlier, IR used to induct nearly 12,000 wagons each year. In the next two years, it plans to induct an­other 70,000-75,000 with the idea of improving fre­ight loading and movement. Despite there being various schemes to encourage private investment in rolling stock since the late 1990s, the sector has not been able to garner sufficient private participation. This is primarily owing to delays in processes, approvals and testing me­cha­nisms, discouraging private participation. Ne­arly 800-900 rakes have been procured so far by private players under various schemes.

At present, the government is focusing on launching Vande Bharat trains. Since 2020 till May 2023, nearly 250 Vande Bharat coaches (or 11-12 rakes) have been inducted. By 2030, IR plans to induct around 2,800 Vande Bharat coaches every year. At present, only chair car versions of Vande Bharat trains are operating in the country. IR plans to launch Vande Bharat sleeper and metro coaches soon. It also plans to initiate trial runs of hydrogen trains by 2024.

Developments under big-ticket programmes

High speed rail project

The Mumbai-Ahmedabad high speed rail (HSR) project has been apprised as one of the most ambitious and revolutionary infrastructure projects being undertaken by IR. This 508 km-long high speed rail line will connect India’s economic and financial hub, Mumbai, with Ahmedabad, wherein trains will run at a speed of 350 km per hour. The HSR project is being developed with technical and financial aid from Japan. So far, of the 28 main packages, 21 have been awarded. The project is currently under implementation and pile work of 286 km, a 219 km-long foundation and pier construction of 183 km have been completed. Two key contracts, one for signalling and telecom and the other for rolling stock, are yet to be awarded. Despite various challenges,  a lot has been learnt from the project.

Station redevelopment programme

IR has identified about 1,275 big stations in the first phase that need modernisation and upgradation. Of this, work is under implementation at nearly 54. Meanwhile, detailed project reports for another 40 stations have already been prepared. Earlier, the stations had been proposed to be developed under the public-private-partnership mode. However, owing to lack of interest from the private sector, they are now being developed under the engineering, procurement and construction mode. Apart from Rani Kamlapati station (the erstwhile Habib­ga­nj station), no other station has been successfully redeveloped by private developers.

Dedicated freight corridors

Dedicated freight corridors (DFCs) are being de­veloped as high-capacity railway corridors ex­­clu­sively meant for the transportation of fr­eight goods and commodities. These DFCs in­volve the seamless integration of better infrastructure and state-of-the-art technology. The eastern DFC (EDFC) and the western DFC (WDFC) are two ongoing freight corridor projects in India. It is expected that the EDFC will be completed by June 2023. However, the WDFC is facing slight delays in project execution, primarily at the JNPT-Vaitarna section. The execution of DFCs is facing several challenges, as the executing contractors lack the capacity to carry out such big projects. Once completed, the DFCs will help boost freight traffic and im­prove the speed of freight trains.

Move towards sustainability

IR plans on becoming a net zero carbon emitter by 2030. At present, the carbon dioxide emissions from the railways stand at nearly 27 million tonnes per annum. The idea is to redu­ce carbon emissions and switch to sustainable transportation of goods and people. IR is following a three-pronged strategy to reduce the carbon footprint. The sector is mo­v­­ing to­war­ds cleaner sources of power. The pro­jected energy demand by 2029-30 will be 8,200 MW of po­wer. Of this, nearly 2,500 MW is met through renewable or sustainable energy sources. This has been acquired through various tie-ups by the Ministry of Railways (MoR), as well as the sector’s own wind and solar generation of 300 MW. Another method deployed by IR for reducing carbon emissions is the shift towards re­ge­nerative propulsion systems, which do not generate as much carbon dioxide. IR also plans to supress carbon emissions th­rough plantations. The MoR aims to plant 450 million plants to further reduce the sector’s car­bon footprint.

IR is also working towards reducing the consumption of diesel. To that end, the sector is deploying head-on-generation (HOG) technology in locomotives. As opposed to end-on-generation systems, which require diesel to power train coaches, HOG uses clean energy. The HOG system is an electrical power supply system wherein electrical power is required to ca­ter to the “hotel load” of a train, which includes train lighting, air conditioning, fans and other passenger interface requirements. Nearly 1,200 rakes have been converted to HOG, the­reby reducing diesel consumption.

Meanwhile, nearly 91 per cent of IR’s broad gauge network has been electrified at a pace of 18 km per day, up from the earlier 4 km per day. IR electrified nearly 6,500 route km (rkm) in 2022-23, and is targeting electrification of another 6,500 rkm in 2023-24. With this, IR will successfully complete electrification of its entire broad gauge network in 2023-24.

Future plans and strategies

In any organisation, changes need time. IR is continuously working and willing to bring ch­an­ges into the sector in order to ensure its holistic and sustainable development. To that end, it has set up a dedicated directorate under Gati Shakti to bring about synergy and improve system efficiency.

IR is also laying strong emphasis on the de­velopment and modernisation of its infrastructure. It is keen on removing the bottlenecks from cities in terms of connectivity to roads, ports and airways. The idea is to develop high-passenger and freight-intensive areas, which will enable smooth connectivity. There has been a major shift in spending on construction, and doubling and tripling of railway lines, to improve connectivity and convenience.