Indian Railways (IR) has been changing over the years, although the pace of change may not be in line with customer expectations and global technologies.
Taking a 25-year perspective, I see the standardisation of broad gauge as a key change in IR. While many detractors thought that metre gauge was a large enough system that could be preserved, or that customised gauges had their own charm (albeit with transshipment difficulties and costs), or even that the policy was targeted at benefiting contractors, the policy drove itself to implementation, and has now reached near 100 per cent levels. The key principle that it leveraged was that basic infrastructure should ideally be standardised. The outcomes of connectivity, throughput capacity and asset efficiency have been quietly transformational. Achieving direct connectivity from, say, the states of Rajasthan and Gujarat to Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, or bringing the Northeast into mainstream connectivity are examples. A largely single-track, low capacity metre gauge connection between Ahmedabad and the National Capital Region is today a four-track, electrified broad gauge connection!
The increase in axle loading from 20.3 tonnes to 22.9 tonnes per axle resulted in a 13 per cent increase in loadability. This happened with marginal changes in wagon design. More importantly, it set the tone for considering greater loadability: 25 tonnes in key iron ore routes and potentially 32.5 tonnes in the dedicated freight corridor (DFC), albeit with more investments.
The DFC concept, starting at the turn of the century, witnessed actual, though slow, implementation and has been a game changer. Freight services, being the bread and butter of IR, can now be heavier, longer and faster, providing a boost to throughput. While the first two DFCs are about 60 per cent complete, more DFCs are being planned.
Creating more zones has provided greater focus for traffic. At the turn of the century, there were nine zones. Today there are 19, including Konkan Railway and the Kolkata Metro. While detractors say that this is “politically” driven or has been done to provide more opportunities for promotion due to the availability of more senior positions (and there may be some truth in this), the fact is that IR has provided greater responsiveness to customer needs at higher levels.
There have been attempts to bring in more private play, largely through public-private partnerships (PPPs). But these have been half-hearted at best. There has been some success in port connectivity projects, container train operations (CTOs), and outsourcing of rolling stock maintenance and catering services. In all of these, the private promoters always express difficulty in dealing with IR and not having recourse to an independent regulator or fair dispute resolution mechanisms. Bringing in private play into passenger train operations was a non-starter. In fact, the outsourcing of services has often evoked customers’ ire, partly because of small-size, “non-branded” players being selected through the least-cost route.
Considering a 10-year perspective, there have been several more changes, sometimes built on concepts developed earlier. The policy of 100 per cent electrification, driven by the focus on climate and carbon impact, is being implemented at an accelerated speed. While detractors talk about the “unnecessary” investment in low-traffic areas and point out that coal-based electricity generation does not really mitigate the carbon impact, the reality of the benefits of standardisation in a large system and the greater use of renewable energy in the future has to be recognised.
The idea of moving to high-speed rail became a reality with Japanese collaboration for the Mumbai-Ahmedabad route. Although delayed substantially from the originally announced four-year (2017-21) time frame, this is expected to take IR and the country into new domains of technology. The impact of a populous democratic country was felt in both the land acquisition challenges and centre-state (political) differences.
A commendable innovation has been the indigenous design and development of the Vande Bharat train sets, in terms of both the interiors and the tractive technology. This is set to become the mainstream rolling stock for all fast trains in the country. However, the development phase brought out key issues in IR’s organisation culture, which led to a suffocation of innovation. An attempt to address these organisational culture challenges, at least partially, has been made through a move to merge eight departmental cadres into one, called the Indian Railway Management Service (IRMS). The IRMS is expected to reduce internal conflicts. However, it will need a lot of nurturing through customised training and career growth initiatives.
Looking at the future challenges and the way forward, IR needs to significantly develop its growth strategies based on customer requirements determined through organised market research.
As a large infrastructure system, while standards are important on the supply side, in gauge, traction, etc., customisation is important on the demand side. A recent success has been the opening up of product-specific wagon designs, even initiated by private wagon manufacturers and other stakeholders. The wagon design for automobile movement, along with third-party automobile freight train operators, has resulted in an increase in the market share of rail movement of automobiles, bucking the prevailing trend.
It is also important to focus on PPPs. This is being attempted in passenger terminals, multimodal logistics parks (MMLPs), and manufacturing of rolling stock (train sets and locomotives since wagons are already in the private domain). This ought to see success, especially because the PPP model involves land and the provision of access to the railway system by IR at its existing manufacturing and workshop facilities. For sustainable success and other activities such as train operations, this needs to be accompanied by the setting up of an independent regulator and dispute resolution mechanisms.
In the context of CTOs, the lack of an independent regulator has effectively limited 17 licence holders to less than one-third market share, with IR’s own subsidiary, CONCOR, holding the rest. To unlock more value, IR is considering privatising CONCOR. However, it would not be right to privatise it as a single entity since the private owner of CONCOR would be at an unfair advantage vis-à-vis other operators. It would be necessary to unbundle CONCOR to ensure fair competition before privatisation.
Multimodal transport is a huge opportunity for IR. Intermodal ease of moving both containerised and non-containerised traffic, and double-stack movement of containers are necessary. IR and other transport-related ministries have already started focusing on MMLPs. While a top-down approach is a good starter, bottom-up initiatives by the private sector should be encouraged, especially by providing easy access to the rail network in terms of land in the vicinity and rail connectivity. Warehousing services in the MMLPs need attention. Double-stack container movement brings in cost efficiency. The western DFC and related feeder lines have focused on high-rise electrification, while the eastern DFC has unfortunately not. It is important that more routes are enabled for double stacking. Wagon design, such as well wagons (used in the US, for example), may be an opportunity. It is also possible to consider modified designs of containers, especially for domestic movement, to optimally use the moving dimension capability. Finally, IR should consider incentivising investments in inland water transport and coastal movement by becoming a participant in partnership mode to improve rail-water intermodal movement.
There is an opportunity for IR to nurture and build on its “heritage”. Apart from preservation, there is huge value to be unlocked since globally there is a lot of nostalgia associated with train travel.
At the operational level, IR needs to focus on streamlining flows in a manner that will reduce the difference between maximum speed and average speed. This itself will reduce travel time a fair bit, even before we get to technologies that increase maximum speeds. In order to minimise bottlenecks, targeted investments will need to be made for bypasses, grade separating flyovers/underpasses between rail routes, removing permanent speed restrictions, high-speed turnouts, access to loops without cross traffic, increasing platform-facing tracks, etc. This would also lead to improved signalling, especially moving to cab signals versus signal posts.
As a final word, along with the many other priorities, safety needs attention. IR is aware of this. There is a focus on continuous improvement and creating greater alertness. Signalling and control systems need to be foolproof, maintenance of assets (tracks and rolling stock) needs to be high quality, and the human resources behind all this must be periodically trained and inspired into a culture of safety consciousness.