Indian Railways (IR) connects the length and breadth of the nation through a network spanning more than 68,000 km, servicing over 7,000 stations. Over the past few years, IR has steadily worked towards infrastructure development, modernisation and ease of passenger movement. Under the National Rail Plan, IR aims to create capacity ahead of demand by 2030. The idea is to develop capacity with minimum capital investment and to accommodate not only periodic demand peaks but also year-on-year growth in traffic demand. IR has deployed various strategies to expedite track construction and is also focusing on maintenance of the existing infrastructure.
The railway sector has a significant role to play in developing the economy of the country. At present, IR is aiming for large-scale capacity enhancement to cater to the growing population. So far, IR maintains a network of 120,000 track km. In the coming five years, it intends to add another 50,000 track km to its network. Earlier, the rate of track construction stood at 2,500-3,000 km per annum, which has now increased to 5,000 km per annum. In the coming two to three years, IR plans to construct approximately 10,000 km of tracks within a year.
IR is undertaking large-scale construction activities, such as gauge conversion, multi-tracking, doubling, tripling, and quadrupling of the rail network. With the primary goal of increasing capacity, IR aims to quadruple tracks wherever there are double-line tracks. The Railway Board aims to divert freight traffic to IR and utilise scheduled cargo trains to guarantee on-time freight delivery. To this end, the current construction activity needs to be faster and of superior quality.
Speeding up track construction
Large-scale mechanisation is required to achieve the capacity and infrastructure development planned by IR. To achieve this, it has deployed construction machinery, including track-laying equipment. About three to four years ago, the rate of track construction stood at a mere 100-200 metres per day. However, track construction machines that are currently being deployed enable the construction of up to 1 km of track per day.
The overhead electrical equipment and signalling are other aspects that require upgradation. In order to expedite works in these segments, IR has deployed precast construction techniques and employed faster construction equipment techniques.
Meanwhile, various techniques have been adopted for the faster construction of road under bridges and road over bridges. This primarily includes precast construction and on-site assembling. Another innovative method being deployed to construct road under bridges is the laying of track boxes below a running line. This is done in a span of three to four hours (when a railway block has been permitted) over a period of one to two months. It enables the elimination of level crossings and provides grade separators.
Moreover, IR has introduced long welded panels without joints (end to end) for long stretches in an effort to improve railroad crossings. However, long bridges will still have some joints in order to provide enhanced structural strength. Long welded rails, welded cast, welded crossings, improved web switches or thick switches, improved turnout times, and canted turnout, which permit the speed of 50 km per hour on the divergent lines are being deployed with the aim of reducing maintenance works and increasing throughput.
IR also plans to start the upgradation of tracks with high strength rails (R-350HT rails). In addition to measures such as improving train technology, installation of anti-collision systems (KAVACH) and fencing of tracks, track upgradation is crucial for the operation of high speed trains. On August 14, 2023, the Ministry of Railways issued guidelines for the adoption of R-350HT grade rails on its network. As per the guidelines, R-350HT rails have been extensively used across the world and are, therefore, considered a proven grade. These rails are capable of carrying 25 tonnes of axle loads at a higher speed of 100 km per hour.
Focus on improving track maintenance
With the expansion of the track network, the maintenance of tracks will also require innovation. The conventional approach for track maintenance being followed by IR may not suffice. The latest technologies, matching global best practices, are being deployed for track maintenance with the aim of utilising existing manpower despite the mammoth growth of the track network. A strategy that can be employed to maintain the existing infrastructure with the current workforce is through mechanisation. The deployment of modern track machines, large-scale track rehabilitation using track relaying trains, high output ballast cleaning machines, etc., are some alternatives adopted by IR to expedite rehabilitation and repair works. With this, IR is able to rehabilitate tracks at the speed of 1 km per day.
Another focus area for enhancing infrastructure development is the inspection methodology. At present, inspections are largely conducted manually. However, IR is exploring and is in the process of introducing the instrumented inspection of railway tracks. With the help of artificial intelligence (AI)-based inspection, IR aims to predict maintenance cycles and requirements. The objective is to measure track behaviours, track parameters, and identify missing track components. It is expected that mechanised inspection technology will be introduced in the coming two to three years.
Meanwhile, IR is also working on developing ultrasonic floor detection of rails. With this technology, flaws are detected through ultrasonic waves, that is, sound waves of 2-4 MHz. These waves are generated and transmitted to the rail, which are then received back from the rail by a small piece of electric crystal fitted in the probe that moves over the rail. IR now plans to transition to car-based inspections, which will operate at 40 km per hour and carry out ultrasonic floor detection, subject to spot verification by pedestrian trolley. This move is expected to improve the reliability of rails and help predict any incipient flaws in them. This initiative will subsequently help enhance safety in operations as well.
IR’s ambitious network expansion plans also present a multitude of challenges. One of the primary issues that the Railway Board is addressing is the lack of expertise among railway contractors to handle the targeted infrastructure growth. The railway sector is facing a shortage of qualified manpower to operate the new machinery, which directly decreases the expected rate of construction. Meanwhile, the high capex requirement (for the contractor), procurement of new and better machinery, and incompetence of contractors are other key challenges being encountered in the present scenario. Developing strategies to mitigate these risks through stakeholder discussions is the only way to address these challenges.
The way forward
As per the National Rail Plan, IR is aiming for both network expansion and an increase in modal share to 45 per cent by 2030. Therefore, it becomes imperative that IR’s year-on-year infrastructure planning is carried out in a manner that not only boosts capacity but also ensures that traffic volumes leapfrog to achieve the targets.
Going forward, IR will focus on capacity building and enhancement of the track network so that traffic can be shifted, allowing the board more time for maintenance. IR also aims to establish a maintenance schedule and introduce the assured rolling block concept. This will fix the high-maintenance rolling programme three to four months ahead of schedule, enabling ease during maintenance works. Works are also under way to enhance the average speed and increase the maximum permissible speed across the entire railway system, which ranges from 110 km to 160 km per hour depending on the location. IR also plans to utilise green or sustainable materials. The process for this, however, is still at an experimental stage. IR also plans to switch to modern track maintenance and instrumented, AI-enabled predictive maintenance.
Based on remarks by Atul B. Khare, Former Principal Executive Director, Railway Board, at a recent Indian Infrastructure conference