Indian Railways - A Massive Exercise in Operations
Updated: May 7, 2022
Most of my articles on this professional blog are focused on mapping / geo / location analytics. After all, the scope of mapping is extensive, there are numerous real-world applications and imagery analytics is one mega interesting field by itself. Therefore, I felt the need to write more about the 'Ops' aspect of Mapmyops i.e on Operations. I believe and espouse that to unlock significant value from day-to-day operations, organizations need to become operationally savvier. Particularly, this holds true for Indian origin businesses who strive to become globally competitive.
My last article for 2021 will focus on 21 operational aspects of our beloved Indian Railways (IR). Not only is Indian Railways a beast in terms of its scale of operations (4th largest rail network in the world and the largest employer and property owner in the country) but also it is emblematic of our country's difficult past and promising future.
While Public Transport has always been dear to me and I've written on this topic previously, none of the modes of public transport strike my imagination as much as Railways do. Particularly in a country like ours where, within a couple of hours of travelling in a comfortable 'chhuk-chhuk', one is exposed to different cultures, languages, weather, sights and smells.
Having recently watched the fascinating YouTube playlist on Indian Railways by Khan GS Research Centre, I feel that while it is routinely maligned for its delays and poor service levels, it is also important for us to recognize that the Indian Railways is also a massive and complex exercise in Operations Management where multiple parts need to come together and synchronize perfectly to deliver a successful outcome. To raise awareness about this and about significant projects that have been undertaken recently to usher in a new era of efficient rail operations is the motive behind writing this piece.
(I have tried to lend a loose structure to the narrative: Basics ----> Innovations ----> Projects ----> Reflections ----> Concluding Topics and would suggest you to read the 21 sections sequentially. However, since this is a very long article, you can also choose to jump to specific sections of your interest using the section bookmarks hyper-linked above.)
1. Understanding the Nomenclature System of Locomotives
What do the alphanumeric characters on the locomotive mean?
WDG 4 stands for Wide (Broad) Gauge, Diesel operated Goods Train. The 4 implies that the engine is 4th Generation in terms of its build and design.
The 4 can also be loosely interpreted as having a 4000 HP engine. If it was written as 4D then it could be (4*1000) + (D i.e. 4th letter * 100) = a 4400 HP engine. 4F would mean 4600 HP and so on. This method is not applicable for all types of engines, however. The newest class of locomotive being manufactured by Indian Railways is the WAG-12 (12000 HP) built in collaboration with French major - Alstom at Electric Locomotive Factory (ELF) in Madhepura, Bihar.
The last 5 numbers on the loco - 12706 is the serial number of the locomotive. Earlier, there used to be a consistent method to determine this number but now it confounds interpretation. This number is useful, however, to the depot where this rake was built because it has to go back there for maintenance work.
There are 8 types of locomotives operational on broad gauge in Indian Railways -
(While you would be familiar with Passenger & Freight Locomotives, Shunting Locomotives are those that are used to move around passenger train coaches and freight wagons for purposes such as attachment, detachment, sequencing and separation. Typically shunting is done within the confines of a station or a yard.)
2. Understanding the Nomenclature System of Rakes
A rake of a passenger train called a Coach and it is typically made up of 5 digits as depicted in the image below.
The first two numbers or the 'prefix' are simple to interpret - 04 denotes the year in which the coach was built i.e. 2004. (It can also mean when the coach was rebuilt or when the coach was transferred to zonal railway).
The next three digits or the 'suffix' signifies the type of coach - 052 in the image above is a number between 1-200 which denotes that it is the highest class of passenger coach i.e. Air-Conditioned (AC) coach.
237 here is a number between 201-400 signifying the next class of rake - Sleeper Coach.
The number 437 denotes the next class of coaches - those that fall in the 401 - 600 range - General Class coach.
As you'd infer, this coach was built in 2008.
Similarly - 601-700 signifies Chair Car, 701-800 means Seating cum Luggage coach and 800+ implies that it is a Pantry Car or a Mail Service coach or a Generator Van. Try spotting these the next time you see a passenger train!
Next, we move to understanding the nomenclature system of Wagons. Rakes of Freight trains are called Wagons and their initials are written in small letters and therefore are not visible in the images used below.
These are BCN Wagons - Box Cover with Pneumatic Brakes. Since these are covered on top, they are useful to carry materials which need protection from rainfall, sunlight,air exposure and theft.
Example: Food grains, cement
These wagons are called BOXN - Box Open with Pneumatic Brakes. Typically, these are used to transfer materials which are of low value and cannot be damaged by exposure to rainfall, sunlight or air.
Example: Sand, stone, coal etc.
These wagons are called BTPN - Box Tanker for Petrol with Pneumatic Brakes and are used to store fuels, gases and perishable liquids.
Other common types of wagons used are-
BOB: Bogie Open Bottom Wagons which are useful to deposit ballast on side of tracks
BLC: Bogie Low Platform Container Wagons useful to transport shipping containers
BRN: Bogie Open Flat Wagons useful to carry military equipment,
Ro-Ro: Roll on - Roll off Wagons useful to transport vehicles and
NMG - New Modified Wagons which are essentially old Passenger coaches converted into Covered wagons.
3. Understanding some of the Light based Indicators & Equipment for Train Safety
Alarm Chain Pulling (ACP) Light on the exterior of the coach is meant to alert the Government Railway Police (GRP) who can identify the coach where the chain was pulled immediately and take necessary action.
2. Sandbox - Attached at the bottom of the locomotive, the sandbox stores sand and the loco pilot sprays it on wet tracks to generate friction which helps prevent Wheel slips and Wheel slides. Slips and Slides are determined by a concept known as Adhesive Weight which, in turn, is determined by weight, power of engine as well as the haulage load.
3. 27-Pin control cable: Complex mechanical equipment such as drones, aeroplanes and locomotives cannot be operated at will. Prior & Post running a diesel locomotive, the driver has to perform inspection as per a checklist to ascertain that all the 27 Control functions are in working condition. This takes up-to 20 minutes. The 27-Pin High Voltage control cable can be connected to the Trailing locomotive as depicted in the image above. This allows the driver on the Lead locomotive to take control of the trailing one where additional driver is not required. This type of Multiple Loco arrangement is typically used on routes with high gradient (slope) and / or which requires additional power to haul the heavy load. Among other aspects, this arduous inspection procedure is one of the reasons why drivers decide not to switch off diesel locomotives even when lying idle at stations / signals.
4. Undercarriage Examiner with HD cameras: You may have witnessed the common practice where railway workers flash their torchlight on the undercarriages when the train arrives or departs at either end of the platform. This is done to inspect any damage in suspension, brakes etc. and immediately notify the loco pilot and engineers thereafter.
Indian Railways is transitioning to HD camera based undercarriage inspection which will give a more accurate and real time feed to the concerned authorities thereby making train travel safer.
5. Flasher Light (yellow in the image) blinks at the rate of 35 to 45 times a minute and can be seen by loco pilots on the adjacent track from as far as 2 kms away. These lights are turned on when the loco pilot wants to caution the driver of the approaching train about an emergency situation / about special circumstances.
Marker Light (white in the image) is used to notify the observers about the direction in which the train is moving - white means forward and red means reverse. These marker lights are present and active at the rear end of the train as well.
4. Understanding Pole Numbering
Despite all the technology available at our disposal, our reliance on human intelligence will continue to to prevail. Consider these markings on electrical poles (or in iron poles on non-electrified routes) which you may have observed before, but not realized its importance.
The number 388 signifies the number of kilometres that have elapsed from the nearest major city on that route (or the distance from the nearest main line if the train is plying on a branch line).
The number 6 signifies the pole number in that particular kilometre. Typically, poles are spaced at intervals of 50 metres and there are 20 poles in a kilometre. Neon-Yellow markings help in observing the signage even at night or in foggy conditions.
This information is useful for a couple of purposes in particular-
a) It enables the loco pilot or travelers to convey the location of an accident, incident or a section where irregularities / damage in the tracks have been spotted to the concerned authorities (Station master, Control center or GRP).
b) Before initiating the journey or during the journey, Loco pilots and assistants are supplied with caution lists containing pole numbers alerting them to sections on the route where maintenance work is going on and where they would need to slow down the train speed.
So, if something precious of yours falls out from the train window, do note down the pole number immediately and convey it to the authority at the next station so that they can direct personnel to retrieve the fallen item!
5. Do you Know: Freight Trains are not longer than Passenger Trains!
After years of sitting on the window seat and marveling at the sight of the seemingly unending freight trains ambling past, it was very surprising to know that the length of both - the freight trains and the passenger trains - is capped at 650 metres. The reason behind this capping is because of the simple constraint that the length of the train cannot exceed the length of platform which is also, capped at 650 metres (loop line which runs adjacent to the platform is capped at 750 metres). While some railway platforms are exceptions to this British era capping, it is imperative that unless all stations on the route increase their platform lengths, running longer trains is not feasible.
This is the reason why during peak holiday season, the only option available to Indian Railways on popular routes is to increase the number and / or frequency of trains. The option to increase the number of coaches is usually not available as the trains already tend to be 650 metres long.
So what causes this fallacy (freight trains being perceived to be much longer)? One of the reasons is largely mathematical - the size of the coach in a freight train (10 metres for BOXN wagons and 15 metres for BCN wagons) is much smaller than the size of the coach in a passenger train (24 metres in LHB trains). Hence, while long distance Passenger trains typically have 23-25 coaches, freight trains have anywhere between 42 and 64 coaches. The other reason is more psychological - freight trains typically don't run at fast speeds (avg. 24 km / hr). Therefore, coupled with the fact that the freight train has more coaches, it takes longer for it to pass by us than it takes for a passenger train which would rush past us due to its higher speeds (avg. 75 km / hr) giving us a false impression about train lengths. Incredible, isn't it?
Platforms like the ones in Gorakhpur and Kharagpur (some of the longest in the world) are exceptions to the platform length capping rule. Both these platforms are in excess of 1000 metres in length but this is more because of the station's space constraints than for any other reason. Typically, 2 - 3 loop lines are present on such longer platforms (for eg. Platform 1 and 3 & Platform 2 and 4 are but a single platform in Kharagpur whereas Platform 1, 2 & 2A are but a single platform in Gorakhpur). In Gorakhpur, it was decided to have a longer platform as there was no space to widen and add new platforms by the side (Main road on one side and Railway workshop on the other side were the constraints).
Nonetheless, to accommodate longer trains and to ease out the traffic, the Indian Railways has decided to increase the length of the loop lines on all the stations on specific routes.
6. Do You Know: The Class of the train influences its Operational Privileges
You may have wondered sometimes - Why do some trains always get late? or, Why do we have to see several trains pass by before ours is given the green signal?
Till the time railway infrastructure becomes less congested (more about it in the later sections), it will remain a major operational bottleneck and causes significant time delays. There are several other reasons behind time delays- from asset failures, line & terminal capacity bottlenecks and adverse weather conditions to miscreant activity and accidents involving cattle or humans.
The operations of railway networks lie with the Control Centre - the operations of which are confidential in nature. Therefore, public knowledge on operations planning and scheduling is limited. Moreover, situation-based decision making is prevalent too. However, as with other state owned enterprises, Indian Railways is also affected by internal power politics. For example, each train is assigned to a particular zonal headquarter and divisional headquarter and so, whenever your train is travelling within that zonal / divisional headquarter, it is 'favored' over trains of other headquarters and allowed to move first in case there is a conflict in scheduling.
This bias usually happens, however, when there is a conflict between trains of the same class. When it comes to conflict between different train classes, certain protocols are adhered to, generally. The priority list is as follows - ranked from train classes given highest priority to lowest priority:
1) ARME & ART - Trains containing Accidental Relief and/or Medical Equipment proceeding towards accident sites
2) President's & VVIP Specials - as per the protocols
3) Local / Suburban Trains moving in peak rush direction - for the convenience of urban dwellers and office goers
4) Superfast Trains - As this is a Premium category of passenger trains. Even within this class, priority rules exist for each sub-class. Rajdhani Trains are given first preference, followed by Shatabdi, Duronto, Tejas, Garib Rath, Double Decker and Jan-Shatabdi Express respectively. Most of these trains have meal charges included in the ticket fare so in the event of delays, Indian Railways would have to spend extra on an additional meal for all the passengers which is not desirable and hence, it prefers to avoid it. 5) Mail / Express Trains - These long distance class of trains come next in the priority list 6) Military Personnel Special Trains - Trains carrying military personnel to their base or returning from there
7) Fast Passenger Trains - Short to medium distance intra-state or inter-state trains
8) Festival Special Trains - These trains are run during peak festive season or on specific occasions
9) Passenger Trains - Local/Suburban trains and other intra-state, inter-city trains
10) Mixed Trains - Trains with both passenger and freight coaches
11) Military Stores Special - carrying rations for armed forces
12) Express or Special Goods Trains - A preferred class of freight rains
13) Freight Trains - All the remaining types of freight trains
14) Returning ARME & ART - see point 1)
15) Shunting and Van Goods Trains - These trains are used to rearrange / transfer rakes
16) Departmental Trains - Trains carrying maintenance workers and/or their equipment, workshop
So the next time you book your train ticket and see a variety of train options available, think about this list. Also, would you like to shuffle this list in any way?
7. Do you Know: Why do passenger trains typically halt for 20 minutes at large stations?
If your response is - because it is an important city, because there are more passengers on-boarding and de-boarding, because of catering halts etc. you are not incorrect. However, the precise reason is because of an operational constraint: the watering system at large stations. Each small pipe refills a single coach and it requires up to 20 minutes to fill up 1300 - 1800 litres depending on the coach type.
As soon as a train arrives to a halt at such stations, railway staff insert the small pipe emanating from the 4 inch large metal pipe running adjacent to the loop line into the area marked as 'Side-filling' section of the coach. There may be potential delays too resulting in detention such as - railway staff not present, another train being filled at the same time etc. Naturally, this results in lack of water in a coach and significant traveler discomfort. To make matters worse, the stoppage time at stations is being reduced to 10 minutes so as to make the trains reach their destination quicker. Therefore, there isn't adequate time to refill the water tanks! (if they are completely empty at arrival).
The solution - a 'Quick Watering System' launched in 2019 which reduces the time taken to refill the coach from 20 minutes to 5 minutes. How is this accomplished? - By increasing the diameter of the metal pipe to 6 inches and by increasing the pressure of water supply using higher powered motors (40 HP). The flow and controls of the watering system will be computerized (SCADA) to automate the water flow and control part movements. Additionally, it will be mandatory for long distance trains to be refilled every 300-400 kms. A welcome relief! if the implementation is successful.
8. Electricity & Trains - A friend indeed!
Sharing some interesting insights pertaining to electricity use in Indian Railways-
a) All locomotives run on electricity actually. Electric Locomotives use the electric current from Over Head Equipment (OHE) to power the engine's traction motor whereas Diesel Locomotives have generators which convert the fuel to electricity which is then supplied to the engine's traction motor.
b) Around 46,000 kms or 71% of India's Broad Gauge Network is electrified as on 31st March 2021. The reliance on Diesel Locomotives may never be completely eliminated though. Such locomotives are useful in Border areas where electric line sabotage will be detrimental to man and equipment movement. Also, Shunting locomotives, which are used to move rakes, keep on changing tracks and so, to avoid OHE electrical complications, diesel locomotive is preferred.
c) The earliest form of IR coaches (ICF) had a Dynamo attached to each coach. As a result, each coach was able to generate its own electricity. The most used coach today (LHB) sources its current from the generator van at either/both the ends of the train (the coaches which emit loud noise ceaselessly!). This transition took place primarily because the dynamo increased the weight of each coach making it costlier to manufacture and more expensive to haul. The latest initiative is to remove the reliance on generator vans altogether. Instead, each coach will be linked to the OHE using Head on Generation (HOG) technology which will source the energy directly from there to operate the electrical equipment such as fans, lights, AC's and charging points. Savings / unit of Rs. 30 will be generated (Rs. 36 / unit for Generator Van vs Rs. 6 / unit for HOG) which will save Rs. 1400 crores for Indian Railways annually. Instead of two noisy generator vans, only one silent generator van will be attached to each train for emergency requirements.
d) Theft of Electrical equipment such as fans, bulbs, lights, sockets etc. used to be a big problem affecting the Indian Railways. They solved it in a smart manner - all such equipment now run on 110 Volts DC and the electricity supplied to homes is typically at 220 Volts AC rendering these equipment useless and thereby, discouraging its theft.
e) Depending on temperature fluctuations, OHE equipment (catenary and messenger wires) can expand and contract in size. This may cause the wires to snap.
Hence, the 3 pulley Auto Tensioning Device (ATD) is installed alongside the tracks to maintain a continuous 2000 kg tension on the two wires (1000 kg each). Depending on the temperature changes, the ATD re-balances the force exerted, keeping the wires straight and springy. The weight of the auto tension is kept at 667 kgs (2000 kg force / 3 pulleys)
The pantograph (equipment which transfers electricity to the trains from the OHE) has its fair share of innovations and utility too. Learn more about it from this video.
9. Do You Know: Brake Pads in Trains are, by default, always pushing up against the wheels. In a bicycle, when pressure is applied by the rider on the brake lever, the brake pads push against the wheels generating friction and making the cycle slow down and stop eventually. In trains however, the brake pads are, by default, pressed up against the wheel. The train driver has to divert the air pressure, which the wagon's air tank is applying on the brake pads, into a separate line - the brake line - which separates the pads from the wheels allowing the train to move. A fail-safe mechanism, this allows the train to stop moving should there be any major leakages or malfunctioning in the air pressure delivery mechanism. Smart, isn't it? The last thing you want is a train's brakes to fail and for it to hurtle towards a catastrophe. An effective mechanism, but not without its limitations though.
10. Understanding Amenities Allocation System at Railway Stations
Just as the quality of a restaurant is not determined by food alone but by additional factors such as ambience, cleanliness, service, seating and waiting comfort etc., the quality of rail travel is not just determined by train features alone. Amenities at railway stations - such as availability of clean water and toilets, waiting and seating area, electrical fixtures and fittings, shade, security, facilities for senior citizens and those with handicaps play a vital role in customer comfort and satisfaction.
Over the last year, you may have witnessed the high profile inaugurations of the redeveloped Bhopal’s Rani Kamlapati (Habibganj) railway station and Gandhinagar railway station and wondered if your archaic local railway station could be next in line to be redeveloped into a swanky, airport like facility with premium amenities such as hotels, lounges, large seating area, modern signages etc.
If your local station is Amritsar, Bengaluru (Baiyapanhalli), Chandigarh, Delhi (Anand Vihar & Bijwasan), Gwalior, Jaipur (Gandhi Nagar), Kanpur, Mumbai (Thakurli), Nagpur, Sabarmati, Shivaji Nagar, Surat, then you have reason to rejoice because these are in the pipeline for redevelopment under Public-Private Partnership (PPP) model.
However, do you know that Indian Railway maintains a checklist of Minimum Essential Amenities (MEA), Recommended Amenities and Desirable Amenities as per the category of the station?
Please refer to the detailed document here (source of the tables pasted below).
The Category of a railway station is determined by the number of passengers handled, earnings from passengers, special significance (holy site, tourist spot) and availability of funds with zonal / divisional headquarters.
Basis the category the station qualifies under, it is entitled to receive certain minimum amenities. Close to 2/3rds (appx. 6000) of the total railway stations in India fall under Non-Suburban category and the minimum amenities for this category of stations is depicted in the table below-
The Recommended Amenities include facilities like extra drinking water taps, larger waiting halls, mobile charging points, nursing cubicles etc. whereas the Desired Amenities include facilities like retiring rooms, ATMs, bookstalls, Taxi service Wi-fi etc.
The decision to install these upgraded amenities at a railway station lies with the discretion of the Zonal Railway. It is not entirely a subjective decision- mathematical calculations such as maximum passenger load per half hour and maximum number of trains dealt with per half hour are used to arrive at the decision.
I am not particularly aware about the grievance redressal mechanism (or the effectiveness of it) at the disposal of the customers should the minimum facilities be not available at a particular station, however, it is mandatory that the MEA list, Actual Available Amenity list, and Other Amenities Available list be displayed in the station master / manager’s room.
11. In-Train Innovations - Twin BOBO Bogies
Freight locomotives plying on the Dedicated Freight Corridor (DFC) are supposed to carry double stacked containers i.e. more load (from 3900 tons as of today to in excess of 10000 tons later) as well as run faster (from 24 km/hr. avg. speed as of today to above 80 km/hr avg. speed later). How can this enormous transition be accomplished without compromising on safety? Let's explore in detail-
This is a wheel set i.e. 2 wheels connected by an axle.
A bogie with an arrangement of two such axles i.e. 4 wheels is called a 'Bo' bogie.
Bo-Bo arrangement means that each train locomotive is fitted with two Bo bogies - one at the front of the locomotive and one towards the back. Therefore, there are 8 wheels in the locomotive as can be inferred from the image below-
Co-Co locomotives, on the other hand, use an arrangement of six axles - three in one 'Co' bogie across two bogies i.e. 12 wheels in total as can be inferred from the image below-
Bo-Bo locomotives are typically suited for passenger trains as it allows the train to move at faster speeds. Co-co locomotives, on the other hand are more suitable for freight trains as it allows the train to haul heavy loads.
In the DFC however, the emphasis is on increased haulage capacity as well as on increased speed. Therefore, the powerful and longer WAG-12 locomotives have been built using the Twin Bo-Bo design i.e. with 8 Bogies (4 in one Bo) and 16 wheels in total. This arrangement is a mechanical breakthrough which would allow Indian Railways to haul heavier loads at faster speeds, transforming freight goods movement in India (More on this in the DFC section. Know more about these powerful WAG-12 locomotives from this video).
12. In-Train Innovations - Bio-Toilets
What has Psychrophilic bacteria found in the freezing environs of Antarctica got to do with Indian Railways?
A lot. These types of bacteria can grow and biodegrade organic matter in extreme environments. This unique property captured the attention of the scientists at DRDE laboratory Gwalior (the bio-chemical R&D wing of DRDO) who visited Antarctica to study and source various types of such bacteria. After culturing them in lab-environment, they designed the Bio-Digester - an ingenious piece of waste treatment equipment lined with this bacteria and deployed it at Indian army bases in ecologically sensitive environs such as those at Siachen and Ladakh.
To the glee of all involved, these bio-toilets were able to effectively decompose the waste matter! (human waste is converted to water, methane and carbon dioxide - the latter two gases being the only output released from the digester into the surroundings)- a feat which not only brought laurels to the scientists but also raised hopes for solving an even bigger problem - that of hygienic sanitation in the Indian Railways. With increasing urbanisation and resulting increase in daily travelers, it was no longer sustainable to have open discharge or controlled discharge toilets in the railways. Evidently, these were very unhygienic, caused a plethora of water-borne diseases, polluted the environment, corroded the railway tracks and increased the scavenging and track maintenance expenditure of the railways.
A detailed video explaining the journey behind the bio-digester
In 2010, it was pledged to make railways open-discharge free and this unique Indian innovation pipped other global innovations such as chemical toilets and electrical incineration toilets to be chosen as the method most effective technology-wise as well as cost-wise (appx. Rs. 1 lac per toilet). Moreover, it takes into consideration the sanitary habits of a typical Indian rail traveler as well.
As with any new innovation, improvements were needed and incorporated in the bio-toilet over a period of time to make it more effective. For example, suction machines were installed at railway yards to suck out non-biodegradable waste (plastic bottles, cigarette butts etc.) which is routinely dumped by ignorant users. Also, to prevent excessive water usage, new bio-toilets are now fitted with vacuum flush too (as prevalent in airlines).
In March 2021, all the passenger coaches of Indian Railways had been equipped with the toilet with the Bio-Toilet (appx. 74000 coaches & 2.5 lakh toilets). This innovation has helped in preventing nearly 2.75 lakh litres of excreta to be openly discharged each day saving the railways nearly Rs. 400 crore annually on track maintenance expenditure alone!
13. Dedicated Freight Corridor (DFC) - Transforming Logistics
The biggest project Indian Railways has undertaken in its history is the creation of the Dedicated Freight Corridor. Once the first phase of the project: construction of Eastern DFC (Punjab to West Bengal) and Western DFC (Uttar Pradesh to Maharashtra) - is completed in March 2022, it will usher in considerable operational improvements in how goods are transported, in the the top half of the country in particular. The benefits will eventually percolate to passenger train movement on these routes as well.
Is Freight movement important for the nation / for the Indian Railways?
Yes, absolutely. The Indian Railways earns 65% of its revenue from operating freight trains. Passenger train accounts for 29% of the revenue share whereas parcel and catering/misc. contribute roughly 3 percent each respectively. However, it is the cost to operate that makes an enormous difference. The Indian Railways' highest source of profit (and by a large margin the sole significant source) comes from operating freight trains. And it is not difficult to imagine why it is so - Operationally, the freight trains require minimal expenditure on wagon maintenance, electricity, ticket checkers, water, staff, catering etc., which are major cost components in passenger trains. These profits are used to cross-subsidize 43% of passenger ticket fare.
However, when it comes to scheduling priority, freight trains are given some of the worst treatment. On-time passengers are more important than On-time goods and this has resulted in freight customers preferring to transport their goods via the more convenient road transport. Compared to other developing / developed countries, India's rail transport % contribution to overall transport is abysmal (30%) and this has several unfavorable repercussions - a) Expensive Logistics Costs b) Road Traffic Jams and c) Increase in Pollution.
Therefore, it was only prudent for India to attempt to respond to and alter this asymmetry - using the DFC project.
Some of the salient features of the Dedicated Freight Corridor project are as below -
a) The project cost of the first phase of the project - Eastern and Western DFC combined is INR 1,30,000 crores (Rs. 1.3 trillion) for 3000 kms of rail network making it the largest project undertaking by Indian Railways in its history.
b) Only freight trains will be allowed to ply in DFCs which runs, at most stretches, in parallel to the existing rail lines.
c) The emphasis is to create efficient and world-class Multi-modal Logistics infrastructure. Goods arriving at the ports - for example, JNPT in Navi Mumbai should be able to be quickly unloaded from the ships and be transported via the Western DFC to the manufacturing hubs of North India. Industrial Corridors are being setup in parallel to the DFC so that the road transportation time of goods from railway station to factory is minimized.
d) 70% of freight trains will be diverted to DFC thereby de-congesting the traffic on existing rail network and allowing Indian Railways valuable breathing space to add more passenger trains.
e) The world's second largest Operations Control Centre (OCS) for Trains has been setup in Prayagraj (Allahabad) to plan, direct and monitor the Eastern DFC operations.
f) Double Stacked Containers will ply on these corridors hauled by the most powerful locomotive of the Indian Railways - the WAG12 locomotive with 12000 HP. The average speed of the trains will increase from a paltry 24 km/hr on current routes to a much improved 70 km/hr on the dedicated freight corridor. These trains would be more than double in length (1500 metres) than regular freight trains (650 metres). All of these would contribute towards more and faster goods movement at a much lower unit cost of transportation. The entire corridor, including the tunnels, will be electrically connected thereby saving enormous diesel costs as well as reducing significant pollution emissions. The central objective of the DFC is to transport material within 24 hours across the country.
g) Level crossings i.e. the place where roads intersect with railway tracks, have been completely eliminated from DFCs. Indian Railways has circumvented this problem by constructing over-bridges and under-passes. This will result in lesser man-machine interaction reducing accident scope and enabling uninterrupted goods movement.
- To explore more about the DFC, you may view the video below-
14. The switch to LHB coaches from Conventional ICF coaches in passenger trains
While there have been several variants and upgrades in types of passenger coaches, essentially these fall under 2 categories - the ICF rake (Integrated Coach Factory) and the LHB rake (Linke-Hoffman Busch). The former was built using technology transfer from Switzerland and is operational since 1955 while the latter is built using technology transfer from Germany and is operational since 2000. Indian Railways stopped manufacturing ICF coaches in 2018 as it intends to switch completely to LHB rakes (and even better rakes) because it is much safer and more comfortable for passengers.
We can clearly observe the merits that LHB coaches have over ICF coaches from the comparison table below-
15: Track and Infrastructure Maintenance Projects
Lest we concentrate only on the safety of the moving parts i.e. the trains, it is the static parts such as Rail-Tracks, Over Head Equipment, Bridges etc. which are equally, if not more important and require routine inspection to ensure operational safety.
While the Railways incurred a heavy dip in revenues due to the stoppage of services during the virus influenced lock-down in 2020, this gave it enough time to complete the long overdue maintenance work be it Ultrasonic flaw detection of tracks, Oscillation monitoring system (OMS) based inspection, Remodeling and repair of yards and bridges or De-stressing of Long Welded Rail (LWR).
Moreover, with IR's ambitious plan to 'completely mechanize the inspection, monitoring, relaying and maintenance of rail tracks by 2024 on the entire network', large investments have been made to procure superior maintenance equipment - be it Dynamic Tamping Express for track repair and renewal, Ballast Cleaning Machine to inspect and stabilize sleeper and ballast, Points and Crossing Machine for geometry correction of turnouts or modern Camp Coaches for accommodation and training of maintenance workers posted in remote areas.
16. Easing the main Bottleneck: the Railway Signalling System
For significant operations improvement to take place in any industry, it is important to improve the 'overall flow' in the system and not just make individual nodes more efficient in isolation.
For example, the new WAG-12 locomotive may be able to run at speeds of 180 km/hr but what if the train driver is reluctant to run it at those speeds because he fears that upon doing so he may miss seeing a stop signal or because of manual oversight, information regarding track maintenance underway is not relayed to him on time. Averting disaster by having more control is much preferred (and sensibly so) rather than running at higher speeds.
When we observe the Indian Railways as a system, the main bottleneck in my opinion is not train speeds or number of trains, rather, it is the signalling 'system'. For much of our history, we've been reliant on manual or semi-automatic signalling, track interlocking and information transfer mechanisms. As a result, there are several buffers built into the system which cause significant operational delays.
What is a buffer? Consider that you are a contractor and you have been assigned a task to paint a building. You know that if everything falls in place, the task will be completed in 5 days. However, some workers may go on leave or that the dealer will be unable to re-stock select paints on time etc. which will result in delays. So it is safer for you to factor in the potential delays and commit 5 + 2 (buffer) = 7 days to the customer. The customer will incur additional cost in terms of keeping part of your team hired whereas you will not be able to jump to other projects which could earn you a higher per day return. Hence, this buffer is potentially, a loss for the entire system - the customer, the workers and for your contracting business.
Make no mistake, buffers are necessary but excessive buffers, particularly on important aspects (critical path in operations terms) of a complex project results in plenty of waste - time-wise and cost-wise. The key to unlocking value in the railways, therefore, is to create some breathing space by de-congesting the network.
Given this context, consider pausing for a minute to think about what steps would you recommend the Indian Railways to reduce this kind of waste i.e. those arising from an inefficient signalling system? Quite possibly, you may recommend-
- relaying information on a real-time basis to the train driver
- limiting the reliance on manual effort i.e. integrate the decision making within the locomotive's control system as much as possible
- ensuring that technology deployment enables the driver to be more confident about the safety system and divert his attention on more productive tasks i.e. running at higher speeds to become more punctual
In a way, this is exactly what the Indian Railways has set out to do by making an investment of Rs. 50,000 crores - (watch the videos below to understand the technology better)
a) Electronic Interlocking System: This will reduce time delays such as when your train is just a kilometre away from destination but has to wait for an eternity before the arrival platform is allotted to the train.
b) Automatic Train Protection System including the use of Anti-Collision Device - Minimizing the threat of train crash either from front, or from behind or from the side. This is done by having real time train, signal and track information integrated with the control systems of the locomotive. In simple terms, even if the driver misses to spot a red signal, the train will automatically reduce its speed and alert the driver basis the information inputs received by the computerized system.
c) Block Signalling: A smart upgrade to the method of conveying main line status to the train driver.
d) Optical Fibre System - Because higher data transfer speeds are necessary to have real-time information exchange (The video below delves into OF technology and installation in oceans, which makes for a fascinating viewing).
e) Digital Axle Counters - These devices collect information regarding the total number of wheel axles in the train's bogies as it passes by and relays this information to the control center where it is reconciled with the train rake data at source. This is done to ascertain that all the rakes in a train are intact i.e. are not detached or missing.
With the successful implementation of these initiatives along with faster locomotives and separate freight corridor, the Indian Railways will be able to make the existing network much faster and safer i.e increase the flow of the system thereby unlocking tremendous value such as scope for investing in more trains on popular routes.
17. Railways: Manpower intensive operations
Indian Railways is the largest employer in India with manpower count of 12.5 lakhs as on 31st March 2020. It regularly features in the Top 10 world's biggest employer list.
Below are the tables with group-wise and department-wise breakdown and wage stats (Source)-
As you'd interpret from the table - supervisory and clerical posts (Group C) constitute the bulk of the manpower in Indian Railways. The total number of employees shows a decreasing trend over the last decade (began with 14 lakhs in 2010) with Group D being the most impacted (Group D or clerical posts is merged with Group C or supervisory posts now). Group D comprises of low/unskilled roles such as that of helper, gangman, trackman, welder, fitter and porter. This can be attributed to increasing mechanization and automation and while it may seem like a prudent move, in a country like ours where people from rural and semi-urban areas rely on Government and Railways for employment, this pattern creates a strong sense of discomfort.
Engineering roles constitute a major chunk (45%) of the department share followed by Transportation and Electrical roles (13% each) respectively.
Despite the job cuts, the average annual wage bill per person has more than doubled though over the last decade to Rs. 12 lakhs per person now. Please note that these figures are excluding pension and gratuity (And just in case you are not aware, Metro Rail doesn't come under Indian Railways).
Personally, these published numbers appear extraordinarily high to me given that 99% of the workforce is supervisory and clerical in nature. Maybe there is more to it than meets the eye. Nonetheless, you can imagine the mammoth task involved in operating an organization of such scale.
18. Remaining a Government Monopoly or Increasing Privatisation? A Conundrum
Given all the information that you’ve gleaned so far from this article, would you opt to privatise the Indian Railways? If yes, then to what extent?
Some important factors which you may consider are as follows –
a) With Dedicated Freight Corridor, the existing rail network will get de-congested considerably. Other projects as discussed previously, if successfully implemented, will make Indian Railways considerably faster, safer and more comfortable.
b) Indian Railways believes it could operate in a bubble but in reality, it is considerably affected by competition from Road Transport for its Freight business and Air Transport for its Air-conditioned Passenger business.
c) Indian Railways makes losses on operating Passenger trains (40-45%) which it subsidizes through income from Freight trains. Couple that with the fact that whenever Indian Railways tries to increase prices of tickets, it creates furore among the masses.
d) Crores of youth from semi-urban and rural areas appear for Railway examinations as they rely on Indian Railways to employ them. Opportunities from the private sector are very limited in comparison.
e) Globally- Japanese railways are completely privatised, US, Korean and German railways are largely state-owned with increasing private share whilst Chinese railways are completely state-owned.
What is your conclusion? Do ponder from an operational perspective as well - how can private players and government co-exist on a single rail network, how will priorities be determined, customers be affected and so on…
See how your view compares with the Government of India’s stance as of today (2021) as outlined below-
- Strict no to privatisation, Yes to liberalization (Public-Private Partnership - PPP model for Trains on certain routes, Station Modernization, Land Development etc.).
- Liberalization would entail customer segmentation. For example, Private Train Operators can woo current AC customers who are migrating to air transport by offering them better services at a premium while Indian Railways enhances its focus on the needs of the common man i.e. nominally priced rail travel. What impact would this have? If IR continues on the 100% state-monopoly model then any fare increase would affect all rail customers. With selective privatisation however, the burden on Indian Railways to subsidize would lessen, enabling it to continue keeping the fares stable for the masses who desire sustained low-cost travel options.
- For a future-ready railway system by 2031 as IR envisages, it needs to spend considerably on station modernization as well. Leasing out the development of adjoining land parcels to private sector would allow IR to recover its investment without ‘charging’ it from the customers in the form of User Development Fee (as applicable for Air passengers).
Do you think this the right way to go?
19. Railway Engineering Marvels - Pride of India
A recent article in The Economist prompted me to write this section. Tom Easton, the writer, mentioned about how India has come a long way since 1853 when the first rail trip commenced from Mumbai to Thane. Just as 10,000 inexperienced workers had gritted through heat, floods and marshlands full of poisonous snakes to erect the railway line back then, India has gritted through state politics, land acquisition problems, diverse topographical characteristics and philosophical opposition over the last century to erect a modern railway network spanning every state barring Meghalaya (state opposition) and Sikkim (difficult terrain).
a) Easton appreciated the engineering marvel that is the Chenab railway bridge (the world's highest railway bridge at 359 metres above the river bed capable to withstand winds of up to 266 km / hr) which will enable direct rail connectivity to the Kashmir valley from the mainland.
This prompted me to think about the various engineering feats that Indian Railways has managed to create over the years generating tremendous utility for customers as well as generating pride for the nation. Noting some of them below-
b) Some 200 railway tunnels are being bored in India currently, none more special than the one in Sohna, Haryana which is the world's first electrified tunnel capable to carry double stack containers. At 1.1 kms long cutting through Aravalli mountain range, this tunnel is part of the Western Dedicated Freight Corridor. As a result of this double stack capable electrification, freight trains will be able to travel through the tunnel at speeds in excess of 100 km/hr.
Image: Sohna Rail Tunnel - electrified and capable to accomodate double stacked freight rains on the WDFC
c) The old and the new Pamban railway bridge
Connecting the holy site of Rameswaram to the Indian mainland, the (old) Pamban railway bridge was India's first and longest sea bridge at 2 kms long (Bandra-Worli Sea Link has surpassed it now). Constructed in 1914, it was an engineering marvel with a bascule midway allowing ships to pass as depicted in the image below. For most parts, the train is exposed to the rough winds of the sea prompting travellers to label the experience as thrilling and dangerous.
The new Pamban railway bridge, expected to be completed in March 2022, is another engineering marvel. It is the first Vertical Lift Railway Sea Bridge of India. Electro-mechanically controlled and interlocked with train control systems, this bridge will allow for safer and quicker rides. Moreover, two ships will be able to pass underneath at the same time due to the vertical lift mechanism.
d) Konkan Railway
Labelled as the biggest and most challenging railway project undertaken in India and completed in a record time of 8 years (the 750 km long Konkan railway line connects the coastal cities of Maharashtra, Goa and Karnataka. Details of the feat below-