At long last there appears to be some light at the end of the tunnel for the R80,000-crore mega project of Dedicated Freight Corridor (DFC) of Indian Railways.
Award of the first major contract of R3,300 crore, to design and build the 343-km double-track Kanpur-Khurja section of the eastern leg of the DFC, to a joint venture of Tata Projects India and Spanish partner Aldesa heralds the beginning of a series of such contracts to bring the Railways dream piece of infrastructure to life.
An electrified high-capacity freight route, suitable for speeds of 100 km/h and 325 tonne axle-loads, promises to ease congestion on the Delhi-Kolkata axis, while helping to reach coal from the far away coalfields of Bengal, Bihar and Jharkhand to a string of thermal power plants in UP, Bihar, Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan.
It is a culmination of a long-drawn, three-stage process that began with 11 bids being received in which the bidders were to suggest suitable technologies. These were then evaluated against performance requirements during the second stage, before financial bids were invited at the third stage.
The World Bank is funding development of the 1,839 km from Ludhiana to Dankuni of the Eastern DFC. The target for completion of the last leg, from Sonnagar to Dankuni, has recently been deferred by a couple of years in view of land acquisition problems being anticipated in West Bengal.
Contract for the first phase of the 1,499-km Western DFC from Dadri to Jawaharlal Nehru Port near Mumbai, being funded by the Japan International Cooperation Agency, is expected to be awarded later this year.
Conceptualised in April 2005 the game-changer plan to win back freight business began with creation of a special purpose vehicle viz. Dedicated Freight Corridor Corporation of India Ltd (DFCCIL) in October 2006, with the project approved for a cost of R28,181 crore. Phase I of the project, viz. Rewari-Vadodara in the western corridor and Sonnagar-Mughalsarai and Mughalsarai-Khurja in the Eastern corridor, was to be completed in 2009-10.
The land required for developing the eastern and western arms of the freight corridors has been estimated at 11,180 hectares. Of this, notification has been issued for nearly 5,000 hectares spread across eight states. The final notice under Section 20E, which gives the Railways special powers to take possession of land for projects of national importance, has been issued for 6,000 hectares.
However, a couple of years ago the then railway minister Mamata Banerjees directive to refrain from forcibly acquiring land for the project soon led to objections surfacing from land owners in Maharashtra, Haryana, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh, forcing the corporation to go back to the drawing board to re-examine the alignment.
Resultant cost escalation is inevitable as it would encourage land owners to hold up sections of the project for demanding additional compensation. Unfortunately such detours from alignment may also give rise to political pressure in the future to run passenger trains on the dedicated freight tracks, defeating the very purpose of creating the DFC.
Currently, mixed traffic (passenger and freight) is run on the Railways network of over 64,000 route km. However, passenger trains are accorded priority over goods trains, resulting in the average speed of freight trains being 25 kmph. The DFCs were to ensure timely delivery of goods by running trains at 75-100 kmph.
RITES had projected an incremental freight on the western corridor of 16.60 million tonnes in ten years, while the eastern corridor is projected to carry 91 million tonnes of coal, finished steel, foodgrains, cement, fertilisers, and limestone by 2021.
Thanks to the rampant populism of the political heavyweights who have adorned the corner room in Rail Bhavan over the last two decades, no less than 3,000 new passenger trains have been introduced, resulting in the trunk routes of Howrah-Delhi and Mumbai-Delhi, which carry 55% of revenue earning freight traffic, becoming highly saturated. The line capacity utilisation is varying from 115 to 150%, and any further delay in building the DFCs would severely impact the Railways financial viability.
Hopefully the new rail minister, Pawan Kumar Bansal, well aware of these constraints, will perhaps refrain from announcing new passenger trains in the forthcoming rail budget, providing a crucial window for freight business to grow.
The author is former member (mechanical), Railway Board. email firstname.lastname@example.org