Indian Railways: Only rapid tech adoption can solve safety, speed challenges

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Published: February 28, 2017 4:32:43 AM

In general, the major railway stations resemble any international airport with excellent passenger-friendly facilities.

Indian Railways, CRH, China Railway High speed, high-speed rail system in India, Gatiman express, Rajdhani, Shatabdi, Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh, GSM-RailwaysIn general, the major railway stations resemble any international airport with excellent passenger-friendly facilities. (Source: Reuters)

Recently, I was travelling in China and was particularly impressed with the affordable high-speed train CRH (China Railway High speed). In general, the major railway stations resemble any international airport with excellent passenger-friendly facilities. Mandatory security screening of people and luggage at the railway stations is worth mentioning—considering we have virtually non-existent screening at railway stations and bus terminals in India.
The journey from Beijing to Shanghai was covered in less than five hours, with CRH clocking a peak speed of about 315 kmph. Introduced a decade ago, CRH has become very popular with an annual ridership of over 140 crore last year. It is certainly comparable with Japan’s Shinkansen (Bullet train) or Europe’s TGV/ICE in terms of the quality of experience. High-speed trains are certainly not a luxury, and greatly improve productivity. Imagine a four-hour train journey from Bengaluru to Mumbai, at an affordable price.

Although governments in the past have “attempted” to modernise the Indian Railways, it is sad that India is still far away from a high-speed rail system. The country has the fourth-longest railway network (after US, China and Russia) in the world. The Shatabdi Express, which started almost 30 years back, can only clock 150 kmph. Isn’t it intriguing that no technology/innovation was pursued to better the speed of our trains? The Gatiman express is the fastest with 160 kmph.

The Talgo train, which could reduce the travel time by 25% with no additional investment on railway infrastructure could be the way forward. But that will take at least 1-2 years. Talgo trains which can clock 180-200 kmph, are planned to replace Shatabdi and Rajdhani. This is India’s best bet, while we await the Bullet train between Mumbai and Ahmedabad, but this is expected to take at least six-eight years to be ready.

While India tries to get its high-speed network with trains clocking upto 320 kmph (that’s double the Shatabdi speed), Japan and China are aggressively implementing super-high-speed, 500 kmph rail network. Also, the world awaits the trial run of the Hyperloop (a technology using specially built tubes) that can travel at over 900 kmph. The founder of Hyperloop has stated that India can have a Hyperloop in 38 months.

While we await high-speed trains, we have a here-and-now problem around safety. The recent spate of railway accidents has resulted in the death of close to 200 people. Statistics on the Indian Railways’ website indicate that thousands of people die every year due to other reasons—level crossing, over-crowding in trains, etc. Considering the safety challenges, the finance minister in his budget speech announced the formation of a Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh with a corpus of R1 lakh crore. A good move indeed, however, time-bound implementation will be the key.

As total hours of interruption to “through traffic” on railway network due to train accidents, failure of railway equipment was 1,281 hours in 2015 in India. Compare this with Japan, where the total delay across all the Shinkansen network is around 35 seconds per day, amounting to an annual delay of less than four minutes. The 53-year old Shinkansen network has an impeccable record of zero accidents.

Europe’s railway safety performance report 2016 states that European railways are the safest mode of land transport, despite the recent accidents in Germany and Italy. In fact, report credits the hugely improved safety due to strong technology adoption.

Fundamentally, we need to modernise the signalling and communication systems in the Indian Railways, considering that we still use manual signalling at several places. Although wireless technologies, like GSM-Railways (GSM-R) are being tried, due to poor implementation, the Railways has not been able to utilise the full potential. On the other hand, advanced countries are looking at high-speed 4G wireless technologies for railway communication.
In the EU, automatic train protection system (ATP) is used for monitoring and restricting speed, and reducing the risk of collisions and derailment of trains. Train Protection and Warning System (TPWS) has been in the news for many years in India. One such system was piloted in south Indian on a 68 km stretch, recently.

Advanced countries are investing heavily in R&D to further improve safety. For example, in the UK, a sensor system has been developed that could turn any train into a track monitor that can inspect the condition of rails. This can provide real-time information. In addition, artificial intelligence and data analytics is used for providing additional insights.

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Electronic sensors, including acoustic and temperature based sensors would provide advance information about any structural failure or damages to the railway track and about the wheels. Such technologies are relevant in the Indian context as over 15% of the accidents are due to track defects.

The government plans to get rid of unmanned level crossing in the country by 2020. This is indeed the right step.
Effective adoption of technology can certainly improve safety, but this would involve significant effort in training and upskilling the railway staff. Recently, the Indian railway inked an agreement with Italian railway for conducting safety audit. As per the agreement, India could significantly benefit from Italy’s technological know-how.

The author is ICT professional, based in Bengaluru. Views are personal

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