Column: Fast-tracking Railway modernisation

Updated: March 5, 2015 12:35:18 AM

Augmentation of capacity by adding tracks up to 4 times the existing length in specific routes is the right way to go

Private players in the infrastructure sector, especially those involved in railway track work, bridges, signalling, electrification, etc, are headed for some exciting days ahead as the Railways’ plans for increasing throughput goes into high gear. Akin to a telecom network providing more ‘bandwidth’, Suresh Prabhu has embarked on a massive drive to augment the Railways’ capacity by doubling, tripling, and even quadrupling it in some existing high-density sections which are already carrying traffic over 150% of their design capacity.

In a welcome departure from the populist agenda which, over the last two decades, has taken the Railways to the brink of bankruptcy, Prabhu now intends to focus on fast-tracking 7,000 km of doubling, tripling and quadrupling of lines which have already been sanctioned, but are stuck at various stages of completion.

Of these, commissioning 1,200 km in FY16 is on the cards for which R8,686 crore has been provided, 84% higher than that budgeted for last year. In addition, he intends to convert 800 km of metre-gauge to broad-gauge, providing the much-needed alternative routes for traffic on some of the highly-congested routes.

Seventy-seven new projects covering 9,400 km of doubling, tripling and quadrupling along with electrification at a total cost of R96,182 crore—a whopping 2,700% higher than sanctioned for FY14—have also been now been placed in the pipeline.

Most importantly, priority for undertaking these projects is being determined by a designated committee for capacity enhancement, revenue generation, etc, providing a much-needed continuity in execution of such crucial additions to the railway infrastructure.

Fortunately, acquisition of land for the additional tracks is unlikely to be a serious problem as, thanks to the foresight of those who built the lines more than a century ago, wide enough swathes of land had been acquired along the right-of-way to lay four tracks. However, acquiring a few pockets near junctions or getting railway land under unauthorised occupation vacated could cause a slight delay.

A rail track has a limited capacity of carrying trains if it is a single line, since trains need to wait to cross each other at stations wherever they meet. This capacity more than doubles when another track is added since time lost in acceleration and deceleration is eliminated as trains don’t have to wait to cross.

Moreover, on a double line trains can follow one another on the track earmarked for uni-directional movement. However, things get complex when there are trains with varying speed potential such as a super-fast Rajdhani or Shatabdi capable of a maximum speed of 130 kmph skipping intermediate stations, a slow passenger train stopping at almost every station, and a freight train lumbering along at no more than 90 kmph, all sharing the same track!

Invariably, the slowest ones, viz the freight trains have to give precedence to all others, and as a result clocking an average speed of just 25 kmph. Moreover, on very high density routes a cascading effect takes place whenever a train gets delayed at a station or in mid-section. It severely impacts other trains, particularly the super-fast variety, which tend to lose punctuality as there is very little margin to make up for such unforeseen delays.

The concept of a dedicated freight corridor was born out of the need to separate the two main types of traffic, viz passenger and freight.

However, the throughput of existing double line alignments can also be augmented by adding a third and fourth line, which the suburban sections of major metros such as Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi have done over the years.

Tripling and quadrupling the track significantly adds to the throughput. A third line—often the middle one—is signalled to accept traffic in both directions, taking care of a spate of overnight trains which may leave an originating station, spaced at short intervals in the evening, or when a number of trains reach a destination close to one another early morning, such as in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai.

Quadrupling significantly changes the scenario as now two group of trains with varying speeds can follow on separate set of unidirectional double-tracks such as on the busy Mumbai and Kolkata suburban systems.

In fact, Western Railway has gone a step further by laying a 5th line between Borivali and Mumbai Central, signalled to run trains in either direction. It provides a unique flexibility to handle any unforeseen situation on the over 200 km long suburban network to run long distance trains, its fast and slow locals, providing assured transit to over 4 million commuters daily.

Suresh Prabhu also plans to take up relatively small-budget projects involving traffic facility works like construction of longer loops, creating smaller block sections, building by-pass lines, making new crossing stations, augmenting terminals’ capacity and removing permanent speed restrictions, etc, which speed up traffic and increase throughput capacity.

These provide substantial operating benefits in a relatively short time frame by debottlenecking critical sections—with R2,374 crore being provided for these to be taken up in FY16 itself. The pace of electrification is also being accelerated covering 6,608-route-km in FY16 as against 462-route-km in FY15, a massive hike of 1,330%!

Considering its excellent track record, Prabhu has understandably placed his faith in RVNL (Rail Vikas Nigam Ltd) to handle most of these multi-crore investment initiatives.

With the success of Prabhu’s push for capacity-augmentation at stake, and the availability of funds being no longer an issue, hopefully, RVNL will rise to the challenge and complete the projects in months, and not years, as has been the norm so far.

Perhaps the time is ripe for RVNL to grow wings and take off with its own task-force equipped with a number of track machines capable of laying track at the rate 1 km per day—a speed achieved recently on the dedicated freight corridor.

Considering the size of the pie—16,400 km—entering into technical collaboration with some of the well-known track machine players in the world could be worth the multi-crore investment to build and operate, and become a part of PM’s Make-in-India initiative.

By RC Acharya

The author is former member, Railway Board

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