The announcement of "metro light" system for Tier 2 & 3 cities is a very positive move as we can now bring a variety of solutions to the 60 cities on the list, points out Mangal Dev, Head Hitachi Rail Systems, India & South East Asia.
Ever since the Indian Railways started its modernisation drive in 2014, what new opportunities have emerged in the country's railway sector for a player like Hitachi?
One of the first things done at that time was an assessment of projects already awarded. That was a good start as a lot of projects were brought into focus, while some others were shelved as they weren't yielding the desired results. One of the biggest initiatives of Indian Railways was to modernise the horsepower of the locomotive. The tender for electric locomotive works in Madhepura and diesel locomotive works in Marhowra were already in the market for the past six to seven years. On assuming office, the new government decided to make both PPP projects a reality. The contracts were thus finalised within a short period. At the same time, though work on the dedicated freight corridor was underway several contracts hadn't been awarded. Again, the speed of awarding contracts was increased, with Hitachi also getting two contracts for telecommunication, signalling and European Train Control System (ETCS) Level 1. There was also a lot of discussion on increasing the speed of trains in current corridors by implementing semi-high speed or Electric Multiple Unit (EMU) type of trains. In 2015, the Indian Railways came up with a concrete tender. Since there are so many stakeholders and the Railways need to have a consensus, the realisation happened with the rollout of Vande Bharat Express or Train 18. Simultaneously, the new ETCS Level 2 signalling and telecommunication system were also introduced. Both developments were interconnected as you need new signalling technology to run a high-speed train.
How are technological disruptions redefining the sector in the country?
The Railways has been making incremental changes in technology. However, if you look at the sheer size of the Railways, what is required is a transformative technology. It has, therefore, taken several steps in that direction. The Railways has been testing new technologies to ensure that they work in a tropical climate.
Moreover, any new technology must satisfy the operational requirements of the people who would be eventually using it. Therefore, the Railways starts with a small project and then scales it up as consensus is built. There are several such examples when it comes to tracks, substations or signalling. For instance, in signalling all stations on the Indian Railways network use an interlocking system to clear the tracks for the passage of a train. Earlier, relay and panel-based interlocking were used.
However, once the Railways successfully started using solid-state or electronic interlocking that was done by the Hitachi subsidiary Ansaldo STS, it wanted to replicate and scale-up. Now, most small or medium-sized stations have implemented it. The only stations that are pending are big yards. Most recently, Hitachi was involved in upgrading two yards near Kanpur and Kharagpur. Then Railways have also implemented bio-toilets. Therefore, before selecting any new technology the Railways has to be convinced of its feasibility and all stakeholders have to sign-off on it.
Similarly, when the Railways is looking at increasing the speed of its trains, it is looking at multiple options. One option is to utilise the Linke Hofmann Busch (LHB) coaches that have the potential of attaining a higher speed. The Railways upgraded its LHB coaches to go up to 160-180 kmph. Accordingly, it also upgraded its locomotives. A parallel solution was the introduction of an EMU kind of train, which is being tested through Train 18. These two will become the new technologies of Indian Railways in rolling stock. The Alstom locomotives from Madhepura and GE locomotives from Marhowra in themselves signify a leapfrogging of technology in terms of both horsepower and utilisation of energy from the braking of locomotives. In addition to interlocking in signalling, the Railways has also experimented with the train management system, which is used in automated timetabling, routing and monitoring of the train from a central location. Using the experience derived from the testing of the ETCS Level 1 system the Railways is ready to move to ETCS Level 2, which is even better.
Does that mean there is a renewed focus on safety by the public sector transporter?
Yes! One is the safety of infrastructure such as tracks, which is provided by the signalling system. The second is about ensuring the security of the people. The Railways has plans to install CCTV-based surveillance systems on moving trains and platforms.
So, what will be some of the new opportunities for service providers like you?
All cities want to have a metro system and the good news is that recently the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA) announced a new system called "metro light"that they wish to implement in Tier 2 & 3 cities. It's a light metro system that matches the traffic requirement of smaller cities. This is a very positive move as we can now bring a variety of solutions to the 60 cities on the list. We can offer the complete railway system on a turnkey basis. The big cities, meanwhile, will continue to implement the metro system because most of them are now moving to the next phase. This will be another area of growth for us. If you look more specifically, signalling is one of our core areas and we have introduced the ETCS and CBTC systems. Another area is predictive maintenance, where we can offer our domain knowledge by combining that with the internet of things (IoT). We partner with the operator to provide them with a solution for complete management of their assets. We also see opportunity in the requirement for a common mobility card for inter-modal travel.
What is your take on the high-speed railway?
National High Speed Rail Corp. Ltd (NHSRCL) has already started issuing tenders for the Mumbai-Ahmedabad corridor. Recently, they also issued the tender for the trains. We have started to engage with the customer to assess the tender and understand how well we can respond to it.
Mr. Dev, you have been associated with the sector for a very long time. In your view, which notable Railways projects are likely to have a long-term impact?
One of the notable projects is the construction of DFC along the Golden Quadrilateral. And it is not just about freight corridors but also latest technology that is being used. It is almost going to be another railway network! In the existing railway network, the schedule of dimension is restricted as it's based on what was implemented several decades ago. Since DFC is a greenfield project the Railways could rethink all the constraints and create a network that is open, faster and capable of handling bulkier and longer trains. This is going to have a positive impact on industrial activity for many years to come. The other is the decision to implement the country's first high-speed railway project on the Mumbai-Ahmedabad route. Its completion will set a benchmark for passengers to travel in a faster and more comfortable manner. The third is the metro rail revolution. The success of the Delhi Metro has inspired several other cities to aspire for a metro rail system.
What more would it take for the government to create a robust ecosystem to enable the Indian railway industry to offer end-to-end solutions?
Firstly, ensuring ease of doing business is very important. Secondly, institutions must be strengthened for effective contracting and arbitration in dispute resolution. Thirdly, since it's only recently that the industry has started getting involved in major railway projects, skills such as engineering, design, manufacturing, procurement and testing and commissioning need to be developed and strengthened on a much wider scale.
- MANISH PANT