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The development of the facilities recommended by the railway modernisation committee will go a long way in making India self-reliant in railway technologies, writes Mohit Sinha.
Indian Railways (IR) is the fourth largest railway network in the world in terms of route km behind only the US, Russia and China. Indian Railways' Corporate Mission is to be modern railway system with sufficient capacity to meet the country's transportation needs, at least cost to society while maintaining financial viability. Looking at the size and the place of Indian Railways in the global context, India should be a net generator of new technologies instead of a constant borrower. This should be truer looking at the technological strides that India has made in almost all other sectors. However, for the past 60 years including post liberalisation, the country has been using archaic business models such as Transfer of Technology, which doesn't have the impact that should have happened in terms of making IR or its equipment industry more self sufficient. The infusion/lack thereof of technology in Indian Railways can be seen in Figure 1, which compares the increase of route km in India against that of China in the same period.
While China has been able to increase proliferation of railways by almost four fold in the last 50 years or so, India has hardly been added to its railway network. One of the major reasons for the same is that although Indian Railways has been trying to use newer technologies in railway construction, the same is yet to see deep penetration in the industry. Indian Railways has multiple agencies which are responsible for different technologies to be adopted in railroads.
The Centre for Railway Information Systems (CRIS), an Autonomous Organisation under the Ministry of Railways, develops and manages the Infor¡mation Technology applications of the Indian Railways. CRIS also provides IT applications for non-Railway, government and public sector organisations. One of the most important features developed by CRIS is Freight Operations Information System (FOIS). The aim of FOIS is to enable its managers with a tool that can help them take decisions for dynamically allocating the resources such as wagons, locomotives, crew and paths on the network.
Research Design and Standards Organisation (RDSO) is the research and development organisation of Indian Railways and functions as the technical advisor to Railway Board and zonal railways. Quality assurance in railway technology procurement is one of the key roles of the organisation (Figure 2).
Central Organisation for Railway Electrification (CORE) was set up in 1979 under the Ministry of Railways, at Allahabad. The responsibility for electrification of the railways has been entrusted to CORE. The electrification as against the total route km is provided in Figure 3.
Looking at the above chart, the task of electrification is still daunting and requires major focus and high level of technology adoption. Since late 2000s, the task of electrification is also being undertaken by Rail Vikas Nigam (RVNL).
Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) is a public sector enterprise under Ministry of Railways. One of the most important technology related steps taken by Indian Railways is undertaking the internet-based reservation of passenger tickets through IRCTC. This has significantly helped the huge population which uses railway as the means of regular transport between. However, lately, as everyone is aware, the system is crumbling, more so during the peak period, wherein ordinary users can't even access the website. The technology behind the online reservation system needs major overhaul and upgradation.
The importance of technology upgradation by IR can also be seen in the recommendations of various committees formed to analyse the current situation of IR. The committee on modernisation of Railways has adopted the following recommendations with respect to technology upgradation in four assets: track & bridges, signalling, rolling stock, and stations and terminals.
The cost of importing hi-tech products related to any industry is very high. Even the cost of importing technology is high and in turn increases the cost of the imported product. If the cost of the products is high, the end product in case of railways the cost of transportation of goods automatically increases. If we look at the freight rates in India, they are, as it is, being used to subsidise the passenger fares and are amongst the highest in the world. Indian Railways is losing the freight share to other modes of transport due to several issues including capacity constraints and high freight rates among many. Hence, it is imperative for Indian Railways to reduce its reliance on imported technologies. In case India becomes self-reliant in railway technology, it will have multiple effects including reduction in the cost of the equipment, easy availability of technology for upgradation of existing assets of Indian Railways and in turn IR will be able to reduce the freight rates, thereby attracting its lost traffic back. .
The expert committee for modernisation of Indian Railways had also recommended setting up of Indian Institute of Railway Research with centres of excellence in: Safety, Wagon Prototyping, Mechtronics, and Green Toilets, etc..
It is extremely important for Indian Railways to adopt this recommendation along with others under the head of indigenous development. The other recommendations included upgradation of existing railway R&D facilities, upgradation of indigenous manufacturing facilities such as foundry for higher axle load bogies, development of Indian Standards, critical vendors and proto¡cols for Railways and enhancement of university interface with Railway Laboratories in Academic Institutions. .
As has been provided in the report, 'A focus on strengthening indigenous capabilities will increase local production and domestic manufacturing as well make India a hub for technology, equipment and services export globally'. The new R&D facility can be jointly set up by Ministry of Railways, top-tier academic institutions and Railway Equipment Manufacturers. The development of these facilities will go a long way in making India self-reliant in railway technologies..