Throughout the world, the public and private sectors recognise the need for a better transportation infrastructure. And increasingly, they see the potential of smarter railroads to address that need. In India, with over 100 years of railway history, we've reached an historic point whereby technological advancements can now meet the societal, environmental and financial demands for a more efficient and intelligent rail transportation system However, Indian railroads need to become even more technically instrumented than what they are, writes Shashidhar Nanjundaiah.
It would be drastic to recommend, as some experts have, that Indian Railways deconstruct itself completely the way China is doing. The railway network is in many ways India's nervous system.
That itself presents the biggest problem confronting IR: should it continue as a heavily subsidised mode of public transport, or should it aim to sustain itself through commercial gains? The answer could be, both. It is only through viable projects and businesses that India has leapfrogged in technology-in telecommunications, urban buildings, etc. Core infrastructure per se has lagged in technology adoption except where private participation has been integral activity. Airports are an example of this. Tech-savvy private air terminals in Delhi, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Mumbai have triggered public airports to follow suit in going beyond basics. So why, experts ask, can railways be left behind with sporadic exceptions of a rake here and a wi-fi-enabled station there?
The 160-year-old Indian Railways has been the epitome of standardisation in India. Has that changed? The problem with Indian Railways is that technology adoption across its 108,706 km network needs to be universally adopted.
The Railways has the largest internal communication network in India, but in spite of the adoption of Railnet, which only connects offices, world technology has leapt so much in the meantime that its British Raj-dated communication systems belong in a museum.
Communication between stations and even between stations and their nodal offices is not through what the rest of the world is accustomed to-high-tech conversations through radio and such. Indian Railways continues to depend on jurisdictional handover" system of communication. Engine drivers must rely on signals and route indicators. Centralisation was not an option when the railways were built. Mumbai's suburban rail system, however, is an exception. A Train Management System (TMS) controls traffic on WR and CR suburban sections in Mumbai. There is a control room at Mumbai Central and one at Mumbai CST that monitor and control operations of nearly 2,500 suburban services and 200-odd long distance trains per day in Mumbai.
In 2013, Railways' share of freight is down to 36 per cent, while road, the biggest gainer, is up at 57 per cent. Freight charges are not a part of the problem, but the Railways is also not exactly known for smoothly facilitating freight movement.
Although operational technology is perhaps the least addressed so far, CRIS has developed a Freight Operations Information System (FOIS), which has enabled freight operations to be partly computerised by adopting Rake Management System (RMS). Technically speaking, businesses can log in and track their wagons. But this activity is incomplete. Like many other rail technologies, this, too, is far from being universally adopted, with no firm timeline on target. Coming at a time when freight movement is so bad that the market share has actually declined, the technology is welcomed by the industry but its adoption must lead to smoother operations of wagons and rakes-a far cry currently. With universal application of FOIS and completion of the Dedicated Freight Corridors (DFCs), the Railways must gear up its marketing to meet the capacity for speed and ease of transactions.
Indeed, the lower pricing of freight is a reason there is loud grumbling against privatisation of railways through the public-private participation (PPP) method. Besides, with the proposed freight charge hike from October (the second in the year after a 5.7 per cent increase in April), the Railways will be keenly expected to address operational efficiency to go along with it, at least so that speedy delivery can offset expensiveness.
In this environment, the Railways has been taken small steps. Introduction of e-auction for disposal of scrap will go a long way in-again-ensuring transparency and reach. The industry will hope that the principle of e-auction will be adopted across procurement activities. Core activities such as freight movement and vendor management-although improved from before-have a long way to go. Rakes are still unavailable on short notice, and the national network that the Railways can boast of more than the other transport sectors, has not yet been tapped as drivers of supply chain. This could be the single biggest lacuna in the Railways' archaic thinking.
A Rs 17,000 crore non-lapsable Special Railway Safety Fund (SRSF) has replaced the earlier safety fund, but key technologies such as the anti-collision device (ACD), have gone into cold storage. Tested earlier on Konkan Railway, the ACD was found to have flaws in the operation. Those flaws have remained mysterious in the absence of corrective research. In reality, while Konkan Railway was quick to patent the ACD as "Raksha Kavach", Indian Railways-operated Research Designs and Standards Organisation (RDSO) later "developed" a Train Collision Avoidance System (TCAS). Rajaram Bojji, who headed the Konkan Railway and is the claimant as the inventor of the ACD, cried foul and called the TCAS a replica of the ACD.
The Railways have been making the right noises. The common citizen, much less a businessperson using rail logistics, does not associate Indian Railways with contemporaneousness and forward thinking. But the behemoth corporation has recently announced the use of solar technology for running stations and train electricity. The Integral Coach Factory (ICF) in Chennai is partnering with IIT-Madras to design air-conditioned coaches that use solar energy, both for air conditioning as well as for internal lighting.
In yet another announcement, Research Design and Standards Organisation (RDSO) has said that it would roll out engines fuelled by environment-friendly and cost-effective liquefied natural gas (LNG). Previous plans to use clean energy have not fructified. Now, there are other initiatives especially in wind energy generation, but the results will tell the real story. Indian Railways is one of the largest diesel- and grid electricity-guzzlers in the country and yet was not covered under the Perform-Achieve-Trade (energy efficiency cap-and-trade) scheme, because any use of more efficient energy over the cap would only escalate tariffs.
Depending on which way the recent debate on FDI in railways goes, the concern of efficient management remains. The Railways has shown serious purpose by drawing up plans to garner revenues through subsidiary activity such as private leasing of land adjoining stations. It is now important that the additional revenues from the freight hike are used to facilitate smoother, more transparent operations.