Geared to derail

Late last year, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Indian Railways (IR) castigated the for squandering money on import deals which would not fully satisfy India's needs for indigenisation of technology. Down To Earth discovered that though electrification seems to be the thrust area of the IR, the ministry's internal documents raised many uncomfortable questions about the economic viability of the plans. The West is now pushing train travel as the most efficient and environmentally benign mode of transportation. But our inquiries into the state of Indian Railways exposed the tracks being charted out by the planners as myopic and import-intensive

 
By Rajat Banerji, Ashish Vachhani
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

Geared to derail

-- (Credit: Arvind Yadav / CSE)A WESTERN film critic, much moved by the scenes of meandering railway lines and leisurely paced trains in Satyajit Ray's films, once commented upon the "mesmeric quality" of Indian trains. But that perhaps exemplifies the old adage: all that glitters is not gold. In fact, the state of the Indian Railways (IR), the largest railway network in the world, leaves much to be desired. Keeping in mind the fact that there is a decreasing state input in IR (from an envisaged allocation of Its 45,600 crore in the Eighth Five Year Plan, actual allocation has slumped to Rs 27,202 crore), it is doubtful if the system will deliver the goods.

The IR has been acknowledged as one of the most remarkable examples of a successful state-owned financial enterprise worldwide. Yet, that glory fades in the light of three disturbing developments. First, from a rail-dominant economy in the '50s, India has decidedly become a road-dominant one in the'90s.

Then, between the '50s and '90s, IR shifted from being a freight-dominant operation to a passenger-dominant one, which means more freight movement by trucks, causing more pollution. Finally, the existing capacities of road and rail systems appear to have become saturated under the current technological and operational regimes.

Economic liberalisation is expected to raise the annual growth rate of the country's economy from 3.5 to four per cent to 4.5 to six per cent. With the implied industrial and trade growths, experts expect a doubling of freight transport output every 10- 13 years, and of passenger transport output every eight to 16 years. They fear these developments might create unbearable pressure on the already overburdened railway system. And this might impede and constrain the process of economic growth itself. What, then, are the maladies afflicting the IR?

Technological morbidity is the first. "The 15-year long stagnation of the IR between 1965 and 1980 was the result of a faltering pace of modernisation initiated in the decades of its glory - the '50s and '60s," notes a report by the Planning Commission's Planning Group on Technology Progression on Railways, identifying this as a key factor behind the IR's declining standards.

"Many new technologies which were commissioned, stagnated for want of upgradation. And what little was done was meal, without an interdisciplinary and systems approach towards well-defined goals, and without due coordination with industry, to ensure compliance with requisite standards of quality control," the report says. Meanwhile, road transport technology sped past, and the era of import restrictions botched self-sufficiency. As a result, the IR has been operating on a basic technology that was imported way back in the '60s, with recurrent but piecemeal upgradations.

"Given the life-span of 30-35 years of the technology, the present decade is the right time for comprehensive modernisation and technology upgradation of the IR," opines A K Bhatnagar, former chairperson of the Railway Board, But the reducing state inputs will fail to assist this massive scale of modernisation in any manner.
Miscalculations As O P Jain, former director-general of Research Development and Standards Organisation (RDSO) - the only in-house R&D unit of the IR - says, "Their (IR'S) concepts are not clear and lack objectivity. Every shortfall is attributed to lack of funds. But whether budgets are slashed or otherwise, the outcome is the same - a piecemeal working, a rudderless ship."

The IR began electrifying its main routes in the late '50s, but-progress was slow and haphazard. As on March 31, 1994,11,793 route-kilometres (RKM, the railway terminology for total length of rail tracks laid), out of a total of 62,462 RKM, had been electrified. While feasibility studies were carried out initially, no one monitored to see if the projected benefits of electrification had actually accrued at the time and levels assumed in the studies.

The popular assumption was that electrification being modern, it deserved to be the center piece of modernisation of the railways. However, a World Bank (WB) report, the first ever such economic analysis for two, electrified sections ot the IR, noted some glaring discrepancies. "The internal rate of return of the Jhansi-Itarsi section dropped from the originally projected 23 per cent to nine per cent, and in the Balharshah-Vijaywada section, it dropped from 41 per cent to two per cent." The study identified long delays in project completion and slow and partial switch-over from diesel to electric locos as the key reasons. Neither the operational nor labour-saving benefits are expected to accrue because of the way the electric trains are run.

Is electric traction a viable option? Not all agree. In fact, there appears to be some dissension within the ut, in the economic and environmental sense, regarding the entire project. Exclusive material obtained from sources in the IR suggests that most arguments in favour of electric traction are untenable.

"It is a fallacy that electric traction is technologically one step ahead of diesel locos. It is time to think if further investments in electric traction is financially viable,' states an official of the IR, requesting anonymity. "We fear that when the consumer is asked to foot this enormous bill, by way of escalated fares, he would opt for road travel. The argument that the national diesel consumption would reduce would be redundant."

"With regard to efficiency, running and maintenance costs, service reliability, and energy efficiency, diesel locos appear to hold advantage in the Indian context," the official asserts. One major argument is that there are substantial transmission losses in the whole process of generating power in a thermal power station and transmitting it to the engines, which finally transforms it into mechanical energy. This does not happen in the case of diesel locos, where the power is generated internally.

D Santhanam, member (electrical), Railway Board, fights off this critique: "The statistics given against electric traction are baseless. Electric traction is more energy- efficient, has lesser over- heads, and would improve the haulage capacity." He says that countries such as Sweden and Japan have gone in for 100 per cent electrification, a clear pointer that the future of railways lies in electric traction.

As a part of its endeavour to increase haulage and passenger carrying capacities, the IR concluded a transfer of technology package deal with Asea Brown Boveri (ABB) of Sweden, which includes the import of 33 state-of-the- art air-conditioned three-phase 6,000 horsepower (hp) electric locos. Two agreements have also been signed, the first with General Motors, USA, for the import of 21 diesel locos of 4,000 hp, with a package of technology transfer for indigenous manufacture by railways; and another with Linka-Hoffrarnan Busch of Germany for the import of 24 modern, light-weight coaches, along with a package of technology transfer.

"The 6,000 hp ABB electric loco can be used to pull a greater number of coaches and freight wagons. While the locos in use currently pull 18 coaches, this loco will be used for pulling up' to 26 coaches, thereby increasing haulage capacity," states Santhanam.

Need of the hour
But there are sceptics within the IR and outside, who are critical of the whole logic of importation. They argue that it may prove cheaper if the RDSO and other public sector research units, such as the Chittaranjan' Locomotive Works (CLW) and Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd (BHEL), were given specific mandates and adequate financial support to develop such locomotives.

"The CLW has developed a 5,000 hp electric loco which costs the exchequer Rs 5 crore, as compared to the Rs 40 crore for each ABB loco. Had the government given them a definite mandate to produce a 6,000 hp engine, they would certainly have delivered," says an official from the IR. "Moreover, by nipping our research potential at the bud, we are preventing the growth of indigenous technology."

The Parliamentary Standing Committee (PSC) on railways, in a report released in the last week of December '95, questioned the rationale of a 10-year transition period agreed upon for the transfer of technology from the ABB. "The Committee was unable to understand why a period of 10 years is required to reach a level of indigenisation of 75 per cent of the imported components. The IR is fully aware that the thyristor technology proposed to be imported in the late '80s became obsolete even during the trial period," the PCS report noted. It suggested that the IR should try to indigenise the loco in about five years. It also expressed its disagreement over the deal to import light-weight coaches, instead of improving upon indigenously available technology.

The IR has always paid scant attention to in-house R&D. "As against the IR's demand for Rs 150 crore for the Eighth Plan, only a meagre amount of Rs 25 crore (0.09 per cent of the Plan outlay) has, been allocated to the RDSQ. The ministry had spent 0.075 per cent, 0.073 per cent and 0.077 per cent of their gross earnings on R&D during 1992-93, 1993-94 and 1994-95 respectively on in-house R&D," stated the PSC report. Says Jain, "The IR is not interested in getting results from the RDSO. Only when the RDSO is made an autonomous body, with fixed targets and adequate financial back-ups, will it be able to realise its true capabilities."

With increase in traffic density, state-of-the-art signalling and telecom systems are the need of the hour. The IR claims to have focused on upgrading the existing signalling and telecom systems to cope with the rising traffic density in some routes and to meet better safety standards. But an analysis of the plan allocations reveals I that out of an allocation of Rs 6,200 crore in 1993-94, the IR had set aside only Rs 161.25 crore for signalling and safety - a mere 2.6 per cent of its total funds.

Some signalling and telecom advances made by the RDSO are currently undergoing trials. But the main criticism against the IR is its piecemeal and ad hoc approach. "This field must get the maximum priority to ensure passenger safety. But the IR does not have a proper programme as far as signalling is concerned," says S C Jain, an official with the New Delhi-based Kalindee Rail Nirman (Engineers) Ltd, a railway consultant firm.

Somnath Chatterjee, chairperson of the PSC, had admitted in a seminar in May 1995 that safety through signals and telecom had not been taken up specifically by the Committee itself for the first two years of its functioning. "We must have the latest systems and gadgets of safety for rail operations. Safety is not a luxury, but a necessity that cannot be compromised at all," he said.

In fact, the Railway Reforms Committee had noted that at the rate at which funds for track circuiting were being allocated, it would take the IR approximately 75 years to complete this vital operation. "The decision for having the Automatic Warning and Stop system (AWS), Which had been given top priority by the IR in the '60s, has been reversed in favour of augmenting speed of trains on important sections," noted the committee.

Highway to doom
The construction of highways has caused much heartburn among ecologists and environmentalists in the developed world. In India, the railways' freight output expanded by 3.3 per cent annually between 1967 and 1987, while road, output expanded at the rate of 8.8 per cent annually. For passengers, rail output expanded at the rate of 4.7 per cent annually, while the road output grew by 9.8 per cent annually.

In 1985, for the first time, the road freight share of output (52 per cent) exceeded that of railways (48 per cent). Passenger shares, which were about equal in 1961, had become 79 per cent by road by 1985, thus making India a road-dominant economy in the '90s, according to the WB report. The National Highways Authority of India has mooted a proposal in mid-'95 that may one day result in seven super national highways. These would be 100 metre-wide corridors crisscrossing the country.

Such plans lend credence to the theory that the country's planners have all but reconciled to the fact that -the future of the transport sector primarily ties in roadways. This would, once again, support the fact that regardless of what the IR does, the country is gearing up for increasing its use of diesel.

An overwhelming n umber of business houses prefer to transport freight by road. Inefficient and unreliable freight service of the are obviously the main causes behind this, some insist. But Bhatnagar disagrees.' "The railways hold the major share in the transport of bulk goods. The best thing to say is that road and rail compliment each other in freight transport," he holds.

In spite of a general agreement that railways is environmentally the most beneficient mode of transportation compared to airplanes and vehicles on the road, there is no coordination between the-ministry of railways and the surface transport ministry to evolve measures so as to draw passengers and freight towards railways.

Some serving officers of the IR suggest that rail corridors combing the length and breadth of the country should be established to cater to long and medium-distance passenger and freight traffic, while the intermediate feeder areas (those, say, below 500 km) could be catered to by the roads. "Reform of the transport sector in India is now imperative. Carrying out piecemeal and mutually exclusive reforms in the different sections of the transport sector may not be of any good," they argue.

But the continued ad hocism in planning and a lack of holistic approach in policymaking, absence of vision and concern for environmental degradation and lack of emphasis on indigenous research, are all symptomatic of a dangerous trend. If remedial actions are not initiated, the entire transport system within the country, including its originally envisioned back- bone, the railways, could derail. And this would literally mean 'walking' into the 21st century.

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