Putting the Indian Railways on the right track

After flagging off Medha, the country’s first Made-in-India suburban train, Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu is focusing on an ambitious blueprint to modernize the country’s rail network with the help of technology.

On the cards is the conversion of the entire network of rail tracks into broad gauge and installation of bio-toilets in all trains. The Railway Ministry is also planning to implement a proposal to lay separate rail lines for freight trains and at least 10 km track per day.

With passenger safety being a major priority, the latest technology is being introduced and the government is working on removing all unmanned level crossings across the country. According to Prabhu, investment in railways has declined over the years compared to the road sector in India while it has gone up significantly in countries such as China. The Indian government considering making a significant investment in the railways within the next five years to make the Indian rail network one of the best in the world.

The government is working on three more dedicated freight corridors to increase freight capacity of the railways. Around 16 % of the railway network including the Delhi-Mumbai and Mumbai-Chennai segments takes the load of 65 % of the traffic and the government has finalised projects to strengthen infrastructure in the high-traffic segment.

Stressing on the railway ministry’s focus on clean energy, Prabhu unveiled the solar power system at Churchgate station and wifi facility at five stations outside Mumbai. A plan to fast track electrification of the railway network is underway as part of which extensive use of solar energy is being envisaged. The government has set a target of doubling the volume of electrified rail network in the next five years.

Around 1,000 MW of solar power will be generated annually by the railways soon. Of this, 500 MW will be produced by installing solar panels on rooftops of railway buildings.

Doubling of rail tracks is another priority area and 12,500 km of network has been doubled in the last two years. Prabhu said the government is monetising railways’ infrastructure, its data and even its garbage to increase non-fare revenue, besides going for 100 % e-procurement to promote transparency. He said a major programme for redevelopment of stations has been initiated under PPP mode and 23 stations are going through the bidding process.

Track renewal, driver training, signal upgradation and installation of train protection warning systems are being attended to. Almost all the states have been given higher allocation in the budget compared to outlay made by previous governments.

As part of the Digital Railway initiative, Prabhu is planning to set up one of the world’s largest digital display networks in India. The network seeks to provide real-time information on train arrivals and departures. The centrally-connected digital screens will also beam infotainment videos as the railways eyes to boost its non-ticket revenues. Currently 15,000 e-tickets are being issued per minute and 68 % of total tickets purchased are through digital platforms. The latest technology is being introduced for critical operations including manufacturing of rolling stocks. Manufacturing of conventional coaches has been stopped.

The ministry is also collaborating with a Railway research centre in Australia to support future research and technology development related to critical infrastructure in India.

Representatives from Monash University Institute of Railway Technology (IRT) and Indian Ministry of Railways Corporation DFCCIL (Dedicated Freight Corridor Corporation of India Limited) signed an agreement recently. The Australian partners will provide guidance on the establishment of a new applied research and development institute in India known as SRESTHA (Special Railway Establishment for Strategic Technology & Holistic Advancement).

SRESTHA will be locally engaged, but have a global reach with the aim to become a world leader in the advancement of rail. The project will provide guidance to the Indian Railways on international models that will be adapted to the Indian railway environment.

IRT Director Ravi Ravitharan said the partnership will help advance railway technology both in India and around the world. "I am extremely pleased to be invited with our partners to assist with this significant project, which will support future research and technology development related to critical infrastructure for India. Indian Railways is one of the largest employers in the world and this is a very important project not only for IRT but also for Victoria and Australia," Ravitharan said. IRT is the premier track and vehicle railway research centre in Australia.

Unlike last year, this year the railway ministry has been drawing up plans, raising funds and working at a fast pace. As Prabhu has quipped, “the train is now moving in the right direction.” Hopefully, all of these government initiatives will help put the railways on the right track.