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Indian Railways: Chugging along from a Glorious Past to a Smart Future

India’s railway network, comprising of almost 120,000 kilometers of tracks, and ferrying 22 million people a day and 1 billion tonnes of freight annually, is one of the world’s largest. A gift of British rule, with a legacy going back to the first half of the nineteenth century, this mammoth institution has evolved from strength to strength over 180 years, acting as a backbone for India’s development pre- and post-independence. Today, Indian Railways is divided into 17 regional zones, has 26 types of passenger trains (ranging from luxury coaches styled on palaces to those specially catering to poor people), 10 different classes of seating arrangements and 11 types of wagons for goods transport. Its history, complexity, scale and social relevance make it one of the most important corporations nationally, if not globally.

Indian Railways at the crossroads

Given its long history and the size of the population it serves, the Indian Railways today is an aging, highly stressed network besotted with a multitude of problems ranging from age-old tracks and signaling equipment to previous generation rolling stock and fossil-fuel powered engines, among others. While it manages to function most efficiently, despite all the myriad issues, the Indian Railways now needs to reinvent itself for the 21st century, incorporating technological changes and catering to demands for shorter journey times, while also maintaining a high level of service for its customers. Moreover, there is pressing need to address the financial debt the railways is burdened with.

These challenges call for a major overhaul of systems and process managing the whole institution. Mr. Suresh Prabhu, Hon’ble Minister for Railways, Government of India, recently outlined his vision for the same at FICCI’s Smart Railways Conclave 2017 (see video below). With his mantra of adopting “The Right Technology as a Game Changer”, he spoke about an integrated ERP system being developed for the railway's network to address issues related to capacity, efficiency, implementation, and empowerment. The Ministry also seeks to increase revenues by increasing freight traffic through dedicated freight corridors (freight contributes to 2/3 of Indian Railway revenues), dedicated passenger trains of higher speed and overnight ones for business travelers, and also tap into opportunities for non-fare revenues like mixed use of railway land (leasing out for commercial activities etc.). Also, Mr. Prabhu emphasized on better services through the address of complaints in real-time and mechanized catering systems for better hygiene and traceability. More electrification is also on the cards to make the network as environment-friendly as possible.

The Railway Board of India envisages a smart railway system for India based on the principle of making a railway journey quick safe, economical and comfortable. To achieve this would require:

Better quality locomotives and coaches

World-class signaling technology

High-speed trains for faster commute

Electrification of freight routes and synchronizing with road and shipping through Dedicated Freight Corridors, and

Improvement of existing railways tracks, among others.

Realizing the Visions

These lofty targets require massive capital investments. Japan’s International Cooperation Agency (JICA), a long time provider of aid for infrastructure in India is already acting as a stimulator by financing a High-Speed Rail (HSR) Line modeled on the Japanese Shinkansen between Mumbai and Ahmedabad. This will go on to become part of a bigger Mumbai- Delhi HSR route and the plan is for all major metros to be connected by HSRs. While the first HSR project will be implemented strictly as a bilateral project between JICA and the Indian Government, public-private partnership (PPP) is possible for activities like station construction and management, onboard entertainment and support services.

IIFCL, another Government of India financing institution established in 2006, provides long-term financing to infrastructure projects in India across the spectrum – roads, ports, airports, metro rails, power and conventional rail projects. The projects funded are government owned and the funding is up to 85% on project financing basis. IIFCL emphasizes on joint venture model of project creation between Railways and State Government and also on value capture financing by encashing on the increased value of land due to infrastructure development through the enhanced property and land value taxes.

The Indian Railways also has its own dedicated financing arm – Indian Railways Finance Corporation (IRFC) for a bulk of its projects. IRFC, with Life Insurance Corporation of India (LIC) and the World Bank, have together planned a dedicated Railway Infrastructure Development Fund to help railway zones and state governments carry out improvements in their railway infrastructure.

On the technology front, multinational majors in railways engineering and development, both private and public, have teamed up with the Indian Government to help reshape Indian Railways:

GE Transportation, world’s largest manufacturer of railway locomotives has a PPP with Indian Railways to manufacture 1000 state of the art digitally connected locomotives and maintenance facilities to improve efficiency and productivity and facilitate the growth of freight traffic. They bring over 100 years of experience in developing efficient railway infrastructure including in difficult and high gradient terrains.

Talgo, a Spanish HSR firm specializing in the 200-350 kmph range, has innovative offerings in the form of Automatic Gear Change Systems, Independent Wheels (squeezed for gauge), lighter weight coaches for less energy consumption and more functional interiors for ease of use, comfort, and maintenance.

CIDB, a Malaysian regulatory body for Infrastructure has a MoU with IRCON International Limited (Indian Government agency responsible for the construction of railway stations and tracks), for smart, mixed-use railway stations in India, modeled on Malaysian examples. Such facilities will not just be railway stations but will be centralized hubs for all modes of public transport coupled with shopping malls and recreation centers.

Hartek Power, a Solar Power company specializes in generating solar power and development of substations for the railway electricity grid in India, ensuring lower carbon footprint of the Indian Railways.

Flyocrete, a civil engineering firm specialized in a special type of concrete designed for highways, railways, and infrastructure. These have 70% fly-ash and 30% cement which makes them environmentally friendly. They also make pre-fab walls and foundations targeted for the high-speed freight corridor.

Smart Visions need Smart Experts

In a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Confusing and Ambiguous) world of today, replete with new technology and ever-changing dynamics, experts need to be dynamic, flexible and aware of changes around them. They need to possess good on-ground knowledge (based on decades of experience) of what works and what doesn’t, design processes aligned with the core strategy of the project and are creative, innovative and engage all stakeholders to come up with high-impact and long-lasting solutions.

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