As the nation is all set to celebrate its seven decades of Independence before long, Indian Railways (IR) that dates its origin to pre-Independent India is a magnificent monument to the changes that had occurred in the country's growth trajectory. Today, even as the global economy is moving at a snail's pace with developed countries posting a measly less than two per cent economic growth, India is one of the fastest growing emerging economies in recent years that had overtaken even China.
In India's unfolding economic growth story, the part being played by the arterial mode of transport, the Indian Railways, is no less remarkable as it had helped and continues to help in ensuring the seamless movement of people and materials across the continental country of India's size and diversity day in and day out.
Today, IR runs 9212 freight and 13,313 passenger trains over its gargantuan network of 66,687 route kilometers (rkm) and hauls more than one billion tonne of freight traffic per year and about 22 million passengers daily. These trains are propelled either by diesel or electric locomotives. A point to note is that as on end-March 2016, 27,999 or 47 per cent out of 58,825 broad gauge rkms have been electrified across IR. With 5869 diesel and 5214 electric locomotives as on March 31, 2016, 64.80 per cent of the freight traffic and 51.3 per cent of the passenger traffic is hauled by electric traction.
There are several pronounced beneficial effects of using electric traction as this is more eco-friendly over diesel traction in that it crucially helps the nation to prune the use of fossil fuel, drastically reduces import of petroleum and thereby cuts down its carbon footprints. For IR, electricity is relatively a cheaper source of energy and electric rolling stock is also capable of regeneration process.
The three-fold benefits of electrification encompass increase in speed, ease of operation and better economic viability of the operations. No wonder, down the decades, the railways have on their own, opted for optimising electrification of various routes/sections.
The extant capacity of IR to execute electrification project is intended to be increased and it had drawn up an action plan in August last of electrifying 24,400 rkms of broad gauge network in the quinquennium 2016-17 to 2020-21.
To move in this direction with a mission mode, IR has decided to assign electrification work to Indian Railway Construction Corporation (IRCON), Rail India Technical and Economic Services Limited (RITES), both the public sector undertakings of the railways. It has also co-opted Power Grid Corporation of India Ltd, a public sector unit from the power ministry, with proven expertise in laying the transmission lines in India and abroad.
It needs to be mentioned that during the last three years (2014-2017) and for 2017-18, a total number of 93 railway electrification projects consisting 16,815 rkm at an estimated cost of 17, 165 crore of rupees were included by the railways in their earlier separate budget and the one that got merged with the general budget this year. Consequently, the pace of electrification has been augmented from the present average of 1700 rkm per annum to 4000 rkm in the current fiscal.
Besides electrification, the IR today is in the midst of meeting major challenges to continue its role and relevance as a productive pillar for the domestic economy. For speedy capacity creation, IR recognises the vital significance of enhancing project execution capabilities. A colossal investment plan for 8,56,020 crore rupees over five years was announced in 2015-16 in the second year of the NDA government to augment infrastructure capacity and modernisation.
The latter includes network decongestion and expansion (including electrification), National projects, Safety, IT and Research, Rolling Stocks, passenger amenities, High Speed & Elevated corridors and station redevelopment.
In the current fiscal, IR has fixed the target of commissioning of 3500 kms of new line/gauge conversion/ doubling which works out to be 9.59 km per day.
Over the past three years, IR took several steps to improve passenger amenities, infrastructure, and services and initiatives under Make in India, freight initiative, resource mobilisation drive and green initiative so that the environmental safety is not jeopardised.
IR established in February 2016 the National High Speed Rail Corporation Limited to implement its maiden high-speed rail corridor between Mumbai and Ahmadabad. Total length of the proposed corridor would be 508 km between the Bandra Kurla complex in Mumbai and Sabarmati/Ahmadabad in Gujarat to set off from 2023
On the freight front, the railways have sanctioned implementation of Dedicated Freight Corridors (DFCs) namely, Western DFC(1400 km) and Eastern DFC (1856 km). Western DFC starts from Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust(JNPT), Mumbai and passes through the States of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Haryana and terminates at Dadri in Uttar Pradesh. Eastern DFC starts from Sahnewal near Ludhiana in Punjab and passes through states of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and terminates at Dankuni in West Bengal. Estimated to cost 81,459 crore of rupees, the commissioning of Western and Eastern DFCs is targeted in phases by 2019-20.
In order to ensure requisite resources for implementing these mega projects that would alter the topography of the IR and its business module in the future, the Government, in August 2014 notified a slew of areas for foreign direct investment in the IR. These include, among others, suburban corridors through public private partnership, high-speed train projects, dedicated freight corridors, rolling stocks including trains sets and locomotives/coaches, freight terminal, railway electrification, signaling system, mass rapid transport system and passenger terminal.
With all the positive initiatives in recent years in order to retrieve lost ground due to past neglect, the Indian Railways stands at the crossroads wistfully hoping to reap rewarding results as these initiatives begin to bear fruit soon for the holistic development of the nation.
(The author is an independent economic journalist. Views expressed are strictly personal.)