The right track~I

Well acknowledged it is that the demands of the economy as much as ecology re quire India’s railways to raise…

The right track~I

Representation image (Photo:SNS)

Well acknowledged it is that the demands of the economy as much as ecology re quire India’s railways to raise throughput exponentially. Performing for long far below its potential, its freight business, its veritable bread and butter, in particular, has been recording paltry, incremental growth, that erodes the nation’s competitiveness, and also injures sustainability. What image does IR generate? Clearly of its steadily diminishing role in the nation’s transport domain; of its arteries constricted; its finances dreary and perilous; its costs jumping, its revenues plummeting.

It has a lot to do, earnestly and urgently. Above all, it needs to assiduously maximise its share in the bulk goods sector as it must simultaneously strate- gize to secure a good share in the country’s break-bulk freight through integrated time-definite ‘whole journey’ services.

Railways has taken some initiatives, sporadic and spasmodic, though, with little signs of a sustained strategy. Now with rare blessings from the very top in government together with generous budgetary allocations, IR is left with no alibi not to rise to the occasion, and deliver as expected. Its recent moves, inter alia, for new train-sets, wagons and coaches, though necessary, are not enough. Rolling stock hardware and additional capacity generation by way of track capacity alone can’t be adequate for raising rail share in passenger and freight businesses. All this needs to be first buttressed by the software of sustained marketing strategies, proactive stakeholder consultation, appropriate tariffs, customized facilities and services.


With a view to augmenting its share in the time-sensitive non-bulk sundry goods and parcels freight market, IR now has on the anvil new hardware assets to be added to its fleet. Built at the Rail Coach Factory (RCF), Kapurthala, a double-decker coach is scheduled to be put on trial run by the Research Designs and Standards Organisation (RDSO). Following the ‘belly freight’ concept in passenger carrying airplanes for transportation of cargo, the proposed composite cargo-cum-passenger carrying coach will have passengers occupying the upper deck, while the lower deck will be used for transporting cargo.

For some years, IR has been operating express passenger trains with bi-level LHB coaches on several short travel routes, each coach having a capacity of 120 seats 50 on the upper deck, 48 on the lower deck, 16 on the rear ends of the middle deck on one side and six on the other side. With a height of 4,366 mm (against 4,025 mm of other coaches) and width of 3,050 mm/3,135 mm (versus 3,240 mm in regular coaches), the double-deck coach is claimed to be more energy-efficient, besides having lower operating cost per passenger.

The proposed air conditioned passenger-cum-cargo coach at an estimated cost in the range of Rs 27-30 million is designed to provide for 46 passenger seats on the executive upper deck, along with a pantry and toilets, while the lower deck will be able to store up to six tonnes of cargo. Once the prototype passes the trial phase, the coaches will be manufactured for two trains of 20 each. With the growing trend in pattern of freight traffic from bulk to ‘smalls’, the induction of the proposed composite double-deck coach is expected to enable time-bound cargo movement conducive to revenue generation for Railways. It is presumed IR has done due diligence, that is to consult likely customers and associate service providers, for deployment on specific sectors and routes.

Like constant changes in size, contours, capacity of hardware in aviation, maritime, and road transportation leading to fast and big oil tankers, container ships, bulk carriers, cruise ships, aircraft carriers, also Concords and A380s, etc., railway rolling stock has likewise been upgraded, expanded, and also customised, to carry more passengers or cargo, faster and safer. IR has been inviting its major industry customers as well as logistics service providers to invest for procurement of general purpose wagons, for example, for the liberalized special freight train operators, automobile freight train operator scheme, etc. Of course, the container itself, enabler of integrated multi modal transit of goods, a revolutionary development in the global transportation ecosystem, has transformed world trade.

Recognising that rail freight transportation indeed implies a system service, European railways launched a search for an innovative rail freight wagon. Defining its framework for five growth factors, the “5 L” initiative (low noise, light weight, long running, logistics-capable, and LCC or low life cycle cost-oriented). Russian railways (RZD)’s subsidiary, Freight One is credited with developing a wagon with sliding walls that allows cranes to be used, giving a loading length of 10m vs 3m on old vehicles, also raising its 162 m3 capacity (72 t) up to 20 per cent higher than of old stock.

In addition to induction of wagons developed and owned by some of its major users and industries, like for carriage of automobiles, IR too has had a long felt need to design and develop ancillary hardware, wagons with weight and volume capacity 3-4 times that of a truck, also standardized pallets like airline ULDs, including the use of road railers/trailers and product-specific customised vehicles for value-added specialised logistics.

The RCF built its first high speed, high capacity parcel van on the Linke Hofmann Busch (LHB) platform with carrying capacity of 24 tonne, equipped with foldable 2-tier luggage racks, collapsible partitions, sliding doors, and GPS tracker, to run at up to 130 km/h. Latest on the block, as the new-gen Vande Bharat train-set is being fast-tracked to proliferate into 400 units and more to hurtle across India’s rail network, IR has moved ahead to leverage the brand to transform its freight business as well. Using the same platform as for the pioneering ‘Train 18’, christened Vande Bharat, the Integral Coach Factory has been assigned the job of building 25 prototypes to carry sundry break-bulk goods at up to 160 km/ h. IR expects to potentially revolutionize LTL (less than train/ truck load) traffic transport, substantially ramp up its parcels business to be able to also attract the rapidly growing e-commerce segment, high value, time-sensitive electronic, automobile and pharmaceutical goods, in particular.

It can also be a catalyst to develop speedy and safe transit of perishable horticultural and medicinal cargoes. Though a 16-coach freight EMU is broadly estimated to cost Rs 600-800 million, around four times the cost of 45 bogie wagons on a normal freight train moving at not more than 75 km/h, it may enable IR to script a new narrative for a thrust in India’s niche freight market segment. Once the freight carrying coaching stock is available to operate at up to 160 km/h, one or two coaches on each of the selected flagship Rajdhanis/ Shatabdis/Durontos, etc. may well be leased to large e-commerce logistics companies or integrators such as UPS/Fedex/ DHL, etc., in addition to IR operating its own Freight Vande Bharats on routes cleared for 160 km/h. It will help IR make a determined bid to increase its share in what the National Rail Plan termed BOG (balance other goods), which IR needs to win over, to strike a 45 per cent share in nation’s freight market by 2031.

Again, the ‘Dwarf’ container initiative by a former Indian Railways’ engineer opens a window of opportunity: its low height enabling double-stack movement on conventional electri- fied rail routes makes for increased volume in comparison with the 20 foot ISO container, yield- ing almost 70 per cent additional load-ability of low density commodities. While LCL (less than container load) consignments can be aggregated for trans- port end-to-end in an ISO container, piecemeal goods and parcels forming less than a full container load may preferably be carried from origin to destination in standardized pallets. It is railways, the world’s acknowledged change agent, that initiated the development of the Euro pallet in 1961. The 1,200mm x 800 mm x 144mm wooden pallet weighing approximately 25 kg could accommodate up to 1,500 kg of general goods. For similar LCL or LWL (less than wagon load) shipments, there are ‘cubes’ (each of 4.5 cubic m volume, 3 tonne gross weight) designed for the ‘Dwarf ’ container, or even in general purpose wagon (accommodating up to 18 ‘cubes’), yielding an estimated 45- 50 per cent saving in haulage.

An estimated 1,500 million tonne of originating freight in India is break-bulk, most of which is transported by road, often over sub-continental distances. LTL cargo journeying over 700 km and more is estimated to constitute approximately 1,000 million tonne. Considered preferable for containerized transport, FMCG (estimated annual market of value of Rs 450,000 crore) is the most important commodity group, which runs an annual logistics bill of Rs 35,000 crore. Automobile is another major candidate, involving movement from production clusters to distribution nodes. Among several other products, chemicals and apparel would be prominent targets. As a brave new move, IR may plan to have on its radar the advent of overnight inter-city journey of freight and documents, especially post-DFCs like some railways in Europe and China improvise high speed EMUs to operate scheduled freight services similar to air freight carriers. Several railways such as in France, Germany and Italy have moved to improvise traditional high speed EMUs like in LGV train-sets to operate regular, scheduled freight services similar to air freight carriers.

A customer group known as GEC Carex brought together express freight operators such as Fedex, UPS, TNT, WFS, La Poste and Air France-KLM Cargo. China Rail also operates over- night specialized freight services, similar to airfreight carriers, for the development of a high speed parcels business.

(The writer is former CMD of CONCOR, and now Distinguished Fellow at Asian Institute of Transport Development)