How Indian Railways Must Adapt To New Urban Freight Requirements

Sujeet Mishra

Sep 23, 2015, 05:51 PM | Updated Feb 12, 2016, 05:25 PM IST

Why and how railways have to be aligned with the urban development project in contemporary India. Part 3 of the series on urban transportation. 

Part 1 of the series examined the imperative of urbanisation and how it is happening inexorably, unfortunately without a method. We examined how the current sad state of affairs in our cities is not the nadir. If we dont act, the situation would get worse. We noted that the conventional paradigm of city-hinterland or urban-suburban-sprawlbeyond, is insufficient to meet needs of a nation which would, on an increasing population base, see its urban share in population go up from a third to more than half in just a few decades. 

There is a need to acknowledge and factor in the fact that several cities are geographically close to each other while planning for urbanisation. Urban planners in India cant plan keeping themselves limited to a city—they need to plan for multi-node urban regions. With this, we formulated a concept of golden distance in transit planning-50/500 km links, with the former being served by the traditional metros and the latter by the mainline railways.

In Part 2 of the series we noted that the conventional orientation of Indian Railways is towards low-value bulks. The missing acknowledgement of planning for 500 km links was highlighted on the premise that an axis of urban growth needs to be created now for movement of men and material. Absence of planning for urban freight (high-value, low-volume) was also noted. One may see here a comprehensive mind map illustrating how various niches can be served using low-carbon and energy efficient options for urban freight.

Bikes and minibus inside a Eurotunnel shuttle wagon. (Wikimedia Commons/Bleiglass)
Bikes and minibus inside a Eurotunnel shuttle wagon. (Wikimedia Commons/Bleiglass)

Indian Railways has been subject to several expert committees which applied themselves to the need of its reform—a subject which is beyond the scope of this series. However, a few issues need to be flagged if Indian Railways were to be seen as the vehicle of change in putting method in the urban growth of the country. This is one big political opportunity also.

Existential Issue

Indian Railways have been losing out to the roads for both passenger and freight. However, I see an existential threat to railways in its single commodity dependence for freight (coal) and in its inability to offer differentiated services in both passenger and freight segment.

Clearly with the mindset of bulk, train-load carrier, nimbleness of logistics needs of modern economy cant be met. Modern economy is becoming what many refer as scale-less (Chris Andersons Makers: The New Industrial Revolution sketches the emerging contours of modern economy very persuasively). Even a dedicated corporation for logistics would be sub-optimal till mobility requirement of economy with massive rural-urban shift isnt factored in comprehensively, at the drawing board itself.

Lets now look at certain aspects of rail-based mobility with greater granularity:

Running Short Haul Services:

As briefly discussed in part 2, it is seen that existing Electric Multiple Unit (EMU) stock is eminently suitable for creating a proper trainset platform for immediate offering of services. The capacity constraint of production can be met through inviting private parties to manufacture, for which sufficient capacity exists. Efforts need to be made to create platforms capable of doing 110-130 kmph services and pack more power per axle.

Differentiation of services, especially short/medium haul services can be hastened with adoption of Multiple Unit platform in mission mode. For high value smalls, freight version of EMU is eminently suitable. IR does run special trains which have only parcel vans; Container Rajdhanis (Conrajs) have also been attempted with success. However, these do trunk connectivity and serve customers offering train loads.

Standardised EMU platform can be concatenated easily and their brake systems permit running of longer train lengths with low jerks. Once 500 km multi-node clusters are planned together, logistics linkage can be very comprehensively and effectively planned with much lower carbon and economic cost. This is one interesting business opportunity for Indian Railways or private investment.

This would achieve faster turnaround of rolling stock and much better utilisation of terminal facilities. Such planning and differentiation of services would encourage induction of ‘suited-for-service’ rolling stock instead of ‘one-stock-for-all services’. It is foreseen that long distance services for passengers and low-value bulk freight would gravitate towards locomotive-hauled trains. There would be a clear preference for long distance travellers in accommodation on board such trains as short lead passengers would have more suited inter-city links to choose from. Short distance passenger services and ‘urban-freight’  which is lo-volume, hi-value would shift to multiple unit platforms (EMUs).

Such a move would need to be prefaced with adequately planned services which can be positioned as better value propositions. This calls for an approach duly calibrated by market research and appreciative of the dynamics of economic geography.

Reducing cost of haulage & capturing higher value per seat/unit area:

To reduce cost of haulage the obvious candidates are:

  • Running Cost Elements:
  • Lowered maintenance—the most classic example is adoption of new bogies which have lesser bearing components, so they need less maintenance. Use of better materials etc. has been very successfully deployed by rolling stock engineers of IR. However, a mission mode approach across the spectrum of rolling stock is required.
  • Lowered weight: World has moved over to lighter, yet more resilient materials for construction and very different manufacturing processes. The sheer dead weight hauled across in IR is staggering. Its energy cost implications are heavy, especially while negotiating sections needing frequent change of speed and stoppages. It is an accepted design philosophy that lighter structures need cheaper suspension and other associated inputs for manufacturing and maintenance.  

It is imperative to now aggressively reduce the weight of the coaches. Newer LHB design coaches are almost 2 m longer than older ICF design but with similar weight and superior ride quality. In the medium term, effort can be made to use LHB platform or a metro coach platform to create EMUs (scalable freight and passenger platform). New bogie designs with Indian Railways or bogies deployed in various Metros be studied to create a common bogie to cater to LHB design-based EMU platform.

  • Lesser energy per journey:
    • Low energy scheduling has been talked since long. However, with computational power and the ability to analyse large networks, this can be done with multiple scenarios being worked out. Lessons from power sector would be very handy in this.
    • Low onboard energy consumption is not a new idea but is often ignored as numbers aren’t worked out. A very clever contraption currently under evaluation on diesel locomotives permits shutting down of the main engine, keeping a far smaller engine on to charge the batteries to permit next cranking. This has potential for saving very serious amount of money.

      Similarly, well planned ventilation arrangement, thermal insulation can have serious dent on auxiliary energy consumption on motive power units and on the hotel load of the coaches (lighting and HVAC).
    • Monitoring energy consumed per journey: It is now possible to monitor the fuel/diesel used on the run. Big data analytics need to be deployed to evaluate scheduling options and decision on investments on removal of infrastructure bottlenecks.
  • Earning Elements:

    —More carrying capacity: Why should we have the same coach design for entire India? Indian railroads principally see four kinds of freight stock— open boxes (BOXNs), closed boxes (BCNs), flats (BFRs) and tanker (BTPNs) wagons and their derivatives. The answer is ease of manufacturing, operations and standardisation. As argued above, they are all tailored for low value bulk traffic. However, a platform-based design approach can take care of manufacturing and standardisation. Specialised stock can cater to segments which are left out with greater economic efficiency and utilisation of fixed infrastructure. This can permit longer coaches and wagons on corridors which can accommodate them. A computer enabled operating environment, if well designed, can permit utilisation of corridor specific advantages (say there are no tight curves in a section).

    —Differentiation of services to realise untapped value: just assuring predictable delivery has created burgeoning courier companies, where a small letter gets delivered for far higher than 10 times of what the Department of Posts charges. Logistics can’t be supported without a clever differentiation of offering and designing rolling stock to serve these segments.

What needs to be noted is: India already has light weight shells, high speed bogies, power converters, traction motors, transformers, double decker air-conditioned coaches. A focussed approach can be adopted to churn out a rolling stock platform meeting differentiated service requirements. Such rollout must be planned in mission mode by a team which is free of the hassles of tenure limits.

Further, better utilisation of terminal facilities would bring financial relief to IR, reduce cost of haulage per seat and also segment IR’s passenger services better to reduce waiting lists on long distance trains. EMUs bring better utilisation of section capacities as they can easily fit in the paths between two trains and offer much higher trip reliability due to distributed power and are more tolerant of speed restrictions.

Thus, the following can be thought of…

Though many of the ideas have been dealt cryptically in earlier parts, for greater clarity, in view of the above, the following action plan is proposed for rail-based mobility options to span the golden distance for urban freight and passenger services.

Short term or immediate action:

  • Initiate planning process for multi-node urban clusters and map their mobility needs (The Ministries of Railways, Urban Development, Rural Development need to sit together with the state governments and NITI Ayog to create axes of urbanisation). Further, map inter-cluster trunk links. Identifiy the kind of mobility services needed over a period of time based on the changing economic geography. The plan should aim at exploitation of under-utilised rail links and identification of incremental connectivity. It should also identify how rail and road based mobility options are deployed in conjunction. Rolling highways must be considered while doing such a planning. Wherever possible, plan a mix of e-trucks along with the smart freight/cargo rail platforms.
  • Provide toilets in existing EMU stock to make them user-friendly for longer distance deployment.
  • Furnish the EMUs better, on lines of typical shatabdi seating with better noise and thermal insulation. Limits of double decker platform need to be explored and accordingly exploited. There are several experts available for hire in the global market. A project, attractively sized can be initiated to furnish them for comfort and safety.
  • Plan for providing air-conditioning for haulage of perishable goods. Different markets and geographies generate the perishables in short time span. Fruits, vegetables and flowers can be moved over the country and smaller towns with ease.  
  • Policy decision to run services of less than 500 km on EMUs
  • Offer ‘standard carton/container’ fast freight transit for all distances as shuttle services with EMUs as the platform of choice. These services will need to be treated at par with passenger services and they can be rolled out without any delay as modifications for toilet/air-conditioning would not be required. Such an approach with under-utilised railway stations within or near cities can be planned along with last mile link on small cargo vans.  

Medium term:

  • Adapt LHB or a robust metro platform for light weight EMU. Consider shells of metro stock, various power converters being manufactured in India, traction motors, double decker ac coach designs to rustle up a platform meeting the service requirement.
  • Adapt bogies received for Mumbai sub-urban project and those of various Metros as standard 130 kmph bogies
  • Move short & medium haul traffic on these freight EMUs
  • Use of Metro stock for parcel movement
  • Design of rolling stock for carrying accompanied road vehicles
  • Small wayside stations with very small yards can serve block level/district level markets of ready-to-consume high-value goods. On return these services can evacuate seasonal agri produce.

Long term:

  • Use of tilt technology to improve average speed of passenger trains—it is expected that once mobility requirements of economic circles are addressed, long distance rail travel would be eased to a large extent. This would permit directed investments to be made on rolling stock doing long distance services.
  • Speeding up the freight trains sounds a cliche to a railway man. However, week plus long journeys don’t just add uncertainties in the logistics of the customer, they make Indian Railways one of the largest rolling warehouses and stockyards of the country, locking up yards and loops. Clearly, this isn’t desirable and is not a business objective. A clear solution is a more comprehensive network flow analysis and powering the trains at much higher level.
  • Removing speed restrictions
  • Rationalisation of various passenger travel segments
CarGo Tram in Dresden . (Wikimedia Commons/kaffeeeinstein)
CarGo Tram in Dresden . (Wikimedia Commons/kaffeeeinstein)

The trams have been used for freight in past as well in many other countries as can be seen here. A trial at Amsterdam was with the express objective of reducing particulate pollution (issue which would be readily identified by Delhi!). The trams took cargo in from of small containers from distribution centre to the hubs from where electric trucks thereafter did door step delivery. Possibly in Kolkata such a scheme can be implemented.

Trams tend to be slower than the buses but have the advantage of much larger seating capacity, simpler electrification. New research on over head wire free trams is promising, too.

The tram circuits should be considered in places it is possible—as adjunct or alternative to the BRTs. Narrow options like sky buses or mono rail are other options, but call for construction of viaducts. Trams share same alignment as the road vehicles and share the right of way. Freight trams or freight road corridor like BRTs paired with small size electric vans for last mile connectivity can be great mobility options. More on this in the concluding part.

There is hence, a case for planning for mobility options for economic circles. There are plenty of options therein and technology needed exists. Unless we plan, we can’t act and for want of action today, our cities would become unviable and unsustainable tomorrow. With cooperative federalism being the mantra for governance, even such planning and action is in the realm of possibility now.

Dr Sujeet Mishra is a railwayman and currently the OSD of the National Rail and Transportation Institute, which is in transition to become Gati Shakti Vishwavidyala, a central university.

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