—New research organisation announced in budget. Why did RDSO fail?
The second budget of the current leadership of the Ministry of Railways reflects a clarity of thought. In this piece, R Jagannathan laid out principles on which the railway budget could be evaluated. In a recent interview to Swarajya, the Minister of State for Railways laid out the priorities and challenges which have been dealt with in greater detail in the Rail Budget. The root of the problem, he highlighted, has been passenger traffic growth by nine times, freight traffic growth by 17 times on a network growth of 2.25 times since independence. Thus, network augmentation is now an imperative. It is reassuring to note that this is clear priority of the political leadership.
On 14 November 1998, the then Minister of Railways, Nitish Kumar of NDA-1, dedicated to the nation, NavYug, India’s most powerful freight locomotive of WAG-9 class, built indigenously. It is heartening to note that the current minister took to NavArjan, NavManak and NavRachna as key pillars of his vision for railways, which this piece likens to PM’s imprint. The Minister for Railways (MR) in his budget calls it NavArambh having components of Navinikaran, Shaktikaran, Aekikaran, Avataran and Shodh & Vikas.
So, is this dawn of a new era (NavYug) for railways?
Though the MR has talked of the need of doing away from business-as-usual, he falls into the trap of the same for certain aspects of his transformative agenda. Well, for these, one can only blame the entrenched approach of railwaymen.
A fairly comprehensive summary of this bold and progressive budget can be seen here. In this piece I would focus on issues which somehow escaped scrutiny.
Challenge of retaining and winning back modal share:
Winning back share from roads has been something every railwayman has talked of passionately. The broad reasons for losing the share are: —Railways failed gloriously to give door-to-door service, —Failing to link new centres of production, —Failing to fully serve even the bulk, —No way to meet the high value smalls, —Stuck to the old rolling stock platforms, —Poor assurance regarding deliveries
How would IR seek to address the above?
It is refreshing that need of putting a date on delivery by freight trains has been acknowledged finally. Container Rajdhanis (ConRajs) did run to schedule, so did some parcel specials. It is heartening to note that this idea has now got the attention it deserves. The budget speech has declared that a pilot would be re-initiated for time tabled container, parcel and special commodity trains. This would make freight train movement more predictable.
Is a pilot enough?
However, such initiatives need to be pushed by more centralised planning at a level which has visibility of multiple zones and divisions. Also, acknowledged in the budget speech are new delivery models like Roll-on-Roll-off (RoRo). RoRo has been used successfully on Konkan Railway Corporation since sometime. However, as discussed here, urban freight needs to be now acknowledged by Indian Railways and be made a part of its modal shift strategy, something which would need new delivery modes-i.e. new rolling stock platforms.
Further, here, I argued for new platforms to create solutions to wean traffic away from roads, drawing upon international experience, including freight EMUs. These approaches would truly complement satellite station strategy as talked about in the budget.
Intentions to win back modal share are good, however, business-as-usual approach based on conventional rolling stock for achieving this objective makes one sceptical.
What can be done in near to medium term?
However, nothing has stopped us from adding additional motive power to the trains. With radio remote control now well established, one can readily put a locomotive at the end of the train, which would improve its acceleration and braking performance substantially without need of additional crew. Locomotives relegated to inferior service, like lower horsepower locomotives can readily be deployed with small modifications.
Challenge of running a freight train in midst of passenger trains is essentially to accommodate a train with very poor acceleration-if you have a speed restriction and you lose the time substantially. Right powering is the only answer. Once practice settles in, introduction of light-weight rolling stock would yield even better results.
Why network level planning needed? What was missed?
Centre for Railway Information Systems (CRIS), a society under the Ministry of Railways undertook a project SATSaNG (Software Aided Train Scheduling). This project was for computerised time tabling, however, the components of the project promised something revolutionary-things which the MR is passionately working on.
Lets have a quick review of how trains are run presently.
The trains are run by section controllers, who allocate the lines (or exclusive sections-a part of track between two red signals) for a train to run. Section Control is a Division level activity. So, the visibility is that of traffic flows within the division with limited information of unscheduled trains which will enter and exit the system. So a section controller receives a train from adjacent division, runs it and then handover to next division. The time-tabled trains have dedicated slots on control charts on which the train movement on sections get plotted. The section controller has a document called working time-table which gives very detailed information of the section (gradients, curves, speed restrictions) and time-tabled trains. This controller keeps a sharp eye on minute to minute basis, as to how the train is running. He does it by plotting the movement of each train on a chart and can pass a message to a driver if a train is running slow, eating in to following train’s path. However, visibility of locomotive attached and kind of stock being hauled is not very explicitly known. Thus, for a non-timetabled train, the controller would work only on his experience. Accommodating uncertain flows causes anxiety and also unpredictability in train running with the biggest victim being maintenance.
Now, another element is the need of ‘blocks’ for doing maintenance of track, signalling and traction power supply. In heavily loaded sections getting block to maintain the track is an exercise in itself with hardly any predictability. It is not unusual that emergency blocks are resorted to and temporary restriction put on network.
So what did SATSaNG have to offer?
SATSaNG has a visibility of entire network and captures all flows-originating, transit and termination across the complete network. This has a train run calculator, which, given a stock type, locomotive type, time table (if available), section type could simulate a train run. Thus, at midnight, software can create optimal runs on a chart, allocating paths to all the trains likely to run in the section in next twenty four hours, giving an optimal template for all train runs in a division in advance. Section controller has to only make sure to stick to the optimised runs as close as possible.
Thus, train runs can be optimised and unscheduled freight trains can then be handled with greater confidence. As the passenger train punctuality is very highly monitored, conservative controller can presently hold back a freight train as he can’t be very sure that the freight train run would not affect the passenger trains following it.
How this would impact energy savings?
The Railway Minister passionately talked about taking advantage of provisions of Electricity Act, 2003 (of which he was the architect). This has potential of saving about three thousand crores on annualised basis on electricity for traction. A key element of buying electricity from market is to give day ahead consumption patterns. CRIS software being aware of type of trains, type of locomotive, its simulated run could calculate energy drawn from a particular traction substation-giving a day ahead energy consumption pattern to load dispatch centre- a key activity for entering into purchase contracts. Also, if there is an interruption, the simulator can rework energy requirement for the dispatchers.
Also, it is learnt that IR is toying with idea of providing for an equipment (Guidance for Optimised Loco Driving-GOLD & its variants) which would advise driver on optimal running, inspired from a system implemented in Australia and elsewhere. However, once this CRIS designed simulator platform gets implemented, this massive expenditure can be prevented and much simpler and cheaper system can be put in place.
Meaningful control of expenditure
Ministry of Power attacked the power crisis not just by pouring more power into same system, but by bringing energy efficient equipment. In a very innovative manner, LED bulbs have been made available to all electricity consumers, affecting demand side management. 46 million bulbs have been distributed already. Similarly, Rail budget also aims to make every rupee deliver more by better processes and practices (Nav Manak) and better structures (Nav Sanrachna) apart from widening the earning sources (Nav Arjan).
I hope IR takes on Nav Manak seriously and ropes in practitioners of value engineering to urgently undertake it.
Before Nav Sanrachna is undertaken:
Before functional alignments are taken up, given the kind of dislocation anticipated, it is strongly advisable to map every chair, every process. Use of tools like SATSaNG or its variants can, without massive restructuring enable better traffic flows and recurring saving. It is easier than organisational surgery and paves the way for organisational restructuring.
Further, one area which needs to have forensic examination is the way railways procures its stores. Practically all that railways needs to run its system, is known, barring few new items. Still the process of procurement is rife with delays and miles of red tape, taking about eighteen months. Though passing mention has been made on this, its not clear if this has been identified as a key cost cutting aspect. Can KPIs be identified and this activity be outsourced? I surely think it can be. Railways should keep specification development, source incubation, trials and validation with them, and outsource procurement of routine stores saving several of man-years.
Innovation, Research & Development
One of the key developments which made Indian defence industries excited was the ability of Raksha Mantri to understand the challenge which entrepreneurs face. I am excited that MoSR in his interview noted that innovation can’t be nurtured if rules of procurement are not tweaked.
Though the budget speech talks of SRESTHA (Strategic Technology and Holistic Advancement) as the new organisation for railway research relegating RDSO (Research Designs and Standards Organisation, Lucknow deals with rail research, standardisation and vendor development) for day-to-day work, the approach misses a very key issue: why didn’t RDSO deliver?
The key issue herein is the defective HR policy which see research as a tenured activity. Dr. Kakodkar and his team were also quite amused to see how railway research is victim of its HR policies. Seen with vigilance angle, an official can not handle a subject for more than five years and from administrative angle, an officer has to be transferred after five years-this ensures that at leadership level (for administrative reasons) and at subordinate level (due to vigilance reasons) no continuity can be given. So how would any meaningful research be done?
It is welcome that under an eminent scientist the research would be carried out with limited presence of railwaymen. But how would the key handicap be addressed which prevented RDSO from performing in first place? All railway engineers come from one of the toughest, rigorous and transparent engineering recruitment examination in India (Engineering Services Examination conducted annually by the UPSC). This gives a substantial pool of best engineering talent to choose from.
I remain sceptical of the railway university as envisaged, as there possibly can be more efficient ways of undertaking it. Already Ministry of Railways have several centralised training academies for engineering resources-at Nasik (Electrical), Secunderabad (Signalling & Telecommunication), Pune (Civil) and Jamalpur (Mechanical). There is case for merging these four centres and have railway research part of such a school. The Staff College can focus on management, transport economics & management, regulatory research (merging Traffic, Stores, Accounts academies).
Further, the proposal of IIT (BHU) to leverage its historical strength in electrical engineering and material science to create a multi-disciplinary research centre instead of just a material science chair as proposed in last rail budget can be a more cost efficient solution.
Infact, given the central location of Varanasi (close to RDSO, Lucknow; Coach Factory Rae Bareli; Diesel Locomotive Works, Varanasi; Chittaranjan Locomotive Works, Chittaranjan; Greenfield Locomotive factories in Madhepura, Marhaura; Workshop and Locosheds in Mughalsarai; Rail Wheel Factory, Bela), a combined training and research centre can be sited at IIT(BHU) which can be extremely cost efficient and centrally located. The talent pool of this IIT would be readily available for training and research in midst of an existing ecosystem of extensive railway system. For training and research, such an approach would be highly cost effective and efficient.
RDSO as envisaged can focus on standardisation, regulation and certification.
I think this can be a great idea for Aekikaran (consolidation), bringing multidisciplinary approach inculcated right from induction to multidisciplinary research. This can preface restructuring endeavours.
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.
An appeal from Swarajya
At Swarajya, we rely on our readers' support through subscriptions to sustain our media platform. Unlike larger conglomerates, we are unable to relentlessly chase advertising money — our model is largely built on your patronage.
Your support has never been more crucial. We work tirelessly to deliver 10-15 high-quality articles daily, ensuring you receive insightful content from 7 AM to 10 PM.
If you believe India's story has to be articulated in a way it has never been done before without shrugging it off, become a patron (or) subscribe now for ₹̶2̶4̶0̶0̶ ₹1999 and get 12 print issues, unlimited digital access for 1 year, a special India that is Bharat T-shirt (Offer ends soon).
We are counting on you!