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Decoding Ro-Ro, The Rolling Highway System
Snapshot

From decongesting roads to reducing vehicular pollution, and many other benefits, the ro-ro service is a valuable addition to our transportation system.

Residents of Thane in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region were recently in for a surprise when they heard the news of a ro-ro service coming up, connecting the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust and Vasai Road on the outskirts of Mumbai.

What is a ro-ro service, and why is it talked about so much?

Ro-ro stands for roll-on/roll-off. It is a rolling highway system, also called piggyback transportation. A basic rolling highway network is nothing but a railway track between two points. A train with flat-bed cars runs on the track. Vehicles can then “roll on” to the train at the start, and “roll off” at the destination.

The ro-ro system has been in operation in India and around the world. In India, it was pioneered by the Konkan Railway Corporation Limited (KRCL) from Kolad in Maharashtra to Surathkal in Karnataka, mainly to serve the industrial region of Verna in Goa.

Why is the ro-ro significant?

India’s west coast has several major ports, including the Hazira Port in Surat, Mumbai and Jawaharlal Nehru Ports in Mumbai, the Mormugao Port in Goa, New Mangalore Port and Karwar Naval Base in Karnataka and the Ernakulam Port in Kerala. Due to the presence of these ports, there are large cities along the way. Due to the difficult terrain, sandwiched between the Arabian Sea and the Western Ghats, connectivity is also hindered.

There are two main trunk routes for connectivity along this route: road and rail.
By road, National Highway 66 connects Mumbai to Kanyakumari. Barring a few stretches near Mumbai, Goa and Mangalore, the bulk of this road is still a narrow, single-carriageway road that winds its way around the ghats. The terrain, the road width and the fact that the region receives a high amount of rainfall make driving on this stretch a herculean task for truck drivers.

By rail, the Konkan Railway line connects Roha, south of Mumbai in Maharashtra, and Thokur, north of Mangalore in Karnataka via Ratnagiri, Madgaon and Karwar. The 741km track consists of 2,000 bridges and 91 tunnels, thus eliminating a bulk of the problems drivers face on the road. It is a non-electrified, single-track line, although in 2016, railway minister Suresh Prabhu announced doubling and electrification of the network.

The ro-ro system introduced in 1999, initially till Verna and later extended up to Surathkal, makes use of KRCL’s existing track network. Flat-bed cars are provided, where trucks can drive up on and stay parked till the journey is completed. The service was very popular, transporting over 3.5 lakh trucks till 2014. KRCL announced revenue inflows of Rs 67.2 crore in the last fiscal of 2014 alone. Charges for the truck are fixed based on weight categories.

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A ro-ro train at the Khed railway station in India (Arne Hückelheim/Wikimedia Commons)
A ro-ro train at the Khed railway station in India (Arne Hückelheim/Wikimedia Commons)

The main advantage of the ro-ro network is reduced time and fuel consumption. According to KRCL, the journey from Kolad to Surathkal, spanning a distance of 721km, takes 22 hours by ro-ro, as opposed to the 40 hours it would take if the truck were to use the road. An average of 50 trucks are loaded per rake, and three such rakes (trains) ply per day. This reduces the expense for truckers significantly. Fuel is not spent for close to 750km of a journey while completing the journey in nearly half the time.

The ro-ro between JNPT and Vasai Road was a demand from the residents of Thane to decongest several roads in the vicinity. The Thane-Belapur Road, connecting Thane and Navi Mumbai, is a crucial link road between the port and the northern fringes of the city. It also acts as a link to the Pune-Bengaluru highway down south and the Mumbai-Ahmedabad highway in the north. The ro-ro is expected to decongest this corridor by taking trucks off this road, as well as reduce vehicular pollution.

With the track already electrified, the trains have higher hauling power, and can carry more loads, thus multiplying its benefits incrementally. The ro-ro model is also prevalent in the shipping sector, with terminals being built in Mumbai to transport trucks across the bay to Mandwa.

Further expanding ro-ro corridors across the country has the potential to earn the railway even higher revenues from freight while, at the same time, decongesting roads. With rail taking lesser time than road in most cases, this will also impact the goods and shipping sector considerably in India, if taken up on a long-term basis.