Indian Railways: A Key Driver Of India’s Economic Growth Amid COVID-19

Indian railways play critical role in aiding the economic and social development of the country through connectivity, mobility and commercial activities

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Raghu Gururaj
Raghu Gururaj
Consul General of India to Sumatra, Medan

INDIA: While other sectors of the Indian economy were forced into reactive or passive mode by the COVID pandemic, Indian Railways has been chugging along manfully throughout the entire lockdown and semi lockdown periods making a difference on the ground. Though the pandemic did apply brakes on the Indian Railways, it has managed to reinvent and rediscover itself during this critical period. 

World’s 4th largest Rail Network

Known for its punctuality and bewildering scale, India’s national transporter is the world’s 4th largest rail network, the largest in Asia, largest employer in India and among the top 10 largest employers globally. Employing about 1.4 million staff, Indian Railways ferries 23 million passengers and 1 billion tonnes of freight annually across 8200 rail stations through its network of almost 70,000 km. 

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Since its inception in 1853, this massively extensive network is today a key lifeline to millions across a huge and widely populated landmass. It is operating both suburban and long-distance services, not just across major cities and towns, but also to some of the remotest regions of India. As India’s most accessible, inexpensive, environmentally friendly and most dependable mode of transportation, Indian railways is playing a critical role in aiding the economic and social development of the country through connectivity, mobility and commercial activities, especially so during the raging pandemic.

The key driver of ‘Make in India’

Under the ‘Make in India’ initiative, Indian railways is well on its way to sourcing 95% of electric locomotive components locally. Joint Ventures Agreements worth US$ 560 billion have been signed by the Ministry of Railways with several Indian and foreign companies like M/S Alstom Manufacturing India & GE Global Sourcing India Pvt Ltd for setting up diesel locomotive factories, production of rolling stock, electrification of communication infrastructure and installation of optical fiber. Alstom’s Sri City factory in the province of Andhra Pradesh, is manufacturing rolling stock for urban metro projects in India and delivering metro trainsets to cities like Mumbai, Chennai, Lucknow, Mumbai, Montreal and Sydney and already exporting to neighboring countries and parts of South East Asia and Africa. Chittaranjan Locomotive Works produced 250 electric locomotives (WAG-9 HC, 33071) in a record 188 working days in 2020. 

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Semi-high speed trains running at up to 160 km/h connecting key cities are already operational. 

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In a massive boost to ‘Make in India’ for Indian Railways, the Government of India announced the running of passenger trains by private operators on the Indian Railways network and redevelopment of railway stations across the country. These projects have the potential to attract investment of over $7.5 billion in the next five years. The national transporter has stated that it is eyeing over $4 billion in investments with private passenger train services. 

Up-gradation in railway technology will be driven by a mix of indigenous innovations and through technology transfers. For this purpose, Indian Railways has identified 12 independent clusters with 109 origin-destination routes. On these routes, as many as 150 passenger trains are expected to be operated by private players. This may be seen as a paradigm shift as it will rewrite the growth story of India. Private entities will source and operate trains using the Indian Railways infrastructure and components manufactured in the country, which is a win-win situation.

Dedicated Freight Corridors (DFCs)

The Indian Railways carries the 4th highest tonnage of freight globally at over 1,200 million tonnes. While there has been a jump of over 700 million tonnes of freight in India in the last decade, there has not been a corresponding increase in the loading capacity of the trains. Resultantly, a large part of the freight movement in India takes place through road transport raising the logistics cost of goods. Indian Railways is already building dedicated freight corridors to enable freight trains to run as per a schedule.

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The Dedicated Freight Corridor (DFC) is one of the largest rail infrastructure projects undertaken by the government. The Dedicated Freight Corridor Corporation of India Limited (DFCCIL) has been entrusted with the task of developing the Eastern and Western freight corridors with a cumulative length of over 3,000 km. These two corridors will change the way India transports goods. Once fully operational, 70% of the goods trains will shift to the DFC, thereby freeing up the existing tracks entirely for passenger trains.

Since these freight corridors will be exclusively meant for goods trains, they will have one station every 50 km as compared to the existing railways, which have one every 10 km. This would mean that the cost of manpower, maintenance and operation for the DFC will be much lower. Several sections on these two corridors have already been completed and inaugurated. Now freight trains will not have to slow down on the 351 km-long section on the Eastern Dedicated Freight Corridor, which is touted as one of unique elements of the two dedicated corridors. 

New Technologies

India became the first developing country and 5th in the world to roll out the first indigenously built “state-of-the-art” high horsepower three-phase electric locomotive It also produced the state-of-the-art 4000 HP AC/AC diesel locomotive in April 2020, which are capable of hauling 4,800 tonne freight trains at a speed of 100 Kmph for continuously up to 90 days at a stretch without any major maintenance. The newly developed vista dome modern tourist coaches by the Integral Coach Factory in Chennai recently completed the 180 kmph trial run.

COVID Response

Indian Railways has been at the forefront of optimal utilization of existing infrastructure to fight against COVID-19. It upped the ante during the pandemic by playing a crucial role in the transportation of bulk commodities such as coal, iron ore, foodgrains critical aid, machinery, medicines, etc. across the country during the pandemic. 

The Railways converted 5,000 trains into isolation wards and 40,000 beds. One stand out innovation was the conversion of stationary coaches into self-contained quarantine or isolation wards with toilets bathing rooms, oxygen cylinders and fixtures for medical equipment. Another major initiative was to put to use the extensive health facilities of Indian railways for COVID patients.

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Its medical infrastructure includes 586 health units, 45 sub-divisional hospitals, 56 divisional hospitals, eight production unit hospitals and 16 zonal hospitals across the country, with more than 5000 beds. Indian Railways also pitched in with the production of 1500 PPEs per day, reusable masks, hand-sanitizers etc to supplement efforts of the Ministry of Health.

In an unprecedented move, two sets of long-distance, super-heavy, fast freight trains were introduced – Annapoorna Trains by Northern Railways and Jai Kisan Specials by South Central Railway to ferry around 2,600 tonnes of foodgrains, basic vegetables, fruits, milk and medicines to hard-hit zones. Mobile kitchens were set up to serve cooked meals to about 50,000 in remote unconnected areas each day.

An entire train was converted into a mobile hospital named ‘Lifeline Express’, which provided healthcare facilities to the people in rural areas free of cost. It is the world’s only such moving hospital, with full medical facilities including 2 operating theatres, 5 operating tables and X-ray center.

New initiatives

India’s largest employer has commenced the digitalization of its services operations. The network will collect about 100 datasets per user. This passenger booking plate already has 25 million users, leading to approximately 800,000 daily transactions. Last month, Indian Railways introduced the Freight Business Development Portal, which is aimed at enhancing the ease of doing business & provides existing freight customers with enhanced GIS-based track and trace features.

Signifies hopes of an entire nation

Whether it is upgrading stations or tracks, using solar-power optimization, ending unmanned crossings, accident prevention, coach manufacturing & digitization for ease of travel, Indian Railways has been on mission mode in the last few years. Describing the importance of the Indian railway for the people of India, the Chairman of the Mahindra Group Anand Mahindra aptly put it “When those iron wheels start turning, you can feel this giant nation begin to reconnect. There is something so uplifting about this. The second-largest rail network in the world is not only India’s life-blood, it signifies the hopes, dreams & ambitions of a billion people.

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