Has Indian Railways’ Transformation Plan gone off-track?

There was a plan to increase the Railways’ revenue by augmenting carrying capacity. This target has, however, become the source of a bitter battle between two ministries – the railways and steel – and provoked serious arguments over the Make in India programme.

NEW DELHI: In the 2016-17 Railway Budget, the Narendra Modi government had lined up seven “missions” to transform the Indian Railways for the next decade.

One key initiative was “Mission 25 Tonne”.

This was a plan to increase the Railways’ revenue by augmenting carrying capacity; 70 per cent of the freight traffic would be transported on wagons with axle loads of 25 tonnes, against the current load of 22.9 tonnes.

This target has, however, become the source of a bitter battle between two ministries – the railways and steel – and provoked serious arguments over the “Make in India” programme.

The cause: A report by the Transportation Technology Transfer (TTT) team from the University of Illinois that the tensile strength of existing track was “not adequate” for the 25-axle load.

It recommended raising the tensile strength from the current 880 mega pascal (MPa) to 1080 MPa.

“Given the importance of rail as an asset from both a safety and reliability point of view for Indian Railways’ operation of both passenger and freight trains on the same infrastructure, TTT recommends the use of higher strength rails,” said the report of the team headed by Christopher Barkan.

The report, submitted just before the general elections, deals a blow to the state-run Steel Authority of India (SAIL), thus far the monopoly producer of rails for the Indian Railways.

The TTT report has stated that SAIL’s rails are not suitable to run 25-tonne axle load wagons.

Barkan and team were roped in after an initial study by the Railways’ research arm, the Research Designs and Standards Organisation, highlighted similar issues.

Following this, the Railways asked SAIL to shift to 1080-MPa grade rail in the next two years.

It is unclear whether the steel-maker has done so.

A senior SAIL official merely said the company was producing rails to the Railways’ specifications and said he was unaware of the TTT report.

These tensions over quality issues come after the Railways floated a global tender for rail procurement in October 2017, when SAIL failed to meet demand.

These orders were to fulfill a massive track renewal project in response to a series of accidents between 2016 and 2017.

SAIL, however, failed to meet the expanded demand for even the lower-axle load rails for four consecutive financial years starting 2015-16 (see table).

This shortfall was compounded by the high rejection rate of around 15 per cent.

After this failure, the Railways opted for a global tender to meet its requirements in October 2017 – the first move of its kind in three decades.

Though global majors such as Sumitomo Corporation, Angang Group International, Voestalpine Schienen, East Metals, CRM Hong Kong, British Steel, France Rail and Atlantic Steel participated, none of them made the cut in meeting Indian specifications.

Even as the steel ministry complained that the global tender contradicted the spirit of the Make in India programme, the Railways turned to private sector manufacturers to make good the shortfall.

In August 2018 and February 2019, the Railways placed – again, for the first time – two sets of orders for 100,000 tonne and 30,000 tonne of rail, respectively, worth around Rs 650 crore on Jindal Steel and Power Ltd (JSPL).

But this, says a Railways source, may not be enough considering the massive developmental requirements.

It has lined up massive track renewal plans.

Last fiscal the Railways achieved over 5,000 km and this fiscal the target is to reach 6,000 km. In short, the Railways may have to opt for another global tender.

According to Vijay Dutt, former additional member of the Railways, the trouble over rail supplies is a ghost from the past.

He recalls that in the 1970s, the affiliated engineering consultancy, RITES Ltd, was formed following a judicial enquiry over an accident that occurred over defective rails.

But he thinks it would be better for domestic suppliers to step up to the plate in terms of quality and quantity rather than resorting to imports.

“When we are embarking on Make in India, to resort to imports will be a very improper decision,” he said.

“At the same time, we cannot compromise on the safety of rail operations.

“Both public and private sector must come up to produce rails to the purchaser’s specifications, for which they have the capacity.”

For the time being, the University of Illinois study raises another question.

If the major domestic producer is unable to meet rail supplies on the old axle-load, how far will it be able to meet demands for the heavier axle load?

Until these basic issues are sorted out, Mission 25 Tonne may be stuck on the drawing board.