Indian Railways has the opposition in residence: Bibek Debroy

A railway minister, who should formulate policy for the sector, is reduced to deciding how power is provided on passenger coaches. The Civil Service are the opposition in residence

debroy opinionsWho supplies power on trains? I don’t mean to ask that question about EMUs (electrical mobile units) or MEMUs (mainline electric multiple units), coaches you see on suburban networks. I meant other passenger coaches on other trains. There are a little over 50,000 of those. Each year, Indian Railways (IR) adds around 3,200. That’s a gross, not net, addition to stock. There is junking of about 1,000 every year. And by power on trains, I didn’t mean traction through locomotives – diesel, electricity and, increasingly rarely, steam. I meant the power supply inside passenger carriages, for lighting, fans, air-conducting, charging mobiles and sundry other needs. It is one of those things few passengers think about.

There are three ways of supplying that power. First, there is a self-generating (SG) mode. Why waste mechanical energy from revolving wheels? Fix a pulley-belt to the axle. This plugs into alternators, which feed DC batteries. Roof-mounted units next convert DC into AC inverters. This works for both AC and non-AC coaches. Second, there is an end-on-generation (EOG) mode, something we are familiar with if we travel by Rajdhani, Shatabdi or Duronto. Those are the two power cars, at either ends of the train. Each of these power cars has two diesel generating sets. Third, there is the head-on-generation (HOG) mode, where the locomotive supplies power. If it is a diesel locomotive, alternators are used. Suburban EMUs/MEMUs work in this way.

Which is better, SG, EOG or HOG? I am not a railway engineer. But as far as I can make out, HOG is best. The cost of generating power is 25 per cent less. Unfortunately, with the exception of suburban and Metro trains, we don’t have fixed rakes and train sets. Hence, there are possibilities of locomotives being detached from trains and then you don’t have power for passenger coaches. Thus, HOG is out.

Since 1998 (2000 if you prefer), IR has used LHB (named after Linke-Hoffman-Busch) coaches. They are better and safer than older ICF (Integral Coach Factory) coaches and all new coaches are LHB, including the 3,200 new ones produced every year. With HOG disqualified, should LHB coaches have SG or EOG? Most railway engineers possess strong views about one or the other and an answer depends on who you ask. The economics seems to be loaded in favour of SG. After all, you don’t need two power cars at either end and with the same locomotive, can attach two additional passenger coaches now. However, despite trying for several years, SG technology hasn’t been completely fixed.

It isn’t only about new LHB coaches produced by current IR production units in Kapurthala and Chennai. There will be other units that will produce coaches – owned by IR, joint ventures with state governments, PPPs with private entities, completely private. If there are private entities that own passenger rolling stock and run private passenger trains, what they opt for is their affair. But that’s a long way off.

Thus, whatever coaches are produced, in whatever form, will be used by IR. Therefore, design, technology and a whole lot of other issues need to be decided by IR, with RDSO (Research Designs & Standards Organisation) chipping in. Nor can one mix and match SG with EOG. Since IR doesn’t have a concept of fixed rake or train sets, a coach that’s on one train today may be attached to a different train tomorrow. We need coaches to be interchangeable. Therefore, SG or EOG, but not both.

To make matters explicit, there will be vendors of batteries, alternators and inverters. It’s not the case that their voices don’t have clout and they will legitimately prefer SG over EOG. I am not taking a position on one vis-à-vis the other, I am not competent. But this is reminiscent of Frederic Bastiat’s (1801-50) petition against the sun and sunlight submitted by manufacturers of candles, tapers, lanterns, sticks, street lamps, snuffers, extinguishers and producers of tallow, oil, resin, alcohol and so on. When substantial sums of money are involved, vested interests will lobby.

Cut to the Railway Board. Today’s Railway Board has a Chairman (known as CRB) and separate Members for Electrical, Engineering, Traffic, Staff and Mechanical, with a Financial Commissioner. CRB doesn’t have right of veto – he/she isn’t a proper CEO. The Railway Committee wished to make CRB a proper CEO and suggested Members for Traction & Rolling Stock, Passenger & Freight Business, HR & Stores, Finance & PPP and Infrastructure. In the Committee’s structure, a single Member would have been in charge on traction and rolling stock and would have taken the decision on SG versus EOG. But according to newspaper reports, IR and the present Railway Board don’t feel any such change is required: The status quo is superior.

In the present structure, Member (Traffic) is only marginally concerned with an issue like this. The relevant Members are Electrical and Mechanical. If they disagree, as is indeed possible, CRB can’t really intervene and decide. Therefore, a railway minister, who should formulate policy for the railway sector, is reduced to deciding how power is provided on passenger coaches. How can I not quote from Jim Hacker’s diaries? “The Civil Service are the opposition in residence.”