Railways, SAIL to spar over Rails quality after study flags Safety issues

Indian Railways tracks by SAIL not fit for 160 kmph passengers trains operations; says US University study. According to the report, the existing track structure in India, having 880 mega pascal (MPa) tensile strength, is “not adequate” for 25-tonne axle load operations.

NEW DELHI: A study has said the rails Steel Authority of India (SAIL) provides to the Indian Railways are of lower quality and not suitable to run 25-tonne axle load wagons, dealing a huge blow to an ambitious plan of the Railways to move 70 per cent of its freight traffic on higher axle load wagons by 2019-20.

The finding of the University of Illinois study, which was commissioned by the railways ministry, is likely to lead to a tussle between SAIL and its largest customer, the Railways, as sources indicate that the state-run steel major is unlikely to immediately shift to a top-grade steel.

Even as the ministries of railways and steel are at loggerheads over the volume and quality of rails being supplied by SAIL — the issue is now before the Cabinet secretary — a study by a technical institute at the University of Illinois has showed that the current tracks manufactured by the PSU are not suitable for the 25-tonne axle load freight operations the transporter wishes to upgrade to beyond 50 kmph.

Also, these rails are not suitable for high-speed (160 kmph) passengers operations.

In fact, the study also shows that the current tracks are not suitable to run freight trains of lower 22.9 tonne axle load, which are currently used by the railways beyond 60 kmph.

SAIL has an exclusive contract to supply rails to the transporter.

The Cabinet secretary, as directed by the Prime Minister’s Office, will be soon holding a meeting of the parties involved to sort the issue. The railways in its 100-day agenda has decided to move to high-speed in at least the Delhi-Mumbai and Delhi-Kolkata routes.

The report has observed, “As a point of comparison, the IR’s 880 Mpa rail is of lower strength than even the standard grade used in the US. As such, given the importance of rail as an asset from both the safety and reliability point of view of IR’s operation of both passenger and freight trains on the same infrastructure (rails), TTT recommends the use of higher strength rails.”

The study was commissioned by the railways (IR) to check the findings of the Research Designs & Standards Organisation, a part of the railways, which has recommended use of 1,080 Mpa rails.

The findings of the Transportation Technology Transfer Technical Report have already been presented to steel ministry officials.
Emails sent to SAIL and the ministries of railways and steel remained unanswered.

A source, requesting not to be named, clarified the plants of SAIL in Bhilai were built to service the railways only and they produce 880 Mpa rails as that is the requirement given by IR. “SAIL has research and development teams which develop new grades. If IR sends a request for higher grade, the firm will be able to upgrade, but that cannot happen overnight,” said the source.

The technical report, however, has recommended to “consider use of 1,080 Mpa rail. The existing IR track structure having a rail section, of 60 kg/m and 880 Mpa tensile strength, is not adequate for 25 tonne axle load operations. Given the current estimates of rail stresses, the use of 1,080 Mpa rail with a minimum rail strength in the range of 880 Mpa provides better coverage against a combination of rail stresses and the potential for rail failures compared with 880 Mpa rail.

“Additionally, the incremental strength increase from 880 Mpa will have disproportionately positive impact on 1,080 Mpa rail’s service life. This specification and procurement decision should be considered in terms of the life cycle cost, but the benefits are likely to justify its worth”.

The tracks used now by IR are not unsafe for both passenger and freight movement albeit at low speeds. However, this dampens the ambition of reducing travel time on the network.

The railways has a meagre 35% share of the freight traffic due to abysmally low speeds of trains moving at an average of 25 kmph. “This leads to inordinate delays. In fact, there is a demand to run freight trains of 22.9 axle load at 75 kmph, but railways cannot allow it,” said a government source.

The other tussle that SAIL and IR are engaged in is adequate supply of rails. Despite the railways requiring 14-17 lakh tonne every year to upgrade its existing tracks and build new ones, supply from SAIL has fallen short. In the last financial year, SAIL supplied 9.85 lakh tonne.

The transporter has floated global tenders twice to procure rails from abroad, but both the attempts failed as the specifications required by the railways were not available, in the process slowing down the process of track renewals — putting in question the passenger safety.