To improve performance, Indian Railways must streamline the flow of Traffic: G Raghuram, Director/IIM-Bangalore

While I agree with the general spirit of the recent recommendations made by the CAG on the Indian Railways, I believe the report has missed a few salient points, which many of the operating railway officers themselves would be aware of. Examining the principle of streamlining flow of traffic, detentions of trains are often caused due to cross movements on tracks and having to negotiate slow turnouts from one track to the other.

BANGALORE: I must commend the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India for auditing the Indian railways’ station line capacity. Attention to the issue is very well placed since passenger train operations form a significant and growing part of this great economic engine of the country. In my view, stations, terminals and junctions are greater bottlenecks to throughput than the “line capacity” of the Indian Railways (IR).

The CAG report studies 15 major stations, focuses attention on the primary symptom of pre-station detentions (unscheduled stoppage of trains because of inadequate infrastructure at the scheduled stop). It also examines the growth in infrastructure versus the growth in number of trains, highlights the inadequacy in growth of infrastructure and proposes a set of seven actionable recommendations.

These seven are: prepare comprehensive master plans; address infrastructural constraints before taking up projects for customer oriented modernisation; increase all platform lengths to accommodate trains of 24/26 coaches; create additional platforms and pit (for maintenance) lines of adequate length, and, if not possible, develop alternative terminals, and/or increase length of platforms to accommodate two trains; expedite ongoing works for station line capacity; remodel yards and improve signalling; and specify time norms for removal of empty coaches from platforms.

While I agree with the general spirit of the recommendations, I believe the report has missed a few salient points, which many of the operating railway officers themselves would be aware of.

The mantra at such bottlenecks should be the one of streamlining flow of traffic. In this context, recommendations for addressing infrastructural constraints over customer oriented modernisation, and building platforms for longest trains pass muster. Recommendation for completing the ongoing works is obvious and needs managerial attention. Recommendation for a master plan is well stated and it is time that major stations make periodic master plans that would address the various recommendations.

I, however, have concerns with the simplistic recommendations around additional platform/pit lines, remodelling of yards and time norms for removal of empty coaches from platforms.

Examining the principle of streamlining flow of traffic, detentions are often caused due to cross movements on tracks and having to negotiate slow turnouts from one track to the other. Such cross movements occur at innumerable stations in the country, causing detentions. One way to address it is through grade separated flyovers or underpasses (tracks passing one another at different heights). Most major terminals and junctions in European countries would have such grade separations to ensure streamlined flow of traffic across routes and easy access to platforms. In Japan, there are terminals with no grade-separated approaches to platforms. However, they have streamlined turnouts which accept high speeds. And most importantly, trains run to clockwork precision so that cross movement of trains on the tracks very rarely become an issue for a train to be detained.

In IR, it is not clear that platforms or pit lines may be the bottleneck. It would have been useful if the CAG report had also assessed platform and pit line utilisation, rather than conclude that infrastructure has not kept up with the increase in the number of trains by a simple arithmetic relationship. Thus recommendation for additional platform/pit lines is questionable. In fact, given relatively low platform utilisation and the possibility of turning around coaches as another train without the need for mechanical maintenance — for which it needs to be transferred to a pit line — one can expect coaches to remain on a platform for longer than just the occupancy by passengers. This might be a better way of utilising the infrastructure. Thus recommendation for time norms for removing coaches from platforms may not be applicable.

Recommendation about remodelling yards needs elaboration since many solutions are possible. Grade separation is one. A high-speed turnout is another. Trains negotiating bypasses rather than reversals are a third. Constructing bypasses is a fourth. Building pit lines at a convenient location to minimise cross traffic is a fifth. Of course, this may not be possible for terminals which have train movements on either side. There could be many more solutions.

Overall, the CAG report has done well to focus attention on this subject. However, what is really required is that the IR officers themselves work on a continuous improvement mode, using simple principles of streamlining traffic flows. While I would not doubt their capability, I believe there are larger issues of priorities involving bottom up framing of improvement projects in a timely manner — which means the top management recognising the importance of such projects and ensuring the budgetary provisions and timely completions.

In this context, the recommendation of master plans, which should be reviewed and implemented in a periodic manner, is most important.

(Views of the author are personal.)

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