How the Railways readjusted its freight operations to cope with lockdown

Topics Coronavirus | Railways  | Lockdown

One major advantage during the period was a near-doubling of the speed of freight trains by around 82 per cent from 22 kmph to around 40 kmph now
Whether it is the Kumbh Mela, Chhath Puja, winter or summer vacations, officials in the Indian Railways work to a well-oiled plan to manage the passenger rush. But in March 2020, they had to deal with something unmentioned in the coaching manuals of its traffic department. The national transporter came out with a rare advisory urging passengers to postpone all their journeys. This advisory was a trailer of what was yet to come, a complete stoppage of passenger services starting from March 22 as part of the social distancing norms of the national lockdown. 

This long shutdown is a first for the Railways. The closest to it in the Railways’ 167-year-old history was the 20-day closure during the 1974 railway strike, the largest such recorded industrial action in the world in which 1.7 million people were involved.

This time, though, there is a difference: The Railways had to run its freight operations, probably becoming the only lifeline for the nation in moving essentials when roads and inter-state routes were sealed. 

“The first challenge before us was to convince the staff regarding their safety. We provided them all kinds of safety materials, including masks and sanitisers free of cost. After that, we had to rise to the occasion, specially regarding essential services,” said P S Mishra, member (traffic) of the Railway Board. 

The second challenge was a bigger hurdle for officials, owing to supply chain bottlenecks and last-mile connectivity issues. In fact, during the first week of the lockdown, though wagons were being rapidly loaded, the pace of unloading was almost zero, owing to a shortage of labour and trucks. This was solved after a centralised empowered group was set up under the Ministry of Home Affairs on March 29. “After that, the co-ordination between the states and other agencies improved and the unloading of rakes too accelerated,” Mishra added. 


Some simple innovations helped. Under normal circumstances, one freight train comprising 42 covered wagons loaded with food grains can transport around 2,600 tonnes. This was doubled by the simple expedient of joining two freight trains so that one journey could deliver 84 wagons of 5,200 tonnes of food grain.

Another concept was of “Jai Kisan” trains to accelerate the delivery of food grain. Under this concept, two freight trains loaded from two different originating stations are clubbed at the nearest junction point and moved as single train up to the common junction point of the destination stations, taking the advantage of track availability freed up because passenger trains were not running. For transporting food grain from the producing regions of the north to other parts of the country, 5,000-tonne long haul trains were introduced.

On April 9, parcel cargo express trains were also started after a gap of 46 years. These trains were used to specially handle medicine, grocery, edible oil and other food items that are normally transported by road. This also helped make good on the gap in regular bulk goods freight, which had all but collapsed owing to the decline in manufacturing (cement and clinker freight, for instance, dropped 97 per cent). 

The results of all these measures started showing in April: 4.25 million tonne (MT) of food grain, flour and pulses were loaded from April 1 to 21, up 147 per cent against 1.72 MT transported in the same time last year. Supply-side bottlenecks remain, however, since 4.12 MT was unloaded in the same period. In the case of the Northern Railways (NR), there was a sudden increase in loading requirement from an average 15 rakes to up to 40 rakes daily. According to an NR official, the reason for this was enhanced food loading from Punjab and Haryana and speedy dispatch to food-deficient states as the government had announced to provide additional 15 kg of grains per household free of cost. Earnings from food grain, flours and pulses during the period also grew 88 per cent to Rs 655 crore, up from Rs 349 crore in April 2019. In addition, 1,150 tonnes of medical supplies were delivered. 

“The Railways is living up to the challenge. But it has to efficiently manage the time as well, by efficiently doing the repairing and other infrastructure works during this period. This would avoid traffic block once passenger services are open,” said R Sivadasan, former finance commissioner with the Railways. 

One major advantage during the period was a near-doubling of the speed of freight trains by around 82 per cent from 22 kmph to around 40 kmph now. “Since passenger trains are not operating, path is not a constraint. Freight speed will obviously go up,” Mishra said highlighting that the only limiting factor for raising the speed further is the pace of unloading. But the railway honchos will now have to add one more chapter of history to its traffic coaching guide: “How to deal with a pandemic”.

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