Dedicated Freight Corridor gets a new deadline, it's a race against time

After the renewed focus, the Railways seem confident of finishing it on time
In January 2004, Australia commissioned what is regarded as one of the most difficult railway lines to be ever built in the world — across the inhospitable terrain from Alice Spring in the north to the deepwater port of Darwin in the south. Around the same time, the Railway Board in India, headed by Chairman R K Singh, was working on pulling off a similar feat with a dedicated track for freight to speed up traffic flow. 

The project was shelved after initial deliberations citing cost effectiveness, but was given a fresh lease of life in 2006. But since it received the final go-ahead, the Dedicated Freight Corridor (DFC) has been stumbling over hurdles — from land acquisition issues to cost escalation and delay in implementation. 

Nearly a decade and a half later, however, DFC may finally see the light of day with the Narendra Modi government planning to complete it by December 2021, ahead of India’s 75th Independence day in 2022. 

According to multiple sources close to the development, completion of Eastern and Western Dedicated Freight corridors by 2021 will be one of the key priorities of the Modi government during its second tenure. “The western and eastern dedicated freight corridors, covering 3,360 km of track across nine states, are vital to increase the total traffic of the Railways by at least 144 million tonne (mt) by 2022,” said an official close to developments. 

In a strategic vision document prepared in March, the Railways’ has set a target to increase its share in the country’s overall freight basket from 33 per cent to around 50 per cent by 2030. Studies conducted by the World Bank, which is funding the Eastern DFC with a loan of $2.360 billion, and Japan International Cooperation Agency, which offering Rs 38,722 crore for the Western DFC, traffic flow is set to reach 264 MT for eastern corridor and 284 MT for the western corridor in 20 years.

The corridor is a massive logistical exercise for the Railways. So far, the Dedicated Freight Corridor Corporation of India (DFCCIL) — a special purpose vehicle for the project incorporated in 2006 — has awarded all contracts for construction to begin, except for system contracts for Khurja-Dadri and Khurja-Ludhiana sections of the eastern corridor. 

Land acquisition was initially a big hurdle but by February this year, nearly 98.5 per cent of the land has been acquired — except for the Sonnagar to Dankuni section, which is in the process of being acquired, according to a senior DFCCIL official.
But the construction work is only half way through and meeting the target is a race against time. On August 15 last year, the Railways had conducted its first successful trial run of the western corridor covering a 190-km stretch from Ateli to Phulera. This was followed by two more trials between Badan and Khurja (194 km of the eastern corridor in November) and Madar and  Kishangarh Balawas (306 km on the eastern corridor). 

The delay has of course not been without consequences for the Railways. Though the initial cost of the project was Rs 28,181 crore, a revised estimate in 2015 pegged it at Rs 81,459 crore — factoring in price escalation and interest during construction. 
“DFC was initially conceptualised with a lower axle load, which was later increased to a heavier 32.5 tonnes substructure axle load and superstructure with axle load of 25 tonnes, that naturally increased the cost of the project. In addition to this, cost of land, change of scope of the project and some other technical requirements also added to the cost,” said R Sivadasan, former finance commissioner with the railways.

After the renewed focus, the Railways seem confident of finishing it on time. “Though started work in 2007, the DFCs were initially expected to be on track by 2011. However, due to speeding up of work in last three years, we will be able to deliver it by December 2021,” said another official. 

What's of concern though is that land acquisition woes and project delays are not rare for the Railways. According to available data, at least 505 projects — including 263 doubling of lines, 185 new lines and 57 gauge conversion — are under various stages of execution. Of this, several projects are facing a cost overrun — owing to issues like acquisition of land, shifting of utilities and delay in various statutory clearances. 

All these projects are important to increase the Railways' freight and passenger traffic as well to help it compete efficiently with other means of transport. The DFC, for instance, will not just increase the freight volume, but also increase the average pace of freight traffic in the country. According to the Railways, the average speed in DFC will be around 75 kmph, compared to the existing 25 kmph. One advantage for consumers will be the cost effectiveness, as it is expected to cut the unit cost of transport by at least 40 per cent. DFCCIL also expects savings of 457 MT of CO2 emission over a period of 30 years, once the project is on track.

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