Needed: A rolling stock policy

Indian Railways (IR) has just over 11,100 locomotives. (This figure is about a year old.) 39 are steam, 5,869 are diesel and 5,214 are electric. Naturally, not all are broad gauge. About 13 of steam can be deducted as narrow gauge, just over 100 of diesel are also narrow gauge. Steam no longer matters. Nor does narrow (or metre) gauge. Therefore, sticking to broad gauge, let’s say 5,800 diesel locomotives and 5,200 electric locomotives, an aggregate of 11,000. Roughly 53 per cent of this rolling stock is diesel. These are locomotives proper. They aren’t mobile units of either diesel or electric variety, DEMUs and EMUs. Note the obvious, not too many countries in the world use broad gauge — other than India, there are Pakistan, some parts of Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and a couple of countries in Latin America. In hindsight, gauge conversion may have had benefits, but also increased the costs of integrating railway networks with other countries, including those in East Asia. 

Globally, there are an estimated 120,000 locomotives. And 55 per cent are diesel. There has been a lot of electrification in Europe. I read somewhere that in Switzerland, 100 per cent (or close to it) of traction is electric. However, even for Europe as a whole, 33 per cent of traction is diesel. Despite all the recent emphasis on electrification, 43 per cent of China’s traction is diesel. Ditto for several other countries, USA, Russia, CIS, Australia. In other words, the diesel versus electric traction debate is not a settled one. Even when they use electric for passenger trains, many countries prefer diesel for freight. 

But IR now has a focus on electric traction and diesel locomotives will presumably be phased out. In 2002, IR set up a High Level Committee on Disaster Management. This stated, “To meet the requirements of relief, restoration and passenger convenience, it has been projected to the Committee that diesel locos in electrified territories be deployed in such a manner that there is a diesel loco available in 25-75 km (average 50 km) of the accident site so that the above mentioned constraints in approaching the golden hour concept are overcome thus ensuring speedier rescue and relief operations in case of serious accidents disrupting the route or major power breakdown or grid failures, etc. This would ensure that diesel locos are available for running the rescue trains, relief trains, relative specials and for pulling out the unaffected trains with stranded passengers”. 

In other words, even if you have complete electrification, you don’t scrap all diesel locomotives. Some are retained as a precaution. That 50 km recommendation must refer to track length and not track km. Since full electrification is intended, what percentage of the track is electrified is not relevant. With a track of 66,687 km, we need 1,333 diesel locomotives as backup, say 1,500. Therefore, some 4,300 diesel locomotives are surplus and beyond a few limited quantities, can’t be exported. 

IR has an indicated “codal” life of assets, the number of years the asset is normally expected to last. It is 35 years for electric locomotives and 18 years for diesel locomotives. Since surplus diesel locomotives can’t be exported, they will have to be junked ahead of their lives being over. I have certainly simplified. Electrification doesn’t happen overnight, there is a time-line. Diesel locomotive works in Varanasi can metamorphose, over time, to producing electric or hybrid locomotives, or diesel locomotives in other gauges for export. Any criticism about over-simplification is indeed true.

Time up: In other countries, train-sets have replaced passenger locomotives, with electric traction Photo: PTI
But I think the point I am making remains valid. In addition to plans for electrification, there should be a plan for disposing off diesel locomotives, over and above the path of least resistance, that of sending them to the scrap yard. Why did I say diesel locomotives? There should be a policy on all locomotives. We have tended to think of IR’s operations in terms of rakes. A train, passenger of freight, is formed by hooking together coaches, wagons and locomotives. In an era of shortages, coupling that khichdi together produced a train. 

Learning from international experience and from metros, there has been a shift to train-sets. Everything will be integrated, with no separate locomotives. For instance, ICF (Integral Coach Factory) in Chennai will produce semi-speed/high-speed (160 km/hour) train-sets. This is known as the Train-2018 project, because the production will happen in 2018. Other than trailer coaches and motor coaches, there will be 16 passenger coaches. Since this is a self-propelled train-set, there is no need for a separate locomotive. While this is for 2018, there is a parallel and modern exercise for 2020, known as Train 20. There will be 14 train-sets, each with 20 passenger coaches and these train-sets will run between metros, beginning first with Delhi-Mumbai. Bids have been invited from prospective bidders for design, development and manufacturing. With the technology transfer, ICF will start to manufacture these, after a few initial imports. These will also be self-propelled, with no separate locomotives. We thus have a double shift, away from diesel locomotives and away from all locomotives. 

Hence, shouldn’t we think about our stock of locomotives? More realistically though, in other countries, train-sets have replaced passenger locomotives, with electric traction. But for freight, you don’t have train-sets, nor do you always eliminate diesel. Our vision gets clouded by passenger. What was the first locomotive to run in India? I suspect you won’t think of Thomason, because it hauled earth in 1851. You will name a passenger locomotive.

The author is chairman, Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister. Views  are personal

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