The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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What is sauce for the goose need not be so for the gander, as has been proved in the case of Indian Railways's disastrous headlong rush to electrify the trunk routes. This is to firmly close the doors on running larger wagons with a higher payload-to-tare ratio, and double stack container loads. Trying to follow the French Railways (SNCF) model has proved to be too costly for Indian Railways.

On any railway system, empty running one-way of most of the wagons, when moving bulk commodities such as coal and iron ore in dedicated streams, is unavoidable. The cost-disadvantage of running empty wagons can however be overcome to a large extent if the ratio of payload-to-tare is appreciably hiked. Unfortunately, the larger wagon profile needed to achieve this is severely restricted in the case of Indian Railways.

Emerging from the ruins of World War II, with no largescale oil sources to boast of, France chose to base its energy supplies heavily on nuclear power. Over the last five decades, France has built a string of no less than 58 nuclear power houses, which meet over 75 per cent of the nation's energy requirements. France proposes to now add a fourth generation nuclear station to be commissioned by 2020 and establish its leadership in this vital area of technology.

French connection

Soon after World War II, when the time was ripe for the SNCF to phase out its ageing fleet of steam locomotives, it opted for electrification. The nation backed this initiative with the nuclear option for attaining self-sufficiency in the energy sector. Years of research and development by SNCF's dedicated team of engineers saw the blooming of the 25 KV AC technology, a huge leap over the older 1500/3000 V DC system. The latter had been standardized by the British Railways and successfully inducted into the Bombay suburban service and the mainline up the Ghats to Igatpuri and Pune of the erstwhile G.I.P. Railway, now Central Railway.

Inspite of tall promises and a rosy picture of the future being painted by the political leadership, the power scenario in India is still very bleak and likely to be so for the next couple of decades. The handful of nuclear stations in India, producing less than three per cent of the national need, have not put us anywhere near the French league. The cost of power generation from the major sources is still very high.

Put on hold

For every electric locomotive placed on the track, four to five megawatts of power supply (including transmission losses) is lost to the nation. This translates into depriving around 15,000 homes of electricity. On the other hand, each diesel locomotive is a powerhouse on wheels, producing about 2-3 MW of power. Operating at very high efficiencies with turbo-charged engines, it has no transmission losses and does not have to carry the baggage of overhead wires. Overhead wires are not only an expensive piece of infrastructure but also reduces the railways' capability of running more productive high-capacity rolling stock, or of enjoying economies of scale by carrying containers double-stacked on each train.

Understandably, the Rail India Technical and Economic Services report on the new freight corridors has recommended the adoption of diesel traction for the western corridor from Delhi to Mumbai via Ajmer and Ahmedbad. This would also meet the rising demand of moving containers from the northern industrial belt to ports on the west coast.

It would make sense to keep some of the multi-crore projects on hold till the power scenario improves. Also, dieselization, to obtain lower unit costs of rail transport, with minimal investments, would go into cooking up the right sauce for the Indian requirement.

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