Business Standard

Railways bolster network under Gati Shakti; tracks, freight goals in sight

Railways rides full steam on Gati ShaktiFrom rail tracks to freight traffic, the goal is to scale up across the network, write Dhruvaksh Saha & Shine Jacob

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Dhruvaksh SahaShine Jacob

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“When Gati Shakti fostered synergy and collaboration across ministries and departments, it became evident that the Indian Railways stood to gain significantly,” said Shanti Narain, who served as a member of the Railway Board’s traffic division from 1997 to 2001. His statement finds resonance in the data, underscoring that the Railways is the primary beneficiary of the PM Gati Shakti National Master Plan.

Consider railway lines as an example. Between 2009 and 2014, railway lines were being laid at an average pace of 4 km per day. This pace has now accelerated to 14 km per day. Consequently, the fiscal year 2022-23 witnessed the completion of 5,423 km, marking an all-time high.

The ripple effect extends beyond accelerated construction rates to cover all facets of the Indian Railways – from initiation and approval of projects to their completion.

“Lack of coordination has been a significant hurdle, leading to delays in railway projects,” said Vijay Dutt, former additional member of the Railways. This issue needed to be resolved if Railways is to amplify its freight contribution from 28 per cent to 45 per cent by 2030, he added.

Exclusive data accessed by Business Standard shows that there has been an increase in yard remodelling and non-interlocking works (61 per cent in 1,061 stations), automatic signalling (143 per cent covering 530 route km) and railway electrification (3 per cent, clocking record numbers of 6,565 route km) in the last financial year. (Route kilometre is a measure of the distance by rail between two points on the railway network.)

Improved coordination has led to an uptick in project sanctioning, besides reducing the associated timelines. The final location survey exhibits a 688 per cent increase, project sanctioning reflects an 871 per cent surge, and traffic facility works observe a 61 per cent rise. The cumulative result is reflected in the highest-ever numbers of approved projects in 2022-23, with 449 for final location surveys, 68 for project sanctioning, and 132 for traffic facility works.

This effort has also translated into heightened project commissioning. New lines, doubling and gauge conversion led to an increase of over 80 per cent, from 2,910 km in 2021-22 to 5,243 km in 2022-23. This contributed to enhancing passenger amenities and related infrastructure. The construction of ramps reflects a 57 per cent increase, while the development of platforms and foot overbridges also saw growth.
 
Experts suggest that a major factor leading to the unusually high growth is also the increased budgetary allocation. The central government's capital expenditure spree in the previous three fiscal years has seen the Railways as a major beneficiary -- it is among the few government departments that could absorb higher fund injection. An increased push for spending has ensured that tenders are floated aplenty and plans are made on a front-loading basis.

Recent reports indicate that the Indian Railways is set to submit a proposal to the Cabinet for an investment programme of Rs 5.25 trillion between FY24 and FY31. This initiative intends to improve connectivity to mining regions, cement manufacturing facilities, and various consumption points, aligning with the Gati Shakti programme.

“The aim of this is to increase the cargo handled by Railways from 1,210 million tonne in 2020 to 1,600 MT in 2024-25,” Narain said. “This is vital since in most developed economies, Railways handle more than 45 per cent freight traffic. In our case, this has slipped from over 80 per cent at the time of Independence to around 25-30 per cent now.” A majority of investments over the years were going to roads, he said, underscoring the need to turn the focus back to rail.

Railways is expected to see 51 per cent decongestion once critical projects, including dedicated freight corridors, are complete.  

The 2022-23 Budget announcement mentioned that “100 Gati Shakti Cargo Terminals (GCT)” would be developed in the next three years. Reports suggest that 48 of these are complete. “It has been expected that setting up of 100 GCT will bring investment worth Rs 6,000 crore approximately. These terminals are likely to bring cargo traffic in excess of 1 million tonnes each for Indian Railways,” states a report that the Railways ministry recently placed before Parliament.

Whether or not the Railways achieve its freight target, any increase in its freight share will help India shift to a cleaner mode of transportation, which is critical to meet its green energy target.

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First Published: Aug 31 2023 | 12:47 AM IST

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