Come February and the Indian Railways will be hosting an international conference on heavy-haul trains. This will be attended by researchers, practitioners, policy-makers and industry leaders to dwell on the current developments and future growth of this specialised mode of rail transport. The event will provide an opportunity to Indian Railways to explore the feasibility of introducing similar services in India with a view to improving the efficiency and performance of its freight movements.
A universally agreed definition of heavy-haul train is that it has transportation capacity of at least 5000mt, hauls revenue freight of at least 20 million mt (gross) per year, and operates with axle loads of 25mt or more. Yet another characteristic of such a train is that it consists of wagons that are uniformly of the same type, carry a single commodity, and move uninterruptedly from a single origin, say a mine head, to a single destination, say a sea port. Trains are typically loaded in only one direction, and return empty for fresh loading. One of the world’s heaviest and longest freight trains is the Sishen-Saldanha iron ore export line in South Africa. It has a train length of 4km, consists of 342 wagons that carry a gross train mass of 37,000 tonnes, is hauled by six electric locomotives and runs over a distance of 861 kms.
In the competitive global economy, countries with high-cost railways are at a disadvantage because railway inefficiency increases the cost of export freight. In the case of single commodity lines such as iron ore routes, if transport costs are too high, the commodity may become too expensive, leading to the end customer finding another source of supply or taking recourse to alternative modes of transport. For this reason, and given railway’s relatively lower share of the general freight market as compared to road, many governments have decided to effect fundamental rather than incremental changes in the functioning of their railway systems.
This brings heavy-haul technology to the forefront, because of its distinct advantage over road transport owing to higher permissible speeds and heavier axle loads. Heavy-haul operations, by maximising efficiencies and reducing transport costs, have been able to provide a distinct commercial and competitive advantage in economies endowed with vast mineral resources.
Today, the iron and steel industry is growing at a fast clip. As a result, one is witnessing record mining of iron ore in Brazil, Australia, and South Africa. A similar trend is also noticed in India, which has emerged as the fourth largest miner and the third largest exporter of iron ore in the world. Driving these developments is China, where insatiable demand from steel producers is forcing the pace of iron ore production across the globe. Heavy-haul railways form a key link in the steel production process, carrying huge tonnages of ore between mines and ports that are also busy raising their capacity to meet the rising demand. Similar developments are evident on coal carrying railways where demand is related to steel production.
India’s 12th Five Year Plan projects an annual growth rate of 9 per cent to 9.5 per cent during the period 2012-’17. It is also estimated that, based on past experience in India and experience in other large economies, requirements of transport services are likely to grow significantly faster than overall GDP growth. The freight traffic elasticity in India being around 1.3, the rate of growth in the transport sector is expected to be more than 11 per cent annually. This is going to place heavy demands on the already saturated transport system, of which railways is one of the main components.
New power capacity addition in the 12th Plan is envisaged to be 88,000 MW, against 50,000 MW in the 11th Plan. At present, there are 89 coal-fired power stations in India, with 29 under construction. As demand increases for coal to feed its rapidly growing energy needs, more and more coal-fired power projects will be coming up. Domestic coal availability would be a constraint and coal imports are expected to rise from about 90 million tonnes at present to over 200 million tonne by 2016-’17. Not surprisingly, the Indian power industry will be relying heavily on imported coal for decades to come. At the same time, India’s steel industry — another big consumer of metallurgical coal — is forecast to triple its output within a decade. One of the greatest challenges to heavy-haul rail in India will, therefore, be to keep pace with the rising demand.
Indian Railways have so far been using the same infrastructure to carry both goods and passengers traffic. This is expected to undergo a significant change after the Dedicated Freight Corridors (DFCs) become operational. These corridors have been planned with the capability of carrying 32.5 tonnes axle load wagons in train formations of over 100 wagons and hauled by multiple units of modern freight locomotives at speeds of 100 kmph. The eastern corridor will be handling substantial volumes of coal, iron and steel, and can, therefore, provide an ideal set-up for running heavy-haul trains.
With the axle load on its freight cars having already been revised to 22.9 tonnes, the Indian Railways is now bracing itself for increasing the axle-load to 25 tonnes. The economics of heavy axle loads, particularly for the transport of high-volume, high-density commodities have been well established in countries like the USA, Australia, South Africa and China. Experience of heavy-haul railways in these countries can, therefore, provide valuable lessons to the Indian Railways, which is constantly on the lookout for newer technologies that can be inducted into the system, helping it in cutting down costs and improving its profitability.
Heavy-haul running may call for substantial initial investments for upgrading tracks, rolling stock, and maintenance facilities, but these can be more than compensated by the operational economies to be achieved in the long run. This has also been endorsed by the Expert Group for Modernisation of Indian Railways, which has, inter alia, recommended acquisition of 4,000 heavy-haul bogies, citing several benefits such as lower maintenance costs, capacity enhancement, improved asset utilisation and increased productivity.