India's railways transport 18 million people and more than two million tonnes of freight per day but, with an ever growing population it is stretched to breaking point.
However, talks of a dedicated freight corridor, high-speed bullet trains and international tenders are bringing hope to a transport system in desperate need of attention.
A steady modernisation programme has been overseen by Lalu Prasad, the railway minister, for the past few years. However, some question how Prasad and his ministry, Indian Railways (IR), is managing to finance this programme of increasing capacity while keeping fare prices down.
Prasad claims to have achieved a cash surplus of $11bn in the finances of the railways which will allow for some funding of upgrades. Other inward investment will come from tenders and in the case of the Mumbai suburban railway upgrade, the World Bank.
"IR announced its intention of developing a dedicated freight corridor on key freight routes across India, entailing an investment of Rs66,000 crore ($13bn)," says Manish R Sharma, director, KPMG Advisory Services in India. "The current thinking suggests that development of various corridors under this project scheme will entail private participation in development of infrastructure through a special purpose vehicle. This will be a joint venture with equity participation from Indian Railways as well as private sector participants.
"The lines between Mumbai Delhi and Delhi Kolkata are the first off the block and project preparatory works have already started. Besides private sector funding, there is also report of IR reaching out to multilateral agencies like Japan Bank for International Cooperation for extending funding support to the project."
In addition, Sharma says that there are ongoing schemes like the National Rail Vikas Yojana (NRVY), announced in August 2002, with a total estimated investment of $3.75bn. "Under the present funding plan for NRVY, the Government of India will provide budgetary funds as equity of $750m, including $375m of Asian Development Bank funding, for the Golden Quadrilateral projects," he says. "The balance, $3bn, for other projects is expected to be mobilised through the market which may include build-operate-transfer schemes, domestic borrowings and special purpose vehicles"
Prasad also aims to use the railway's substantial land bank of more than 45, 000ha to raise funds. There is even early talk of the feasibility of having high-speed bullet trains on the main routes. Prasad has also stated that investment in these projects will result in world-class facilities at metro stations, setting up state-of-the-art rolling stock production units and construction of multi-modal logistics parks.
Prasad is seeking to award international tenders for developing New Delhi, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, Mumbai, Patna and Secunderabad railway stations to international standards with investment of nearly Rs15bn on these stations.
In February 2008 Prasad announced that PPP partners would be selected for setting up diesel loco, electric loco and a rail coach factory at an estimated cost of Rs40bn. It is also expected that container trains, a container depot and a multi-modal logistics park will attract investment of Rs20bn.
At the time 35 construction firms expressed an interest in tendering for the modernisation of New Delhi station, due to begin in 2009. They included Reliance Energy, GMR, GVK, DLF and Videocon Industries. The project will cost Rs50bn and cover an area of 85 acres. The government is keen to complete the façade of the station in time for the Commonwealth Games in 2010, but after five months of deliberation they called for fresh tenders in October 2008.
The consultants who have designed the modernisation project are Terry Farrell and Partners, a Hong Kong-based architectural firm. Four new platforms will aim to ease congestion with separate levels for arrivals and departures and escalators connecting the levels.
"Information systems are seen as another key area where investment could help improve the available capacity," says Sharma. Prasad aims to procure Rs10bn worth of IT hardware and software over the next four years. These will include handheld computers for ticket inspectors, building cyber cafes at stations and digitising the signalling system. A further priority is developing a commercial portal integrating more than 50 different existing websites, which will link the entire computerised reservation system and track passenger as well as freight trains.
Due to the risk of collisions, Prasad is keen to use more modern technology to help rule out human and mechanical error.
He has previously stated that one area of risk is defects in the wheels and so plans to install acoustic bearing detectors which give out early warning signals.
Having wheel impact load detectors at important locations for in-motion monitoring of rolling stock is one method of protecting both train and track. In total, Prasad plans to invest Rs2.5bn on 65 instruments to oversee this area.
Automatic ultrasonic rail testing cars, bridge testing equipment and track monitoring cars will also be put in place at a cost of Rs1.4bn under a comprehensive plan during the next five years. This scheme will include the provision of 26 automatic safety devices such as anti-collision devices, end-of-train telemeters, digital ultrasonic flaw-detecting machines, and track monitoring cars, all to strengthen rail safety.
Although these measures are principally being introduced to ensure safer journeys, the added reliability of stock should also lead to easing congestion. But as well as improving existing systems, adding to the facilities on offer is also a big priority.
"As far as New Delhi is concerned, the city's commuter figures have risen to almost one million," says Balen Nair, resident director, Thales Transportation Systems India. "There are about 65 stations in operation and after Phase 2 completion in June 2010, in time for the Commonwealth Games that October, it will reach about 140 stations. In addition, many other metro rail systems are planned on a build-operate-transfer basis such as Hyderabad Metro, Mumbai Metro Line 1 & 2 and Delhi Airport Line. All these initiatives over the coming years will help ease congestion for India's population, ensuring the country's progress of innovation."
Sharma agrees that congestion should be eased in the coming years. "IR is increasingly looking to use new technologies, to increase the available capacity on the network, and hence reduce congestion," he adds. "This includes increasing capacity on existing lines and ensuring optimal utilisation of new track infrastructure. Investments are planned in technology, across the key areas of locomotives, signalling and information systems to enhance capacity.
"On the locomotives front, IR has recently shortlisted companies for the long-term supply of high-horse power diesel and electric locomotives. These locomotives will help increase capacity, through increased speed, particularly on dedicated freight lines and increased haulage capacity enabling increased train length and the use of double-stack container trains."
IR also plans to enhance capacity and improve efficiency on existing locomotives, through key measures such as the deployment of intelligent power module-based control systems, Locotrol technology and fuel management systems for diesel locomotives.