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Know your Railways: Why our trains are perennially late

In the first article in this series, I tried to explain why Indian trains are still running 1955 technologies on our tracks. In the current article, I will focus on why Indian trains are eternally late.

If I have to list down the number of reasons, in no particular order,  it will look like below

  • Slow trains
  • Mindless populism by netas 
  • Dated signalling system
  • Ageing tracks 
  • Lack of enough tracks

But probably the last point contributes more towards trains running late than the first 4 combined. We will discuss how but let’s start with slow trains.

Slow Trains and More Stoppages

Our trains are not designed for faster acceleration or deceleration. As a result, a lot of time is wasted in stopping or starting the train and bringing it upto speed. One of the major reason for this is, all our long distance trains are conventional loco hauled trains which pull anything between 12-24 coaches and they are all unpowered. The age old self generating heavy battery mounted ICF coaches not helping the cause either. ICF coaches are at least 10 tonnes heavier than their LHB counterparts if we consider AC coaches.

Majority of the world has moved to EMU trainsets where multiple coaches have powered axles providing a faster acceleration but as it is with all of our public utility, no incentive or no passion has left our railways still running 50’s tech where a single locomotive at the front of the rake has to do all the pulling. This is not only inefficient but outdated as well. Mindless addition of non revenue earning stations by netas to massage their egos have left our trains as “super fasts” for the namesake only.

More the number of scheduled stoppages, more is the time wasted in braking and acceleration, not to count the numerous unscheduled halts. IR, at some point of time has to ditch its conventional design and switch to EMU train sets with at least 50% axles powered. That alone will do wonders to the average speed.

18477 Utkal Express being hauled by a Tuglakabad shed WAP7 loco

Dated Signalling System

We are following a very dated signalling system called Fixed Block Signalling System, where trains operate in blocks, having block length varying anywhere between 1 KM – 20 KM.The blocks work on a principle of interlocking where only one train is allowed on a block. A block will be marked by 2 or more signal poles. As a train crosses the 1st signal, it automatically turns red preventing any following train to enter that block. (You can actually see this when your train crosses a signal). This will turn green, only when the train crosses the next signal freeing up that block. Moreover, these signals solely rely on driver’s vision. If you recall trains getting late during fog season in North India, that explains it.

There have been talks of getting in cab signalling which is the de facto signalling system in Europe to India. Also the state-of-art Communication Based Train Control (CBTC) where trains can directly talk to each other. These will allow to put more trains on the existing track and allow them to run at an optimum speed while maintaining a safe braking distance. CBTC alone can add 1000 more suburban trains on Mumbai’s crowded lines, imagine what it can do to the bigger network.

A representative image of Signals used by IR, Image Courtesy IRFCA

Ageing Tracks

Ageing tracks, geography (Ghat sections, old bridges), unavailability of long stretches of straight tracks, curves, temporary speed restrictions for repairs and overhauls, level crossings add to the endless list of woes of the railways. And these are frequent in a populous country like India.

How many times you have seen your train cruising and suddenly dropping its speed for some time before speeding up again. It must be because of one of the above reason or even beyond that. But root cause would be a speed restriction, either temporary or permanent erected in that section causing the train to slow down. Not only that, most of our tracks are not strong enough to support 100+ KMPH speed. And these affect the overall average speed of the train.

Tracks at the Rourkela station

Not Enough Track

Now let’s discuss the main issue plaguing the Indian Railways unpunctuality. Going to be a bit lengthy, so bear with me please. We simply don’t have enough tracks for the number of trains to run on them. But hey, most of our main lines are already double lines or being doubled, right? Not enough. The root problem is, in India, we use the same track to run Rajdhanis, Superfasts, Expresses, Passenger trains, Intercities and freight trains.

Didn’t understand? If you have seen the Mumbai suburban section, you will probably have an idea of what I am talking about.Take the western line for example. They run 2 different services. Fast passenger and Slow. And they have dedicated lines for each of these services. Consider a slow train starts from Andheri, and a fast train follows. The slow train has to stop at the next station i.e. Jogeshwari while the fast train can skip 4 stations and directly stop at Borivali.

Now, imagine there is only one down line like most of our IR network. The fast train has to wait before Jogeshwari even if it doesn’t have a scheduled halt there. Now once the slow train starts again, it will have to be put on a loop somewhere between Jogeshwari and Goregaon to allow the fast train to pass. Now both trains are running behind schedule. Imagine another slow train between Goregaon and Kandivali and compound the problem.

Add freight trains, long distance trains, Rajdhanis, Shatabdis (Which have higher precedence) to this equation. But this doesn’t happen in Mumbai, right? Because they have dedicated tracks for different types of services. So nobody has to wait for another train to pass. Each can maintain their own schedule at their own pace on their own track. However, this is not true for pan India. Plus there are single lines, loco changes, loco reversals adding to the woes. 

Rajdhani barrels past the slow crawling Mumbai local at Goregaon

Consider the infamous Bermuda triangle of Indian railways i.e the Allahabad – Kanpur – Varanasi – Mughalsarai sections. Almost ~500 trains pass through these sections everyday, most of them being freight. This is one train every 3 minutes. There are times, where all loops in a station are taken by freight trains only. Imagine the traffic the section controllers have to handle on these sections everyday with outdated signalling system while trying to maintain timeliness of every train.

As I said, doubling of track in these kind of sections is not going to solve anything. Not even 3 lines. They probably need quadrupling along with dedicated tracks for freight. Of course, the Eastern Dedicated Freight Corridor (EDFC) running from Ludhiana – Dadri – Dankuni (Kolkata) will provide some relief. It travels via MGS-ALD section as well and will take off freight traffic from passenger lines.

Under construction Eastern Dedicated Freight Corridor

These plethora of reasons are enough to mess up all scheduling of trains beyond the the control of section controllers. Surprisingly, some of these factors are already factored into our time table known as “Slack timing”. This is IR officially saying that, there are reasons beyond our control for which trains will run slow or will have to stop. So we have to assign more time to cover the distance between station X and Y. This margin is given to trains to make up for the lost time for one of the above reasons. You can take any non-premier train time table, look at the distance covered between 2 stations and time taken to figure this out.

Take the Puri-NDLS Nilachal SF Express for example. As per its scheduled time table, it is given 2 hours to travel from Bhubaneswar to Bhadrak, a distance of nearly 150 KMs. So 75 KMPH average speed with 2 stations in between.

Now let’s apply the same parameters to a busy section like MGS-Varanasi. In the same time i.e. 2 hours, it is scheduled to run only 60 KMs. Now remember, this is a super fast express, so the schedule must have prepared giving it a higher precedence than a lot of other express and passenger trains, freight trains apart. Imagine the plight of ‘normal’ trains on this stretch which is already Fully Electric Double Line (FEDL). And this is just one example. There are many such smaller Bermuda triangles that exists, and despite it, if your train still reaches on time, you must thank your section controllers and loco pilot.

Now, in for a surprise. Our locos and rolling stock are already capable of doing 100+. We don’t need to import fancy EMU train sets for this. Take the new Agra Gatimaan express for example. It travels from NZM to Agra, a distance of 188 KMs in 1 hour and 30 minutes. An average speed of 125 KMPH. Pretty impressive, isn’t it? Did we upgrade the machinery for this? No. It’s our present rolling stock which is already capable enough. What we have done is to free up track and give it highest precedence over all other trains. 

Conclusion

As you can see, trains and punctuality is a complex mixture of lot of issues. The above example proves that if we don’t have to stop our trains for technical reasons and it only stops at its designated stops, with current rolling stocks, we can achieve 100+ average speed. And what do we need to achieve this? Free up tracks, add more tracks, strengthen existing tracks, don’t announce mindless new trains and upgrade our instruments. The current dispensation seems to be moving in the right direction by not allowing new train announcements in budget, capacity addition being one of the forefront agenda and revised DFC targets from 2021 to 2019 which will segregate freight traffic from passenger traffic. 

Up next, why we need High Speed Railways, Bullet train as they call it and why it can’t wait.

Also read the other two articles in the “Know Your Railways” series:

Part 1: Know your Railways – Rolling Stock and Coaches

Part 3: Know Your Railways – High Speed Rail and why India needs it to progress

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