New Delhi: A year after the railways signed an agreement with the public sector company RailTel Enterprises (REL) for a Rs 1,500 crore pilot project to overhaul India’s signalling systems with European technology, the ministry has decided to only implement indigenous technology across the country.
The railways’ push for Atmanirbhar Bharat comes just as RailTel is set to close the tenders, raising questions about the need for a multi-crore pilot project the transporter doesn’t want to implement at a larger scale.
In June 2019, the Ministry of Railways and REL signed an MoU for a pilot project aimed at modernising India’s antiquated signalling system on four sections on a trial basis. The four sections chosen were a 165-km stretch on the Renigunta-Yerraguntla section of South Central Railway, 145 km on the Vizianagaram-Palasa section of East Coast Railway, 155 km on the Jhansi-Bina section of North Central Railway, and 175 km on Nagpur-Badnera section of Central Railway.
REL is a wholly-owned subsidiary of RailTel Corporation of India Limited, a PSU under the Indian Railways.
RailTel subsequently opened up the tender for the signalling project, seeking the European Train Control System Level 2 (ETCS L2) — a signalling technology employed in Europe. Speaking to ThePrint, RailTel Corporate Communication Executive Sucharita Pradhan said they are set to finalise a company for the project in a month.
Companies like Bombardier, Hitachi, Siemens, etc are learnt to be in the fray for this tender, with the price estimate ranging between Rs 1,000 crore and Rs 1,500 crore.
‘Indigenous technology only’
However, in the backdrop of Prime Minister Modi’s push for his Atmanirbhar Bharat mission, the railways has gone ahead and taken an “in principle” decision to only use indigenous technology for signalling upgradation across the country, Railways spokesperson D.J. Narain said.
“In principle, in future, we are proceeding with TCAS (Train Collision Avoidance System — an indigenous technology for signal upgrade). As far as the ETCS is concerned, RailTel will take the final decision keeping in view all factors,” he added in a text interview.
Referring to the tender opened by RailTel, Narain said, “It was for a pilot project and opened last year, when we were thinking of conducting a pilot and then to go in for ETCS L2 on 160-kmph-very-busy route (very limited route km) and TCAS for all other routes. After PM’s call for Atmanirbhar Bharat last month, we have decided to go in for TCAS only.”
The MoU signed between Railtel and the ministry last year stated, “Once this pilot project is implemented successfully, Indian Railways proposes to implement the same on important high density routes of the network.”
When asked what the point of the Rs 1,500 crore pilot project was if the railways has made up its mind to implement TCAS, Narain did not reply.
Meanwhile, REL’s Pradhan said the company will go ahead with finalising its ETCS-based tender, and examine how the technology fares before implementing it elsewhere. “Railway would be implementing TCAS on its own, RailTel is going ahead with the tender based on ECTS Level 2,” Pradhan said.
Sources told ThePrint that the difference in costs for ETCS L2 and TCAS is over 10 times — while the former is believed to entail a cost of Rs 3.2 crore per km, it is Rs 30 lakh per km for the latter.
The price is an issue raised by PM Modi himself in 2018, when he reportedly cited the cost factor to turn down the railways’ plan to implement ETCS L2 technology across the network.
The PM had also raised concerns about an “alien European technology” being implemented across the country without any testing in Indian conditions. He reportedly said that extensive trials in a section with heavy traffic density should be conducted first, and a call then be taken depending on their success.
‘Fully committed to Atmanirbhar Bharat’
Like the ETCS, TCAS is an automatic train protection (ATP) system. It has been developed indigenously by the railways’ Research Design and Standards Organisation (RDSO) in association with Indian Vendors, Narain said.
He added that the “Indian Railways is going full steam ahead with TCAS”. “Indian Railways is also fully committed to Atmanirbhar Bharat Mission,” he said.
“Indian Railways has taken up further development of this indigenously developed TCAS to have similar features like European technology. The features identified for upgradation of TCAS shall make it suitable to work in all signalling territory (absolute and automatic), at speed of up to 160 kmph, incorporation of remote introduction of temporary speed restrictions, and interfacing features with other signalling systems,” he added.
“Since… TCAS is yet to undergo full operational deployment, extensive trials have been undertaken,” he said.
Based on this, bigger sections of tracks would be taken up, the spokesperson added.
The railways ministry also said that more than 26,000 km of tracks are in the process of being brought under TCAS, and the tender floated by RailTel is a pilot project not yet finalised.
In a response emailed to the ThePrint after this report was published, a RailTel spokesperson said the “tender for ETCS is still under evaluation and the final decision whether to go ahead with ETCS or not will be taken by the Ministry of Railways”.