New Delhi: The Narendra Modi government’s determination to push through with the “complete electrification” of the Indian Railways’ 69,182-route kilometre network within a compressed time frame of three years has triggered a serious departmental war that threatens to lead to time and cost overruns.
While the Union cabinet sanctioned the plan only in September last year, the idea of total electrification has been considered for a longer time.
In 2016, the second railways minister under Modi, Suresh Prabhu, announced a plan to electrify 90 per cent of existing broad gauge tracks by identifying 24,400 route kilometres for the period 2016-17 to 2020-21.
The following year, Prabhu’s successor Piyush Goyal expanded on the idea by pressing for 100 per cent electrification.
Modi govt’s electrification push so far
Official documents show that since 2014, when the NDA government came to power, 217 electrification projects consisting of 31,468 route kilometres have been sanctioned. The pace of electrification work has also been bumped up.
In 2013-14, the budgetary sanction was for a mere 610 route kilometres, but it went up each year — 1,176 km in 2014-15, 1,502 in 2015-16, 1,646 in 2016-17, 4,087 in 2017-18, and a record 5,276 km in 2018-19. Until March 2019, 35,488 route kilometres of the Indian Railways had been electrified.
Targets defined for the coming years are even steeper: 7,000 route kilometres in 2019-20; 10,500 km in 2020-21, and 10,500 km in 2021-22.
Between 2015-16 and 2017-18, a total of 91 projects were sanctioned to electrify 16,353 km at a cost of Rs 16,725 crore.
But all these plans have run into complications, thanks to the absence of a blueprint to execute them.
No plan for scrapped diesel locos
Midway through the project, Railway Board officials are seen grappling with a critical concern: How to monetise the massive number of diesel engines that will go out of service due to electrification.
Responding to a questionnaire from ThePrint, ministry spokesperson Shubha Gupta said by 31 March 2020, the zonal railways have been instructed to phase out 403 diesel locomotives that have reached 31 years of age. Of these, only 14 are providing main line service; the remaining have been deployed for shunting/departmental services, or been “grounded”.
The older variety of diesel locomotives in India — called ALCOs after their original American manufacturer — are designed to run for 36 years (called ‘codal life’), but sources say the government has reduced that to 31 years to fast forward the electrification plan. The ministry refused to confirm or deny this.
In all, approximately 1,000 diesel engines in full working condition are reported to have been “stabled” or grounded so far.
Official targets call for the stabling of 4,000 diesel locos in the next two years. According to an official note circulated after the second meeting of the ‘Parivartan Sangoshthi’ (introspection camp on rail reform) that took place in New Delhi on 7-8 December, the ministry has not yet evolved a policy on monetising the diesel engines that will get stabled.
In the past, diesel engines that have hit their ‘codal life’ have been routinely sold off as scrap, with 80 per cent of the parts being retained to use as spares for newer engines.
“But, given the determination of the government to push through the complete electrification plan in a compressed time frame, without having finalised a concrete plan to monetise the diesel assets, one confronts a situation when diesel engines in perfect running condition are being condemned to rust away and perish,” an official said.
If these engines are sold off as scrap, they would, at best, fetch between Rs 25-50 lakh each. On the other hand, the cost of refurbishing 4,000 diesel engines for possible export to Asian or African countries would work out to Rs 8,000 crore at the rate of Rs 2 crore per loco.
Officials said the refurbished engines would fetch a price of approximately Rs 5 crore each in the international market. But there is a catch: Just a few countries use the broad gauge diesel engines that are in operation in India, and the demand for such engines in the international market is rather low. In the last 20 years, India has managed to sell less than 1,000 such engines to countries such as Tanzania, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
“It is unlikely that India will find a bulk buyer for such a large number of diesel engines,” ministry sources said.
‘Dual mode’ fails to get on the rails
The railways had announced with much fanfare in 2016 that existing diesel locomotives will be converted to ‘dual mode’ engines that could run on both diesel and electric traction. The government had said with this technological breakthrough, scrapped diesel engines could also be put to use.
In the last three years, however, engineers at the Varanasi-based Diesel Locomotive Works have continued to struggle to build the first prototype. The dual mode engines have failed to clear the mandatory performance and safety tests from the Lucknow-headquartered Research Design and Standards Organisation (RDSO).
Even if they do clear the tests, dual mode engines will not come cheap — according to the ministry’s response to ThePrint, the estimated cost of each would be Rs 18 crore.
High cost of electrification
Meanwhile, the decision to abruptly remove 4,000 diesel engines from mainline operations will necessitate the manufacture/purchase of an equal number of electric engines. At an average cost of Rs 12 crore for each electric loco, the total cost will come to Rs 48,000 crore, plus the loss incurred on the diesel locos, which could end up being about half that figure.
This means that when the full electrification plan is completed, it will have cost the railways in excess of Rs 1 lakh crore — approximately Rs 50,000 crore to convert the 29,880 kilometres of un-electrified tracks, Rs 50,000 crore for electric locos, another Rs 5,000 crore to construct sheds to house these locos, and the additional cost of training loco pilots.
Given the precarious state of rail finances, rustling up the funds to execute the electrification plan seems a tall order. As highlighted in a recent report of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India, the railways’ operating ratio touched an alarming figure of 98.4 per cent during 2017-18 — meaning that it spent 98.4 paisa to earn every rupee.
No savings on fuel bills
There’s another aspect of this process that has left Railway Board officials scratching their heads: Despite diesel locos being stabled and new electric locos being introduced, the railways’ overall fuel consumption has either remained the same or even risen in the last few years.
Replying to a starred question in the Rajya Sabha on 26 July 2019, Railways Minister Goyal said 29.08 lakh kilolitres of high-speed diesel were consumed in 2014-15.
The corresponding figures for the next few years were: 29.33 lakh kilolitres in 2015-16, 28.58 lakh kilolitres in 2016-17 and 28.46 lakh in 2017-18. However, in 2018-19, the provisional consumption figures are estimated at 30.69 lakh kilolitres.
Sources say there is no clarity yet on why consumption has plateaued or risen despite the large-scale electrification and scrapping of diesel locos. They propound two theories, the first of which is that while old diesel engines have been scrapped on paper, those working on the main line continue to operate at the same level as before.
The other possibility is that while more routes have been electrified, these sections are not fully usable. An official said on the condition of anonymity that several lines have been electrified in patches, and thus still require diesel traction. The ministry did not comment on the matter.
Another point raised by a ministry official is the change in the procurement practice for locomotives. Earlier, engines were purchased based on freight and passenger traffic projections calculated by the Traffic Directorate, but under the current dispensation, the production of electric engines “is being inflated in a random manner”.
“One therefore has a situation when both diesel and electric engines are becoming surplus and are idling away,” the official said.
ThePrint had emailed a detailed second questionnaire to the ministry on 24 December 2019, seeking answers to all the issues raised above. But despite several reminders and phone calls, no response was received until the time of publication.