November 15, 2017

Indian Railways seeks operational efficiencies through digitalisation

Written by  Abhay Sharma
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With India’s railway network suffering from overcapacity, the railway is exploring methods to improve efficiency, as Abhay Sharma, with Indian Railways Traffic Service (IRTS), explains.

INDIAN Railways (IR) is the lifeline of the national economy, transporting 1.1 billion tonnes and 654.5 billion net tonne-km of freight and 8.1 billion passengers and 1143 billion passenger-km in 2015-16. With such a primary place in the economic and social fabric of India, IR is expected to perform exceptionally to enable the economy to grow rapidly. But to achieve this, it is necessary to reform the railway.

IRTSThere has been a renewed focus on the railway in the past two years with heavy investment and organisational reforms being proposed and implemented at a rapid pace. Innovation is being encouraged like never before, with the Rail Vikas Shivir boot camp and innovation challenges exhorting employees and customers to contribute with zeal to the herculean task.

The response has been stellar. The government committee headed by economist Mr Bibek Debroy suggested far-reaching structural reforms by introducing concepts like stations as profit-centres and merging different services. Such changes are being introduced, but implementing them is difficult and will take time.

On the other hand, there are many reforms regarding the way the railway works which can be introduced quickly and easily, which will significantly improve operations and customer experience.

Currently a set of train controllers monitor and decide train movements within each railway division. They monitor the trains in the form of a dot on a time-distance graph, with their movement depicted as a straight line between two stations along the distance axis. At the same time, they feed in the train arrival-departure times at each station to plot the graph. It is an extremely stressful job and most controllers work either six or at the most eight-hour shifts. They work under tremendous pressure to ensure train punctuality, and they have to plan and grant maintenance possessions. At times, such stress causes controllers to feed in train times incorrectly or miss them entirely. A well-planned maintenance possession or a meet with another train at a passing loop may go awry, thereby threatening punctuality leading to passenger inconvenience and complaints. In addition, if the correct position of the train is not reflected on the train graph, it may further hamper planning and monitoring.

Therefore, it is essential that train controllers are relieved of this responsibility, allowing them to focus purely on train movements and planning. The process needs to be automated, but how?

Presently the system of noting train timings is repetitious. Guards and drivers enter train timings in their rough journals. They also record extra detention in a separate guard troll page and hand it over to the station masters en route. This troll is also relayed to the control room wherever it is required to enter timings and the reasons for delays to trains. Each station notes the timings of passing trains in a train signal register (TSR), and relays them to the control room which then feeds them into the control office application (COA) system.

This repetition and waste of manpower could be reduced by providing the guard with a smart tablet or small laptop with pre-loaded software for him to log in and then feed in the train timings online. These timings will automatically display at each station (automatic TSR feeding) and the control room where similar software will be installed. Manual modification of timings would be allowed at control rooms for a specific time period with a mandatory column available to state the reasons for any change.

A further improvement would be to install GPS devices on trains. These would not need to be expensive as the same simple smart tablet given to train staff could do the job satisfactorily. This would eliminate system misinformation, improve user experience and enable better monitoring and planning of operations.

If the accuracy of train location is a concern, data loggers with track circuits could be used to pick up train timings based on the position of the locomotive’s wheels. The system is already in place at some stations, but a problem was encountered. If COA picked up timings from the data logger, it could show a train losing punctuality even by five minutes, which is the time a train might take to navigate a long yard even though it departed on time. This can be rectified by telling the system that delays of up to 10 minutes can be considered as right-time. Since track circuits cannot identify which train is standing on a particular section of line, an RFID system could be used to automatically identify each train on each line, or a COA terminal provided at stations to allow station masters to feed in the train number (timings will be automatic). In this way, both TSR and COA inputs will be automated.

Train crew

Another issue relating to train operations concerns how train crew are booked on for duty. Currently train drivers and guards book in at train lobbies. The control room advises the lobby of the expected arrival and departure of a train and asks for the crew to be allocated based on their availability according to the rest rules. Crew are given sufficient time to prepare, then go to the lobby, exhale into the alcohol detector, and sign on. The system only allows them to resume duty if they are not intoxicated. Then they collect all the necessary documents and board the train.

The process in the lobby takes around 15 minutes. Add to this time taken to travel to and from the lobby, and the total time may increase to 30-45 minutes.

Few problems are faced with mail or express trains, but with freight trains the time between sign on and actual manning of the train can extend to 30 minutes. Sometimes manual intervention occurs where some staff are favoured over others.

The system should be automated so that the software automatically identifies the crew member to be booked in based on the operating rules. An automatic message, which would be recorded, would be sent to the staff concerned giving details about their impending duty roster. The crew member would then go to the lobby, be identified by fingerprint and conduct the alcohol detection test. The system would automatically identify who has touched the sensor and match this with the train booked by the system. The GPS-enabled tablet given to the crew will activate automatically and start tracing the movement of the staff. The moment the crew member finishes fingerprint verification, he or she would start moving towards the train. This will eliminate instances of staff taking too long to man a train after signing on.

The same tablet will work as a rough journal for the guard and all caution orders will appear automatically, eliminating the delivery of emergency caution orders at stations.

In the current system, whenever a freight train is forecast to reach a crew-changing point later than expected, to prevent delays, the train crew are informed by phone about the change of plan and asked to prepare for the revised departure time. As staff are called for duty just before the arrival of the train, there is scope for error and staff are either not informed on time or they claim that no such instructions were issued. At times, there is no proof whether the call was made or, if it was, whether it was answered positively or not.

Automation of the system will eliminate this grey area and ensure that staff are informed every time there is a change of plan and that they sign on at the revised time. The phone call can be recorded. This will significantly reduce pre-departure detention of crew.

These small reforms do not require any heavy investment in technology. All the resources and technologies required for implementing them are already available, and Cris, the IT arm of IR, is suitably equipped to bring these ideas to fruition. Some pilots for similar initiatives are already on the cards.

Similar modernisation of IT in other spheres of railway working will go a long way to streamline day-to-day working and give IR the semblance of a world-class, technology-driven organisation. The next thing IR needs to explore is the internet of things (IoT) and data analytics.

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