March 06, 2013

Giving freight space to grow

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Construction will step up this month on the Eastern Dedicated Freight Corridor as India finally presses ahead with its ambitious plans to develop separate freight infrastructure on its busiest rail routes.

Kevin Smith reports from Delhi on Indian Railways' short-term plans for the Eastern and Western DFCs and its long-term vision for its railfreight network.

INDIA's railway network is famous the world over for images of overcrowded trains and chaotic scenes at stations as thousands of people battle to board the right train, luggage and all.

Approximately 8.2 billion people use the country's railway network every year, which is more than the entire population of the planet, with 3.3 billion journeys alone taking place on the country's golden quadrilateral between Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Howrah.

With the network already choked, and demand for the train expected to grow by 44% to 11.7 billion passengers by 2016, only limited capacity is available for railfreight, which is currently carrying 969 million tonnes of freight per year, and like passenger operations, is experiencing growing demand as India's economy develops.

In 2005 India's then minister of railways Mr Lalu Prasad told parliament as part of that year's railway budget announcement that the ministry was considering the concept of building dedicated freight corridors (DFCs). These new lines would remove existing freight traffic from main lines, freeing up capacity for passenger operations while providing substantial scope for railfreight growth on new infrastructure.

Mr Girish Pillai, infrastructure adviser to Indian Railway's (IR) board, who presented the railway's DFC plans to the International Heavy Haul Association conference in Delhi last month, told IRJ that only dedicated freight corridors can solve IR's railfreight capacity problems.

"By building dedicated freight corridors we will provide ourselves with a lot more flexibility than if we were to build new dedicated passenger lines," Pillai says. "The purpose of the project is to add freight capacity to our network because at present 60% of available capacity is taken up by passenger trains."

India-dfcPillai says that IR considered, but soon rejected the idea of building dedicated passenger infrastructure and using the existing lines solely for freight because it would not provide the capacity required.

"A 250km/h train would not stop at all the intermediate stations on the route so we would end up running both high-speed trains on the new lines and local stopping trains on the old because of our social commitments to the Indian people," he says. "This would clearly not solve our railfreight capacity problem."

Compromises

Since its announcement to the public, the project has sauntered along, and has had to overcome various squabbles over funding after the price tag ballooned from an initial overall estimate of Rs 420bn ($US 7.9bn). The budget is now set at Rs 960bn following several compromises on the scope of the project such as reducing the number of passing loops on single track sections of the Eastern DFC.

Pillai says that the design as it stands has more than enough capacity to meet expectations. However, some analysts argue the restrictions introduced by IR have deterred foreign investment in the projects with only the World Bank and the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) so far willing to provide support through soft loans. Similarly only a limited number of consortia have expressed an interest in bidding for the civil contracts.

Construction on the initial 122km section of Eastern DFC from Sonnagar to Mugalsarai began in 2009. And while a great deal of time has been seemingly lost, almost eight years after the projects were initially conceived, the next round of civil construction contracts for the 1839km project are finally being awarded by Dedicated Freight Corridor Corporation of India (DFCCI).

DFCCI was founded in 2006 as an Indian government undertaking under the Ministry of Railways and is responsible for planning and developing the DFC projects as well as mobilising financial resources and managing construction. It will also maintain and operate the corridors after they are built.

On January 25 DFCCI awarded a joint venture of Tata Projects India and Aldesa, Spain, the Rs 33bn contract to design and build the 343km Khurja - Kanpur section of the Eastern DFC after it beat off competition from 10 other bidders.

Construction will start by the end of this month and Pillai expects subsequent civil contracts for the remaining 1500km to be awarded later this year and in 2014.

The eastern corridor will be built for 32.5-tonne axleloads and 1500km-long trains which will operate at a maximum speed of 100km/h under 2x25kV electrification. The line will be double track, apart from a 426km single-track section from Ludhiana to Khurja, and will utilise an automatic signalling system with 2km block sections as well as an adaptation of Britain's Train Protection Warning System. Around 120 trains per day per direction are projected to use the line when it opens in 2017.

Funding of $US 975m for the 1183km Ludhiana - Mugalsarai section of the eastern corridor, which is estimated to cost $US 1.45bn to construct overall, was secured from the World Bank's International Bank for Reconstruction and Development division in May 2011. Equity funding is meeting the costs of the Mugalsarai - Sonnagar section, while a pilot PPP project will be set up to fund the 540km Sonnagar - Dankuni (Kolkata) section.

Western DFC

Pillai says that the 1483km Western DFC from Dadri southeast of Delhi to Jawaharlal Nehru Port in Mumbai is slightly behind the eastern project but that he expects the first civil contract for the initial 950km section from Rewari to Vadodara to be awarded within a year.

The western corridor, which will also be completed in 2017, parallels existing lines apart from 123km of new railway that will bypass Delhi from Rewari to Dadri. DFCCI invited bids for civil works packages 1 and 2 for phase 1 of the line in July 2011 and two consortia, both led by Japanese firms Mitsui and Sotitz, have been shortlisted for the contracts which are expected to be worth a combined Rs 100bn.

JICA is providing 100% of the funding for the project after it released a Rs 45bn 40-year soft loan for the first 950km phase of the Western DFC in March 2010, and a Rs 20bn similar loan arrangement for the second 552km phase was finally agreed in November 2012. The project is part of the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC) initiative between India and Japan which aims to develop the area into India's primary industrial belt by promoting exports and foreign investment, particularly from Japan, through Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor Corporation (DMICC).

Pillai says that private companies, which are currently constrained by the limited capacity on the existing network, are already preparing for the introduction of the DFCs. Indeed he says 12 development and industrial customers have already been earmarked by DMICC to set up new facilities in six industrial nodes adjacent to the western corridor which will range from 30-50km in size and will form the foundation of the new industrial spine. JICA also estimates that 250 Japanese companies in the region could benefit from the new corridor.

The Western DFC will be built to the same technical standards as the eastern corridor apart from having a contact wire height of 7.54m compared with 5.3m on the eastern route to accommodate 13,000-tonne double-stack container trains. JICA carried out the preliminary engineering studies for both the eastern and western routes and insisted on electrifying the lines due to the advantages of energy security and costs, maintenance costs, financial analysis and its environmental aspects.

This issue was initially a bone of contention with IR because it is the first time that a form of electric traction capable of accommodating double-stack containers would be used anywhere in the world and it required the development of a new type of pantograph to accommodate trains with a maximum moving height of 7.1m.

But following extensive studies which showed that the use of a high-reach pantograph was feasible in a range of conditions, the railway relented in order to secure the financing for the project.

While the soft loans are covering the construction costs of the Eastern and Western DFCs, IR is responsible for administration expenses, taxes and land acquisition.

Pillai admits this is substantial on a project of this scale and has resulted in the scheme taking a significant amount of time to get off the ground. "We needed to acquire 9701 hectares of land and this is now 90% complete overall, with all of the land required for the eastern corridor now purchased," he says.

Pillai says that the aim is for the lines to carry 100 million tonnes of freight each by 2030. However, the western corridor will have capacity to transport up to 144 million tonnes per year, while the eastern corridor will be able to transport 120 million tonnes. In addition to carrying general freight containers as well as steel, grain, cement, fertiliser and limestone, the eastern corridor it is expected to be a primary route for coal traffic to the power plants in northern and western India.

Many of the companies that will carry these commodities will require access to port infrastructure, and Pillai says that IR is working with the private sector to develop these facilities to accommodate the expected increase in railfreight traffic.

In addition to serving India's largest container terminal at Jawaharlal Nehru, the line will serve ports at Mundra, Kandla, Pipavav, Dahej, Hazira, Rewas and Dighi. Already many of these facilities have railway connections and he says that IR is encouraging investment in improvements. The Port Authorities are able to do this either as a private enterprise in which the company can receive earnings for traffic on those sections, or as a joint venture with IR.

IR's plans for dedicated freight corridors do not stop at the first two lines. Studies for four additional routes, the east-west Kolkata - Mumbai corridor, the north-south Delhi - Chennai corridor, the east coast Kharagpur - Vijayawada corridor, and the southern Chennai - Vasco da Gama corridor, are underway and Pillai expects these to be completed by the end of the year. However, he is cautious about how and when these projects will proceed.

"It is going to be real challenge to secure funding for the additional corridors because the amount of land required is going to be very substantial," Pillai says. "Our first priority is to get the first two corridors built and operational. This is going to take us up to 2018 so I do not expect to see any movement on these projects until after then."

The DFCs are clearly a key project in Indian Railways' efforts to modernise its network. Pillai says their development will help to ease the reliance on new technology to squeeze greater capacity out of an already saturated network. And while he is careful about talking about their potential for profitability, with a growing pool of private companies set to use the routes, there is clearly an opportunity to make money, which given the pressures surrounding IR's finances in recent years would be a welcome source of future revenues.

"Obviously this is a massive and very expensive project," Pillai says. "But once the corridors are completed we expect them to carry a lot of traffic. However, it is too early to say how profitable they will be."

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