THERE are many positives to be drawn from India’s Dedicated Freight Corridor (DFC) programme, where 2089km of the planned 2843km of new freight railway has now entered service.

The Eastern DFC is complete except for the 363km extension from Sonnagar to Andal, now under construction by Indian Railways (IR). On the Western DFC, funded by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica), work is making rapid progress on the 109km section connecting Vaitarna in Maharashtra state with Jawaharlal Nehru Port in Mumbai. This small but vital component of the Western DFC is due for completion in December.

A total of 62,277 trains have run since DFC operations began on December 12 2020, with total freight traffic amounting to over 71 billion gross tonne-km. On average, 240 trains are operating each day, and these numbers are expected to double by the end of this year.

As outlined in our table (below), future expansion plans are big. With trains operating at up to 100km/h, IR officials expect that the new dedicated infrastructure will help the national railway meet its target of increasing freight traffic from the present
1.5 billion to 3 billion tonnes a year by 2030. They also point out that the DFCs will save 457 million tonnes of CO2 emissions over 30 years.

So far, Rs 835bn ($US 10.13bn) of the total project expenditure of Rs 1.03 trillion has been spent on the two DFCs, excluding land costs. In some ways, the justification for this expenditure has already been proven, with the transit time from New Delhi to Mumbai reduced to 24-36 hours from around three times this figure before. The transit time for coal on the Eastern DFC has been cut from five days to only two.

This rosy picture is somewhat tarnished by the failure to resolve long-standing disputes between IR and the Dedicated Freight Corridor Corporation of India (DFCCI), the special-purpose vehicle created by IR to oversee the planning and development of the DFCs and fund construction through loans and other sources. DFCCI is also responsible for construction, maintenance and operation of the DFCs, but at present only has partial control over operations. Rolling stock is provided by IR, as well as drivers and guards, and training of future DFCCI traincrew.

One persistent problem has been a dispute over the track access charges that IR is required to pay to DFCCI. Under the track access agreement signed in February 2014, IR is required to pay fixed capital costs relating to depreciation and the cost of debt, as well as variable costs such as traction and operating expenditure. The track access agreement forms part of the concession agreement signed between IR and DFCCI, which says that the terms of the track access agreement would be reviewed following the introduction of a multiple-operator regime on the DFCs in the future.

The concession agreement also envisages the creation of a Rail Development Authority to act as regulator and provide dispute resolution. IR has refused to pay track access charges to DFCCI, arguing that it is currently the sole user of DFC infrastructure. With no track access income, DFCCI had to pay Rs 5.89bn in 2021 from equity funded by IR to the World Bank as debt repayment for the EFDC.

To resolve this impasse, minister of railways, Mr Ashwani Vaishnaw, is reported to have sought approval from the cabinet for his ministry to take over DFCCI.

This would not be a simple task, given that all contracts and loan agreements are in the name of DFCCI and approval would also be required from other ministries, including the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Law and Justice. “It is unlikely that Vaishnaw will be able to overcome such procedural problems,” says one former DFCCI official.

In recent years DFCCI officials have felt hamstrung because of what is described as IR’s stranglehold on the organisation. While the concession agreement is based on the principle that DFCCI should be commercially independent, IR has taken the dominant role, with funding from lenders such as Jica and the World Bank routed through the Ministry of Railways. At the same time, DFCCI revenue has remained entirely dependent on the traffic that IR routes via the DFCs. There are also issues with crew management. DFCCI complains that IR is not providing enough drivers, saying that those seconded to the DFCs are over-worked and that sometimes one crew has to work across two or three IR divisions.

There are also unresolved issues over the ability to operate double-stack container trains on the DFCs. Current policy allows double-stack container trains to operate on the Western DFC, where the overhead line is at a height of 7.1m above the track, while single-stack trains operate on the Eastern DFC where the height is 5.1m.

A feasibility study conducted by IR recommended operating double-stack container trains on the Sonnagar - Ludhiana section of Eastern DFC as well, but IR decided to adopt single-stack container movements on the Eastern DFC in line with a 2007 Jica report. A 2021 report produced by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, the country’s supreme audit institution, noted that adopting different train dimensions and clearance standards would restrict interoperability and the exchange of traffic between the Eastern and Western DFCs.

“This is a critical issue, as the next level of development depends on a uniform policy on train dimensions,” says former DFCCI official, Mr Prabhu Narain Shukla. “More clarity is needed on the rolling stock programme. New wagon designs will be required to increase freight volumes.”

“Bold decisions are required to be taken by the new federal government.”

With the new coalition government now sworn in, some are now calling for a dedicated railways budget to be presented to parliament, as was the case in the past.

Whatever the outcome, one thing seems clear: India’s minister of railways has a lot on his hands, but one key task will be to build on the recent progress made by the DFC programme.