Indian railways moves 24 million passengers every day - a shade less than the population of Australia - on 13,000 trains, around 67,956 kilometres across the sub-continent. Add to that another 3.3 million tonnes of freight - 1,200 million tonnes during 2020/21 - daily, and the fuel needs are immense. As a result, the carbon footprint of the Indian Railways is mammoth. According to the railway ministry, the national transporter consumed 115.45 lakh kilo litres of high-speed diesel between 2014/15 and 2018/19. But, change is happening and that too rapidly.
In 2019/20, 43 per cent of passenger traffic was hauled by diesel locomotives, and 57 per cent by electric traction. That's a sharp change from 2000/01 when diesel locomotives handled 56.1 per cent of passenger traffic and electric traction was much lower at 43.9 per cent. In freight, electric traction accounted for 64.7 per cent of the traffic in 2019/20 against 56.5 per cent in 2000/01. Diesel has fallen from 43.5 per cent to 35.3 per cent during the period.
Things are expected to alter dramatically over the next 10 years. In August 2020, Railway Minister Piyush Goyal tweeted that "by 2030, we will be a net-zero railway, our carbon emission will be zero? Ours will be the first railways of this scale to go green".
The Indian Railways has massive plans to achieve this goal. One significant pillar of the plan is to achieve 100 per cent electrification of the network by December 2023. By then, it will be the world's largest 100 per cent electrified rail transport system. The second pillar is using solar power to meet its electricity needs and having an environment-compliant infrastructure along with a microlevel cleanliness drive. A top railway ministry official told Business Today requesting anonymity, "The idea is to make the national transporter a role model in eco-friendly and sustainable green development."
In 2019/20, the railways consumed about 18,410 mega units (MUs) for traction and 2,338 MUs for non-traction uses. It has already electrified over 70 per cent of its broad guage network. As on 31 March this year, 45,881 route kilometres (RKM) have been electrified. Over the last four fiscals, Indian Railways has been on an overdrive as far as electrifying the network is concerned. In 2020/21, a record 6,015 km was electrified despite disruptions caused due to the pandemic. In FY18, it electrified 4,087 km followed by 5,276 km in FY19 and 4,378 km in FY20.
In a written reply to a question in the Rajya Sabha in February, Goyal said railway electrification projects costing Rs 20,260 crore have been sanctioned during the last three years.
Electrification provides a two-pronged advantage. While, it will help the railways reduce its greenhouse gas emission and improve upon its carbon footprint, it will also reduce the import of fossil fuel and help railways save on fuel bills. According to the Ministry of Railways, electrification will lead to reduced carbon footprint as environmental cost per kilometre for electric traction is 1.5 paise against 5.1 paise for diesel traction. "The total shift to electric traction will reduce the carbon dioxide emissions of the Indian Railways by 24 per cent till 2027/28," the official added.
Explaining the cost benefit, the official said: "As of now, about two-thirds of freight traffic and more than half of passenger traffic is hauled on electric traction, which accounts for just 37 per cent of the total energy cost of the railways. With this, Indian Railways may save Rs 13,510 crore per annum in fuel bill after electrification."
With electrification projects, railways stands to gain on maintenance cost of its locomotives. The cost of maintaining electric locomotives is almost half that of maintaining diesel locomotives.
Beginning 2019, the Indian Railways decided to use a new technology - Head on Generation (HoG) - for power supply to passenger coaches, which till then was drawn from power generator cars attached at the front and rear of the train. Under HoG technology, power is drawn from the overhead electric power supply. According to railways' own estimates, the use of HoG technology will prevent release of 1724.6 tons of CO2 per annum.
The second significant pillar of the Indian Railways net zero carbon plan by 2030 revolves around the usage of solar energy. In July 2020, during the pandemic, the railways set up a 1.7-MW solar power plant in Bina, MP. However, the project set up in collaboration with state-owned Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd (BHEL) is unique not just to India, but the entire world. It is the first solar energy plant to directly power railway overhead lines from which locomotives draw their traction power. In simple words, it brought about the use of solar energy to run trains. A railway official close to the development said the plant is running satisfactorily.
The Bina project along with some others are among railways experimental projects. It has its eyes set on a big target. According to plans, Indian Railways plans to harness solar energy for its energy consumption needs of about 33 billion units by 2030. Going forward, it will set up 20-GW solar power capacity on the vacant land it has by 2030.
"Railways is committed to utilise solar energy for meeting its traction power requirements and become a complete green mode of transportation. It has been decided to instal solar power plants on its vacant unused lands on mega scale," says a press release from the railway ministry. The ministry has commissioned a 2.5-MW solar project at Diwana (Haryana) with state transmission unit (STU) connectivity, which is also working with full capacity.
Construction work has begun in Bhilai (Chhattisgarh) for a third pilot with 50-MW capacity. This project will have connectivity at compact tracking unit (CTU) level and solar power can be wheeled to traction substations in Indian states other than Chhattisgarh where the plant is located. The 50-MW power generated from the plant will be used for running trains. There will be no interstate transmission charges for this plant.
The railway ministry believes all these pilot projects will build confidence of solar power developers to help Indian Railways accelerate mission net zero carbon emission 2030. For CTU-connected railway load, the power cost will be equivalent to the cost of solar power, which is about Rs 2.90 per kwh fixed for a period of 25 years.
Meanwhile, the ministry has already installed solar panels at more than 960 stations and is using solar power to meet the energy needs of railway stations. Additionally, bids have been placed for 198-MW solar power at rooftops of 550 railway stations.
Railway officials contend setting up of solar plants on the railway land is a Rs 1,50,000- crore opportunity for the private sector. To incentivise the private sector to come forward for the project, the ministry has made provisions for Letter of Credit (LC) in case of payment default by railways, and has incorporated penalty for delayed payment in the model bidding document for solar power developers.
Provision for revolving Reserve Bank of Indias (RBIs) Letter of Mandate as payment security for two months' energy charges similar to LCs in other imilar solar power tenders has been made. The revolving Letter of Mandate will have a term of 12 months covering average two months tariff payments in the first year. For each subsequent 12 months, coverage will be equal to 1.25 times the average two month's tariff payments billing of the preceding 12-month period.
The model bid document has also hard wired a delayed payment penalty clause liable to be paid by the Indian Railways. "To shield bidders from delayed payments, clause of delayed payment penalty on Railways, calculated at a rate equal to Marginal Cost of funds based Lending Rate (MCLR) + 2 per cent on the amounts payable, has been incorporated in the bid documents. These payment security mechanisms are expected to help in generating confidence in developers and to attract bidders for participating in bids," said the railway ministry.
The road ahead for India's national transporter is not easy. But, if it manages to achieve what it has set out to do, that would do wonders for Indian transportation. Also, once the dedicated freight corridor is operational, it would reduce the carbon footprint for moving goods across India. It's still early days, but there is hope in the air.
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