Railways should give equal importance to electric and diesel traction

The superiority claimed for electric traction is based on: faster speeds of electric locomotives, higher energy efficiency, pollution-free environment friendly operations, higher horse power providing higher load hauling capacity with consequential reduction in the number of locomotives required, better productivity, reliability in operations, economy in running costs, less manpower and maintenance requirement, and ability to generate energy through regenerative braking, and so on.
But studies have shown that all these claims are not correct or relevant to Indian conditions. Even on the basis of the not-too reliable figures, electric traction consumed 45 per cent more energy than diesel traction. The average speeds of goods trains hauled by diesel and electric locomotives are of the same order and have remained the same for the last quarter of a century.

In India, the maximum speed potential of all diesel and electric locos is the same, namely 140 kmph, except that of ABB passenger loco, which is 160 kmph. This is, however, of no consequence in Indian conditions because of the infrastructual constraints. Therefore, in practical terms it can be concluded that speed of trains is not traction-specific.

If we take into account the polluting effect of electricity generation from all sources, electric traction not only loses its advantage over diesel traction in the matter of pollution, but also comes out as more polluting than diesel traction.

The popular belief that electric locomotives have higher load hauling capacity, because of higher horsepower is also not correct. The load hauling capacity of any locomotive depends primarily on its ability to start a load, which in turn is dependent on adhesion. The maximum adhesion achieved in the case of the 6000 HP ABB electric locomotive is 37 per cent, while the 4000 HP GM locos provide an adhesion factor of 43%. The starting tractive effort of the 6000 HP ABB locomotive has been only 47 tonnes compared with about 53 tonnes for the 4000 HP GM locomotives. In the matter of producivity also the comparison goes in favour of diesel traction. In the US, freight trains carrying up to 23,000 tonnes are hauled by multiple diesel locomotives, but running of such long trains under electric traction is unthinkable due to current limitations of OHE.

In matters of reliability, safety and so on also, electric traction does not have any advantage over diesel traction; on the contrary, there are several minus points in electric traction.

Flexibility of diesel traction is its greatest advantage. This is highlighted in the Year Book 1999-2000: “Diesel traction is highly flexible and adaptable to future technological advancements such as the ‘fuel cell’ technology, posed as a promising alternative source of energy in the near future.” Under this technology, a simple device combines hydrogen from a variety of fuels with oxygen from air to produce electricity. This requires no moving parts, and produces no noise or smoke. Diesel locopmotives can be easily converted by replacing engine with fuel cell.

According to the International Railway Journal of March 2000, fuel cell trains shall be a reality in eight years, that is, by 2008. All overhead wires will then become redundant. It seems a breakthrough has already been achieved by BHEL, Hyderabad. On this technology being adopted, all arguments about oil conservation, foreign exchange saving and so on will become meaningless.

It is of vital importance that we do not ignore the fact that both diesel and electric traction can meet the needs of the Indian Railways with equal efficiency. There should be no attempt at developing one mode at the cost of the other. What is required to be done now is to concentrate on removing the infrastructure constraints for availing of the maximum benefits of the high tech equipment already procured.

Suggested approach

Exercises for formulating details of the Tenth Five-Year Plan, Annual Plan and Railway Budget for 2002-2003 are round the corner, and the Indian Railways need to take a close look at all the pitfalls brought out herein before making resource allocations for exising projects and including new projects. Policy indications about optimising the use of the already electified sections would also need to be spelt out.

* Non-viable and uneconomic routes, adjudged on the basis of reliable and honest data should not be considered at all. What needs to be done now is to make the best use of the routes already electrified, and avoid taking up any further projects without ensuring financial viability.

In the Year Book 1999-2000, the ministry of railways has accepted the equal role of both the modes of traction, stating: “In an effort to cut costs and improve efficiency, IR is going ahead with its policy of converting maximum routes to diesel and electric traction.” This needs to be faithfully adhered to. Both the new technology locmotives should be used fully, and allowed to remain in good fettle and duly upgraded from time to time, so that IR does not become tied up to one mode alone.

* Over 60 per cent of freight and 46 per cent of passenger traffic are now hauled by electric traction. Higher operating costs of electric traction, very high capital costs, perennial power shortage, and above all security considerations compell a re-think of the flawed strategy of electrification. The time has come for increasing the share, as also the quality, of traffic allocated for diesel traction.

* Elsewhere in the world, de-electrification and running of diesel engines on electrified routes are adopted as acceptable methods for achieving economies. There should, therefore, be no compunction in adopting at least the latter method for achieving economies. There should, therefore, be no compunction in adopting at least the latter method by IR. The capital investments on electrification need not be considered a waste. In any case it is already sunk cost, and we can adopt the philosophy of ‘let bygones be bygones’.

* The mindset needs to be changed. We are not dealing with an ‘either or’ situation, but as a complementary solution, in which both electric and diesel traction should be given equal opportunities, in the national interests as also in the interests of the railways.

* One method of distribution could be to allocate passenger traffic for electric traction and freight traffic for diesel traction. Allocating specific operational and geographic areas to either mode could be another method. The objective should be to give equal importance to both the modes. This is fully in keeping with the policy indicated in the Year Book 1999-2000: “In an effort to cut costs and improve efficiency, IR is going ahead with its policy of converting maximum routes to diesel and electric traction.” Equality is assured in this.

(The writer is former Financial Commissioner, Railways, and ex-officio secretary to the Government of India)


Published in: on March 10, 2012 at 10:10 am  Leave a Comment  

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