IIT Kharagpur helps Indian rail speed up

At a time when the world has reached a speed of 330 kilometres per hour on rail, the best that India could achieve has been a little over 130 kilometres per hour. But it is high time that we too sped up, feels the Indian Railways and with this intent, it has entrusted IIT Kharagpur with the responsibility of providing the technological knowhow. The research is to happen at the newly opened Railway Research Centre of IIT Kharagpur and work has already started. The goal is to immediately increase the maximum attainable speed to 200 kilometres per hour.

Experts who have workd in the railway board are however askance. They feel that over the past two decades the focus of the railways has been to keep the fare low, even if it is at the cost of not improving the infrastructure or spending to augment safety of rail travel. To introduce high speed trains the centre will have to re-lay tracks at a cost of Rs 100 crores per kilometer, which is a mammoth expenditure that the railways are not prepared for. So why this exercise?

The project that IIT Kharagpur has received is four pronged and is aimed at improving not only the speed but the general efficiency of moving trains, keeping the present infrastructure in mind. A total of three years time has been allotted to the centre within which time it should come up with solutions to the specific problems that have been earmarked by the Railway Board, the apex administrative body of the Indian Railways.

Four broad areas have been identified as “immediate needs” by the railways – improving speed, imrpoving carrying capacity (heavy haul), use of advanced material, advanced signalling and maintenance for better safety. A total of eight IIT Kgp departments have started work in tandem for this.

“Speed is a priority for the railways at the moment. However, as things stand now, it is not possible to haul it up from the existing 130 kilometres per hour to the desired 330 kilometres per hour. Countries that have been able to achieve this use a completely different rail technology. So we have decided to do it in stages. We will first provide the technical support that will help to increase the speed to 200 kilometres per hour,” explained Siddhartha Mukherjee, a senior faculty member who heads the centre and is leading the research.

Nearly 100 faculty members and research scholars are working together on the project that involves electrical, ciomputer science, mechanical, metallurgy, civil, rubber technology, electronics and aeronautical engineering departments. There is a lot of excitement on campus over this mammoth project and faculty members say that a project of such magnitude has never been tried before.

One of the key experiments happenening at the moment in the institute’s laboratories is whether a different quality of steel should be used both in the construction of the rails as well as the coaches. One of the options that the scientists are looking at, is Bainitic Steel. “It is unparalleled in its malleability and ductility. The most advanced railway systems in the world have already been using this steel. However, we will also have to consider mass availability of this kind of steel and the cost effectiveness,” informed Mukherjee. This steel is being considered especially because the Railway Board has asked the institute to provide the knowhow so that the load carrying capacity can be sharply increased. “We will have to use the hypothetical load and study the resultant stress and strain over a long period of time before arriving at a conclusion. The material used to build the compartments and the design of the compartments will also go through changes to increase efficiency,” said a faculty member involved in the project.

The recent spate of accidents have also induced the railways to ask the institute to imrpove the signalling quality. While in the more advanced systems in the world, fully computerised cab signalling is in vogue, India still follows the old rail side signalling technique. “We have been told that the idea was not to completely change the old pattern but to improve efficieny of the existing signalling system by developing an analytic signalling logic design tool,” Mukherjee explained.



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