The Indian Railways (IR) is one of the biggest railway systems in the world, transporting about 23 million passengers and 3.35 million tonnes of freight daily. IR runs passenger and freight trains on the same track. This leads to suboptimal usage of track capacity. Advanced railway systems, like in the US, China, Australia and South Africa, have separate tracks for passenger and freight traffic.

As passenger and freight trains run at vastly different speeds, freight trains are stopped for allowing faster passenger trains to pass. While a freight train waits for passenger train(s) to pass, the track remains unutilised, leading to wastage of capacity. Steady increase in the number and speeds of passenger trains and marginal increase in speeds of freight trains have continued to impact track capacity negatively.

Freight services earn profits for IR, most of which are used to make up the losses incurred in passenger business. Hence, the need for segregating the passenger and freight streams is obvious.

The concept of Dedicated Freight Corridor (DFC) was mooted in 2006 to generate substantial capacity for freight traffic by developing separate tracks on identified routes. The Dedicated Freight Corridor Corporation of India Ltd (DFCCIL) was incorporated as a separate company under the Ministry of Railways.

Two corridors, Dadri to Jawaharlal Nehru Port (western DFC) and Ludhiana to Son Nagar (eastern DFC) are currently under construction. Other freight corridors on the Kolkata-Mumbai and Kolkata-Chennai routes have also been planned.

Cost of construction of the eastern and western DFCs is currently estimated at around ₹81,000 crore for 2,822 kilometres, averaging ₹29 crore per km, as compared to around ₹10 crore per km for the track on the IR system. The cost is higher in the case of DFC as land had to be acquired and the tracks and bridges are designed to carry much heavier trains.

The logic of running heavier trains on the eastern DFC is to cater to the burgeoning traffic in minerals, particularly coal, which constitutes 48 per cent of IR’s freight traffic.

With the emphasis on generation of power through renewable sources of energy, the future of coal demand appears to be uncertain now.

Further, running of heavier trains on both DFCs, as planned, would also require strengthening of tracks from the DFC to the consumers’ locations. This would enlarge the scope of the projects considerably.

The revenue for a DFC would come from a fee called “track access charge” which IR would pay to the DFC for every train. Consequently, the revenue earned by IR from trains run on DFCCIL would be reduced to the extent of the “access charge” paid by IR to the DFC. At least initially, IR would lose some revenue.

A viable alternative

The latest Budget states that commissioning of the DFC would create room for more passenger services. Unless passenger tariff is rationalised, adding more DFCs and running more passenger services would only lead to the losses going up further.

There seems to be a viable alternative. Instead of new DFCs, the case for Dedicated Passenger Corridors (DPCs) could be considered. DPCs (either under the Railway Ministry or as a separate company) would create a separate carriageway for passenger traffic where high-speed trains could run, leaving the existing IR network free to run the freight services.

DPCs could cater to super-fast mail/express trains and intercity trains. Suburban services would remain with the existing IR system. The movement of freight to customers would continue to remain seamless as it is now. Sufficient capacity would remain to cater to the growth in demand for freight in the foreseeable future. Addition to the capacity of the existing IR network may be done selectively where required.

The direct advantages of a DPC would be:

The project would cost much lower than for a DFC as the track standards required for passenger movement would be as obtaining on the IR system at present.

Shifting of passenger services to DPC would generate capacity for freight services on IR’s existing network and leave room for future growth in demand. Consequently, profits would increase.

The DPC would be connected to the existing passenger terminals on the IR system. However, as capacity at most major existing terminals is saturated, entry and exit of trains is slow. Development of modern terminals could be planned which would provide faster entry and exit for trains and also better passenger amenities. The cities would also be benefited as the roads to the existing terminals are highly congested.

With the DPC, the level of punctuality of passenger trains would be higher than at present. Overnight services between major metros could be planned. Similarly, fast intercity connections for medium distances can also be planned.

The other advantages which could accrue are:

It may be possible to exploit the real estate potential of the new and existing terminals and also to offer trains on franchise to operators who would pay an “access charge” to IR or the company owning the DPC.

With better service quality and savings in time, the customers would also be willing to pay more. Hence revenue could be higher.

The DPC could be used for running time-tabled super-fast parcel services and high value consignments like cars and other consumer durables between important urban centres. This would be a very profitable line of business. A lot of traffic could be diverted from road to rail, thereby providing enormous savings in fuel costs to the economy and reducing pollution.

IR is making considerable investments for augmenting line capacity is areas where freight traffic is expected to grow, notably on the Howrah-Mumbai and Howrah-Chennai routes. The plans are perfectly dovetailed with the existing IR network.

A DFC on these routes would be an unnecessary addition to freight movement capacity. If, however, DPCs are constructed on these routes, it would immensely help the flow of both passenger and freight traffic. There would also be considerable cost savings.

A detailed cost-benefit study of the two alternatives — DFC and a DPC — would be a worthwhile exercise.

The writer is a retired Additional Member (Traffic), Railway Board. Views are personal.