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Rethink rail electrification PDF Print E-mail
Monday, 19 February 2018 05:08
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Debroy redflags the Railways diesel phase-out plan

The possible cancellation of the $2.6 billion diesel locomotive deal with GE was always problematic since it was just two years ago that the deal for 1,000 locomotives—over a decade—had been signed. While railways minister Piyush Goyal said the deal was on—after first talking about the need for 100% electrification of railway tracks which made diesel locomotives unviable—there is still uncertainty about it since the Railways has not gone back on its plan to electrify the entire network at the earliest. Several experts have questioned the logic of 100% electrification and have argued that if few countries have done this, there is a good reason for it. And that includes the need to have a back-up plan in case of a grid failure—due to sabotage or natural reasons—as well as the fact that certain routes simply do not have the requisite transport volumes to justify electrification. While these experts have talked of just between 33% and 43% electrification levels in countries like China, Russia and Europe, the latest to join the debate is Bibek Debroy who heads the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council (PMEAC); the report, though, has been written by Debroy and not the PMEAC.

Debroy has said there needs to be a strategic rethink and that an expert group be appointed to study the issue in a comprehensive manner. Apart from citing the numbers of railway electrification in other parts of the world, Debroy points to the fact that the Railways has more pressing investment needs for both track and coach renewals. In 2012, for instance, the Kakodkar committee had estimated the Railways needed Rs 1 lakh crore for safety expenditure on coaches and railway tracks.

Since it said the 43,000 ICF coaches ‘are no more safe at the present operational speeds’, Debroy has said that a new rolling stock strategy needed to be put in place. Kakodkar had also pointed out that, thanks to the increased axle load, even the 60kg/m railway tracks were stressed—so it was certainly not prudent to use the 52 kg/m tracks. In the event, Debroy said, ‘since Indian Railways has access to limited funds, it may take a judicious call on whether electrification needs substantial hike in funding immediately or is better off in putting money into avenues which need priority investments (safety works, network decongestion)’. Apart from this, Debroy has also questioned the Rs 10,000 crore annual savings that railways minister Piyush Goyal has been estimating will come from moving away from diesel to full electrification. While the Railways will need to get Rs 1 lakh crore together for the electrification, Debroy says that, since taxes comprise half the price paid for diesel, the estimated annual savings through replacing diesel with electricity would not be Rs 10,000 crore, and the actual benefit to the government system will be Rs 5,000 crore; also, he added, the operating costs of diesel and electric trains were roughly similar. Given the sharp divergence in views and the competing needs for the Railways funds—mostly borrowed—a deeper analysis is called for before any decision on fast-tracking electrification of the Indian Railways.

 

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