A new era in freight transport by railways dawned last month when the 351-km-long New Bhaupur to New Khurja section of the eastern leg of the Dedicated Freight Corridor (DFC) was declared open by the Prime Minister. Reportedly, the 58 BOXN wagon coal rake destined for a thermal power station up north completed the run at an average speed of 70 km/h. Compared to the current average of 25 km/h of freight trains on the 65,000-km network of the Indian Railways, this was a quantum jump in transport by rail that the western and eastern legs of the DFC promise to usher in when fully commissioned in a few years.
Alarm bells had begun to ring in a couple of decades ago when the Indian Railways’ market share of freight transport had dropped from a peak of 70% in the 1950s to just 30%, with road transport luring away the business with faster door-to-door service and guaranteed delivery schedules.
Conceptualised a decade ago, the plan to win back freight business began with the creation of a special purpose vehicle, i.e. the Dedicated Freight Corridor Corporation of India Ltd (DFCCIL), in October 2006. The project was approved for an estimated cost of Rs 28,181 crore and contracts for construction of two major bridges awarded in December 2008.
Two corridors—1,504-km western corridor and 1,856-km eastern corridor—spanning 3,360 km were to be built, along existing track alignments so as to involve least amount of land acquisition, an onerous exercise that could bog down the project with its high cost and attendant problems.
The proposed western corridor connecting Dadri in Uttar Pradesh to Mumbai’s JNPT would pass through Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra, while the eastern corridor (originating from Dankuni in West Bengal) is designed to pass through Jharkhand, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana to terminate in Ludhiana (Punjab).
Partly funded by the World Bank with a soft loan of Rs 5,150 crore, the eastern corridor was first off the mark with the commissioning in phases planned from 2017-18 onwards. Simultaneously, the work on western corridor commenced from Rewari to Vadodara via Phulera, which too was beneficiary of a soft loan of Rs 5,100 crore by the Japan International Cooperation Agency.
A few years down the line, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs approved the revised cost that had ballooned over the years to Rs 81,459 crore, due to unforeseen delays and cost escalations mostly on account of land acquisition, which even though minimal was critical for alignment.
As the name implies, the DFC is dedicated entirely to carry freight. With a double-line corridor, it can carry 1500-metre long loads as against the current 686-metre, which is restricted on account of its loop length at stations. As a result, 13,000-tonne loads with 120 wagons can be run, as against the current 5,000 tonnes with 58 wagons, which will need more powerful locomotives with 12,000 horsepower against the current 6,000 horsepower.
With no passengers to be picked up, stations are also few, almost 50-km apart, as against current 10 km or so. State-of-the-art radio communication facilities provide the locomotive pilot a far greater safety and speed potential. Mechanised track-laying resulted in not only higher productivity by laying 1.5 km of track per day (as against 100-150 metres when done manually), it also led to much better track geometry, while head hardened rails and flash butt welds would result in longer life and reduced wear-and-tear of rolling stock.
While the eastern corridor is to mainly serve the coal circuit from coal fields in eastern India to thermal plants up north, the western corridor would provide greater capacity for carrying export-import traffic of industries in north India and also serve scores of logistics parks expected to come up on the Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor, a 150-km wide swath of hinterland all along the corridor.
With no passenger trains crowding the tracks, which had to be given precedence, the DFC will herald a new era of fast, safe and timetabled running, guaranteeing delivery schedules of freight that had so far been only a promise on paper.
The author is former member, Railway Board