17 Aug 2014

Improving Trains

There are so many opportunities to improve trains in India. The railways, and the government, should pursue all these ideas in parallel, to improve the railways as fast as possible.

To begin with, trains should accelerate quickly, to 100 km/hour in less than one minute. This can be done by using a more powerful locomotive, or one more locomotive than is normally used. For comparison, a Japanese bullet train can reach 270 km/hour in three minutes, and 96 km/hour in 37 seconds. I’m asking only for 1 minute, which is far slower than the aforementioned Japanese train, to say nothing of buses. Yes, faster acceleration will cost a little more. But the railways shouldn’t be miserly with acceleration, when buses and cars accelerate faster. If train journeys are slower than bus or car journeys, it drives people to the latter, despite them being much more expensive and less efficient than the bus. Why should trains be miserly about acceleration when buses aren’t? It’s possible to single-mindedly cut costs so much that you’re not competitive with other modes of transport, like buses. So, trains should all accelerate to 100 km/hour in less than one minute.

In addition to accelerating faster, trains should decelerate faster. They should enter the station at a high speed, and then brake as fast as they can. This keeps the average speed higher, and reduces journey time.

The average speed of the train over the entire journey should be at least 200 km/hour, to compete with motorways. Yes, we don’t have many motorways, but we should think ahead and build trains that travel faster than motorways, rather than being stuck with slower-than-motorway trains a decade or two from now. Trains are naturally slower than planes, but there’s no reason they should be slower than motorways. If trains are going to be slower than motorways, then we should stop wasting public money on railways, and invest in a motorway network as good as the US’s or China’s.

In the short term, trains should have a goal of having an average speed that’s at least 90% of what the track supports. In other words, if the maximum allowed speed on a certain stretch of track is 100 km/hour, then trains should travel on that stretch at at least 90 km/hour. This goal forces quick acceleration and deceleration.

And fewer stops. Let’s get rid of stops that are not commercially viable, and that are there mainly for political reasons, and that slow down the journey for everyone. Operate the railways as a business, and take decisions that make commercial sense, not political sense.

The railways should also set itself a goal that all signals should be green well before a train approaches, so that the train doesn’t need to stop or slow down. If this requires fewer trains running along that route, combine some trains, making them double-decker and longer, or add another pair of tracks.

If a train must stop at a red signal, it shouldn’t use the brake. Instead, cut the engine sufficiently ahead of time that the train comes to a stop at precisely the signal. This results in a smoother ride and saves energy.

Trains should also use a moving block system so that a train can pull up close to another train. If the train in front has stopped, the one behind should be able to come up to 10m close to it. Similarly, if the train ahead is moving, the one behind should be able to come close enough that if the train in front were to suddenly stop (say, due to derailment), the one behind will have enough time to stop. This is no different from driving: the safe driving distance between two vehicles depends on the speed. Trains should also adopt this principle and avoid unnecessary delays.

Turning radii should be wide, so that trains never have to slow down for a curve. Maintaining speed also results in a more comfortable ride, and less chance of waking up sleeping passengers.

Traveling at high speed doesn’t help if the tracks themselves have a circuitous route. So there should be a goal no train should divert more than 10% from a straight line. More precisely, if two stations that are X km apart as the crow flies, the length of the railway route between them should be no more than 1.1 * X km.

Maybe trains can lean into curves, to travel faster.

Double-decker trains are another idea, to increase the capacity of the train. Of course, the coaches should be more, rather than less, comfortable and spacious than the present single-level coaches.

The railways should also attach more coaches to a train based on demand. Rather than having to buy tickets months in advance, you should be able to buy a ticket any time until 4 hours before the train starts, no matter how busy the train is on that day. They should just attach more coaches to the train to accommodate demand. And more locomotives, as needed.

This will also require platforms to be lengthened to accommodate longer trains. And this can be done on demand: if the length of a platform ever becomes the bottleneck for the length of a train along that route, even if it happens once, that platform should immediately be lengthened.

If there are stations where all platforms are full, at any time during the day or month, they should immediately add another platform to that station, so that the station doesn’t become a bottleneck for all trains along that route.

Trains can perhaps take a diversion from the main track when they stop at a station, to let other trains pass through, so that the station doesn’t become a bottleneck. These are common-sense ideas in roads — when a bus stops at a bus stop, buses that don’t stop there can continue traveling at full speed in another lane, rather than blocking the entire road. Why don’t railways adopt such common-sense practices from roads?

Railways should also have demand-based pricing. If a train has a hard limit of a certain number of seats, price them high enough to allocate them efficiently, in the economic sense, and generate higher revenue for the railways. It’s dumb and backward to have to buy tickets months in advance. You should be able to buy a ticket any time, and pay an increasing fee as the journey date approaches.

This will have another benefit: not only will tickets be available all the time, and you’ll be able to save a lot of money by avoiding a flight, but the railways will generate more revenue, which can go towards modernizing the fleet. Of course, the base fares should also be increased.

The railways should stop manufacturing anything but the fastest locomotives and coaches. For example, we have a locomotive that can reach 160-180 km/hour. The railways should immediately stop manufacturing slower locomotives, and manufacture only these. Modernize the fleet. That goes for coaches as well: stop manufacturing single-decker coaches, and coaches that can’t reach 160km/hour.

Also get rid of coaches that have batteries and generators. The batteries add to the weight of the coach, especially for AC coaches, and the generator slows down the train by siphoning power off the locomotive. Instead, have these powered from the locomotive or the power car. Electric trains can simply draw more power from the grid to simultaneously accelerate quickly and run air-conditioning and other fans and other electrical loads. Diesel-powered trains can cut air-conditioning and fans and everything but lights and safety systems when the train is accelerating at maximum power. When there’s spare engine power available, the air-conditioners and fans and other non-critical systems can be powered on. This will make for faster journeys.

Trains should have in-seat power for everyone — AC power at the normal 220 V and 6 A, delivered via standard electrical sockets (rather than airplane ones), so that people can charge phones and laptops and other devices, without having to buy adapters.

We should also build railway lines based on geography, with only a secondary consideration given to population and economic viability in the short term. We can always build new cities along these train routes, and we desperately need new cities, anyway. Our existing cities are creaking at the seams, and it’s cheaper to build from scratch rather than upgrading existing cities. For example, we should have a Kashmir to Kanyakumari train. Give it the highest priority on the railway network. And another from Gujarat to Nagaland.

Needless to say, the railways should also add lines on routes where it’s needed. One conclusion of that line of reasoning is to make all trains point-to-point, with no intermediate stops, and build enough lines that trains can run in parallel. And each train can have fewer coaches depending on demand. This results in a quicker journey for everyone. If you’re a passenger, you want to get to your destination as quickly as possible, without intermediate stops.

We should also have one high-speed train line, to develop the technology and the expertise and the know-how. It’s fine if we don’t build more lines for a while, but we should at least have one to develop the know-how to run such a service.

To bring transparency to this whole exercise and let the public and the press track their progress, the railways should release information publicly: what’s the average speed of a train? How about passenger trains, as opposed to freight? How about for express trains vs passenger trains vs other classes of service like Shatabdi? What’s the average train journey time between Bangalore and Bombay? What’s the average speed of a particular train, like the Coromandel Express? What percentage of trains have an average speed of at least 150 km / hour? And so on.

The railways, and the government, should pursue all these ideas in parallel, to improve the state of the railway network as fast as possible. If they pursue only some of these ideas, that will result in only a limited amount of improvement. And if they pursue some of these ideas now and some of them later, it will take longer to make the same improvements. So, pursue all of these ideas in parallel.

Yes, this will require money and political will, but it’s money well spent.

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