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July 21, 1997


N Vittal

Of railways and info highways

The railway infrastructure is very critical to the well being of the Indian economy. And so is telecommunications. But many people may point out an inherent contradiction in the previous statements because it is widely perceived that the growth of communications network is essentially opposed to the growth of commuting networks. This may not be entirely true. But let us dwell on the propositions awhile:

The railways is a commuting network, or a system that will physically transport you from point 'A' to point 'B'. As opposed to this the telecommunications network carries your message from point 'A' to point 'B' without you needing to move physically over large distances. On the face of it, a direct inference would be that the growth of telecommunications would hamper the growth of a commuting network like the railways.

However, in India, the two kinds of network can have a very profitable symbiosis:

When the British colonised India, the railways immediately became an investment area of strategic importance. A good railway network was vital for the steady and effective movement of armed forces. Consequently, the vast country was covered with an intricate web of tracks.

The first railway line was probably laid between Bombay and Thane in 1853. And since it has been noticed, that advancements in communication technology follow those of the commuting networks like the railways.

Within 30 to 40 years of the first railway in India, Graham Bell invented the telephone and Marconi demonstrated his wireless technology. It is interesting to note that these developments in communication came just when the railways were expanding and effective and quick means of communication over large distances were needed to manage the vast organisation of trains, tracks and stations.

In railway systems, effective communication is critical to safety. The lack of proper communication could spell catastrophe, especially when several trains are using the same track.

Today telecommunication is closely linked with what has come to be known as information technology, the coming together of telecommunication and computers.

Railways have adopted infotech at least to streamline the reservation system. There is then a close link between telecommunication and major breakthroughs in better passenger services.

Another significant aspect of telecommunication is in the internal management of the railways. The railways have set up the Centre for Railway Information Systems. One of the major functions of CRIS is to develop an information system which will help among other things better movement of freight.

In fact, optimum use of the rolling stock which railways have got, is an important area where there is scope for development. If we talk about IT or computers playing a role, we cannot but take note of the need for a basic network of telecommunications to make the computer systems operate smoothly.

Telecom can also become an additional source of revenue for railways. Railways can play a significant role in building the 'national information infrastructure'. Very much like US Vice-President Al Gore's idea of a global information infrastructure, a global network of telecom and computers.

We can begin our exercise with a quick look at telecom in railways. In 1969 the government accepted the need for the railways to have its own microwave network. Since then the railway telecom network has expanded manifold and today is the second largest telecom network after that of the Department of Telecommunications.

The railway's microwave/UHF/VHF systems are spread throughout India from Jammu to Trivandrum and from Tinsukia to Porbander.

The railway's telecom requirements are different form conventional telecom. Broadly, railway telecom can be divided into two categories - control communication and long-haul communication.

For running of trains, various omnibus circuits like section control, deputy control, traction loco control and traction remote control are required between the 'central control office' and various wayside stations.

In addition, station-to-station block circuits and emergency communication are requirements for safe and punctual working of the train system.

In non-electrified areas the control communication generally works on overhead ACSR alignment but in electrified areas underground RE Quad Cable (0+17+3 or 0+22+3), or optical fibre cable or 18 GHz digital microwave system are being used for control communication.

To interconnect the Railway Board with zonal railways, divisional headquarters and important activity centres, the railway has its own 7 GHz analog microwave system. Most links have 120 channels and some, which were installed after 1987, have 960 channels. The replacement of existing analog microwave links with (34+2) Mbps 7 GHz digital microwave links is in progress.

The Indian Railways' annual report spells out its priority in the telecom sector: 'Digital microwave, optical fibre communication and digital switching systems are being inducted progressively in Indian Railways, bringing about improvement in services. To improve reliability of train control circuits in areas prone to frequent thefts of underground cables, station-to-station 18 GHz MW system were commissioned over 288 kms in the Eastern Railway. The existing electromechanical exchanges are being gradually replaced by electronic exchanges for better flexibility. 18,275 telephone lines from digital electronic exchanges were commissioned during the year. To enhance safety and efficiency in train operations, mobile radio communication between the driver and the guard of a train and the driver/guard and control office, has also been introduced on the busy Delhi-Mughalsarai section during the year.'

However, the most important aspect of telecom in railways is ensuring safety. To begin with we should look at the entire telecommunication system of the Indian Railways to see whether we have adequate redundancies built into the system so as to ensure that they are 100 per cent reliable.

There must be more than one method of communication between different stations and the authorities concerned so that accidents are avoided.

The suggestions I had made in the context of the Ferozepur accident are a case in point. The Ferozepur accident, which took place recently and resulted in the death of over 400 people, is a case where a better communication systems could have avoided the tragedy.

I was secretary, Department of Electronics, at that time and immediately after the accident I made some suggestions to the Railway Board: A number of train accidents have occurred in the past. According to a statistics, 80 per cent of the accidents are due to human error. The human error is mainly due to poor communication, use of outdated tools and techniques and fatigue of the operating staff.

Since online communication to the engine crew, while the train is moving, is not available, even if the human error is detected there is very little one can do to communicate the error to the engine crew to take corrective action in time.

Electronics has been variously used in railways the world over. One of the significant applications is in the prevention of accidents. This is basically achieved with the use of an effective communication system. Satellite communication in this context has been used very effectively in railways of the US, Britain and Australia among other countries.

In the context of Indian Railways however, lack of good communication between the engine crew and the railway control room, while the train is moving between two stations, appears to be a major concern. This perhaps also poses a constraint on increasing track capacity and introducing more high-speed trains. An effective 'train accident prevention system' was prepared with ECIL Hyderabad.

I also made an alternative suggestion. One VHF/UHF frequency can be declared as Indian Railways Emergency Beacon Frequency on a nationwide basis by the WPC. For this, the railways will have to take up the matter with the WPC. No other agency will be allowed to use this frequency for any purpose. All the engines of the Indian railways, preferably guards too, could be equipped with one transmitter / receiver for this beacon. The transmitter's power should be such that its range is limited to not less than 5 km and not more than 10 km. In a phased manner, all stations of Indian Railways could also be equipped with the facility.

When an accident of the nature and magnitude of the Kalindi Express takes place or even if it is likely to take place, the driver's hand should reach out to bang the beacon's red button. The system would then send out an RF alert immediately. We can work out a scheme whereby the signal sent out could be a steady beep, it could be a repetitive pattern beep of 5 second each or it could contain the number of the train involved in the accident, it could have this automatically or as a voice announcement from the driver and so on. The details can be worked out by the DoE in consultation with the RDSO.

If the apprehended event does not take place or the necessary corrective actions have taken place, an 'all clear' signal could be sounded by hitting the same button thrice in a row. Periodic checking up of the functioning of these and a routine 'self-check' should be possible. The equipment, meeting the full functional requirements and the specifications, can be finalised by the DoE in consultation with RDSO and the Railway Board and as has been done in the past, the technology can be developed jointly by DoE and RDSO.

The organisations like Bharat Electronics Limited, ELCOT, ER&DC and Punjab Wireless may be in a position to manufacture the equipment.

A third idea was to go for an autonomous radio warning system. Many a time accidents occur because of lack of communication in rail movement. The DoE and RDSO with the cooperation of the railways had initiated a proposal for solid-state interaction system for communication with railway stations.

However, for increasing the effectiveness and productivity of telecom technology in railways we must prepare a cadre with a technology mind-set.

Hams, or amateur radio operators, play a significant role in the event of accidents and natural disasters like earthquakes and cyclones. As railways have a huge national network and also run schools across the breadth of the country, it would be a good idea if they could start ham clubs in all railways schools.

Consequently, children in railways schools would become more technology-minded and particularly communication minded. Then in the event of an accident, you will have a whole cadre of ham operators available immediately to supplement the regular ham radio operators.

The DoE has been successful in persuading the government to include a programme for starting ham radio clubs in high schools under the Members of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme.

It will be worthwhile if the railways could persuade the MPs about a national scheme for starting ham clubs in all the schools run by the railways. The politicians could also be convinced to fork out some of the resources that would be required.

The need for a foolproof reliable system of communication between the different stations and the authorities concerned can never be overemphasised. While trying to achieve excellence in manufacturing we talk of zero defects. Likewise, we should aim at a zero accident rate in railways.

Nothing is impossible. It will be a red letter day for railways if we can reach the goal of a zero accident rate. In reaching that goal, telecommunications can play a very important role.

The next major issue that should be considered is whether the railways have state-of-art communication. While initially telecommunication started with wireline telephony we have seen today two major breakthroughs. One is in the area of optic fibres which have tremendously enhanced capacities compared to ordinary copper cables. The second is in the area of wireless communication. The question we have to ask ourselves is: Do the railways have the latest communication system, both in wireless and in optic fibres to the extent possible?

In fact, continuous technological upgradation of the telecommunication infrastructure of the railways should be a constant programme. In other words, railways must constantly scrutinise their communication system and have a technological audit to see whether their technology is up to date.

So far as optic fibre is concerned, the DoE had cooperated with railways and in Madras an optic fibre communication system is being tested through IIT Madras.

Any modern railway system, as an effective transport system, necessitates high-speed traffic and higher number of trains per track. This requires efficient and reliable signalling.

At the same time, higher speed of train movement needs high power engines like diesel locomotives and electric locomotives with single or multiple engine configurations. Introduction of such systems produce a high degree of EMI/RFI which adversely affects railway signalling and communication.

Hence, higher train traffic could be also be achieved through efficient and interference free signalling system. To meet the above requirements, optic fibre systems are an ideal choice. Keeping this in view, the DoE, under a project called FOSSAP has operationally demonstrated the functioning of optics fibre systems.

The project is now underway to do the final product engineering meeting, the exacting requirements of railways interconnecting at Vysarpadi, Korukkpet and Washermanpet from a central location at Basic Bridge (near Madras) through optic fibre cable. The cable would also provide telecom facilities between these stations on the same scale.

The system is being so designed that it should be upgradable to support CTC working. After safety, the major area of the application of telecommunication is in conjunction with the computers, namely, IT.

The unfinished task of completing the railway computerisation system for reservation should be expedited.

Equally important is the application of IT systems for the internal management of the railways. Freight movement is the area where the CRIS is supposed to be developing a system. The faster we implement a system the better. The problem with the railways would be the lack of resources for continuous upgradation and investment in rolling stocks and to the extent we are able to get higher productivity from the existing rolling stocks we will be able to strengthen the financial resources of the railways for providing better service.

The optic fibre represent perhaps another major area in which the railways have already invested to the extent of 953 km. The question is "Is this installed capacity being used fully?" There used to be a view that optic fibre is meant for safety purposes and therefore we should not allow other communication to crowd in this network. But an intelligent use of the investment already made in optic fibre system would be to see how after providing fully for the safety of the railways we can use the surplus capacity for communication.

The National Telecom Policy was announced on May 13, 1994, and it provides for the introduction of the pluralistic concept in providing telcom services. I would suggest that railways, as a government of India organisation, could even consider providing their own telephone services to the public and thereby augment their resources.

Alternatively, they can think in terms of leasing out the surplus capacity to other service providers and thereby enhancing the capacity.

The permanent ways of the Indian Railways represent an additional asset. The asset is not only in terms of the railway lines which have been laid but include the land on either side of the tract which also belongs to the railways.

Today if we want to build a national information infrastructure we will need to lay down a vast network of optic fibres. These optic fibres will be the backbone for not only voice communication but also for multimedia communication.

In fact, railways should see whether they can raise additional revenue by making the land available with them for which no separate land acquisition procedures have to be gone into so that a nationwide effort at building the backbone of a national information infrastructure can be laid.

Perhaps railways may like to take up the issue with organisations like Infrastructure Leasing Financial Services who have financed a study on building a national information infrastructure.

This will be in fact, a very positive contribution that railways can make to the development of the economy of India and also to see that India emerges as a significant player in the global economy.

A simple definition of efficiency will be output by input. We can look at the inputs available with the railways in terms of the assets like the permanent way, people and the communication systems already in position like the optic fibre networks and question whether we are getting the best output of these inputs. If not, we must think in terms of optimising the output.

Another method to look at the issue of enhancing the efficiency of the railways by using telecommunication may be to look at the state of telecommunication technology used by the railways today and compare it with the options that are available.

For instance, satellite communication, or wireless communication, is an important area. Will it be worthwhile for railways to have a series of VSAT networks so that they use the Satellite communication also to supplement whatever communication infrastructure the railways have.

In this way it may even be possible to totally bypass the voice network of the DoT and railways can have their own voice communication network through VSATs. As you may be aware, thanks to digital technology, through a VSAT network one can not only communicate data but also voice.

I have mentioned the gains that are possible by an extensive application and better use of optic fibre network already available with the railways. In fact, one of the weaknesses in the national telecommunication network would be the inadequacy of trunk lines. This can be greatly supplemented if railways were to make an offer of building national trunk routes using optic fibres which will substantially enhance the carrying capacity.

Especially with the entry of the private sector, railways perhaps can strike a good deal if they are to make available the land available with them next to the rail tracks for private parties to set up the backbone network for trunk calls.

It may be a good idea if railways were to start an exercise in the form of an end-to-end survey about all the telecommunication infrastructure they have and the use they are making of the same.

This will throw up a lot of ideas about better use of the resources to improve safety as well as customer service of the railways. Secondly, they can also look at the technologies that are being used today to see how better technology can be used for increasing the safety and reliability in the railway communication system.

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