Indian Railways is the lifeline of the nation. It traverses the length and breadth of the country providing the required connectivity and integration for balanced regional development. The system never rests; it has been up and working unceasingly for over a century now. It is an integral part of every Indian. It is one of the pillars of the nation. It is often said if you want to see real India, then take a train journey in second class coach.
Problems Indian Railway is facing
With more than 65,000 km of route track and over 19,000 trains running daily, the size and sheer volume the Indian Railways ferry is mind boggling. At present, the railway network is overburdened and inadequate to meet the new challenges of a fast developing economy. Some regions are beyond the reach of railways due to unfavourable geographical conditions. These areas need to be opened to railways for removing regional inequalities in economic growth. Railway is facing stiff competition from road transport and thus its share in goods traffic is declining.
Managing the huge assets, tracking trains and ensuring that they run on time, and maintaining the huge networks are some of the issues that have to be taken on war footing, says S.S. Mathur, GM – Corporate Coordination, Center for Railway Information Systems.
Most of the railways revenue comes from freight and it is facing a stiff competition there — because of delays in goods transportation customers now prefer road route over railways. Also, traffic is so congested on busy routes that often passenger trains are given priority over goods train which are subjected to longer routes and many diversions before they reach their destination. Accidents are another area of concern for railways. Highest numbers of railway fatalities occur due to accidents at unmanned level crossings. There are 30,348 level crossings, of which around 40% (11,563) are unmanned.
ISRO to the rescue
But all this is soon going to change. Two giants, Indian Railway and ISRO, have joined hands and signed an MoU with a vision to improve our journey, make it safer and to more efficient. After writing many success stories in the field of space, ISRO is all set to help change the face of Indian Railways and improve its efficiency and enhance its safety. ISRO will be providing satellite images of the routes, and will also be providing navigation with the help of its much celebrated GAGAN software.
Indian Railways is geographically distributed, and posses linear assets across the country. They are natural users of geospatial technologies. “Railway operation is essentially an optimal use of geographically dispersed facilities. Therefore the first step is to map all Railway assets in a geospatial database,” emphasizes Mathur.
He adds that spatial technologies can also help to lighten the load of the maintenance staff and managers. ISRO and Railways are trying to leverage satellite imagery and other space technologies to ensure better safety for Railway users, for example, at unmanned level crossings.
Use of space technology in railways has been divided into two categories: Remote sensing-based applications and satellite communication-based applications. Remote sensing-based applications will be further used for satellite imaging for new railway line alignment, geo-fencing applications for mobile unreserved ticketing. It will also be used for asset mapping of the railways, remote monitoring of the locomotives and passenger information system.
Satellite communication-based applications will be used for emergency/disaster communication from remote locations using satellite phones and V-SAT terminals. It will be used for extending the connectivity to the remote locations for passenger reservation system, freight operation information system. According to B.P. Avasthi, Executive Director, Track (P), Railway Board, GIS enablement of the Indian Railways will also require collaborative information from various other sources. For example, at the time of an accident at one particular place, the knowledge of the availability of fire services, hospitals and other services in that area will be of great use in immediate rescue and relief operation. Services of National Remote sensing center will come handy at the time of disaster.
Managing the assets
Survey and mapping of assets of Indian Railways is already in progress for every route, lines and yards. Assets are being surveyed in two parts — one is on-track survey of on-track assets that will include assets of on/along track, level crossing, bridges, signals, electrical assets, stations, cabins etc, while the off track survey will include production units, workshops, buildings and structure, land, electrical installations, etc.
As part of the geospatial database project, the railway land will be mapped onto the base map. Since the land assets are very large, with geographically dispersed records, it will be a phased exercise over a period of time. With a centrally accessible database of land assets, it would be easier to manage encroachments and disputes over land ownership, says Mathur.
Out of more than 54,000 land maps of the area that falls under the Railways, digitization and geo-referencing of many of these maps combined with on track GPS survey is going on. It will help railways in identifying their properties, boundaries, stop encroachment and will also help in feasibility study for new routes and alignment. It will help in significant cost and time reduction in project implementation. Apart from that it will help railways in effective utilization of railway assets and identification of vulnerable stretches with respect to floods, landslides etc. The work is already on in Delhi division of the Railways.
Managing unmanned railway crossings
Hundreds of people die every year while crossing unmanned level crossings resulting in a loss of life and money for the nation. ISRO has come up with an innovative and unique solution to this problem. ISRO Chief A.S. Kiran Kumar says that with the help of GAGAN, ISRO will be able to provide a unique preventive safety measure to Indian Railways.
GAGAN, or the GPS Aided GEO Augmented Navigation, is a system to improve the accuracy of a GNSS receiver by providing reference signals. So how will this work? Suppose a train is approaching an unmanned level crossing. GAGAN-enabled train will have a hooter system that will start warning the driver, guard and the people near the unmanned crossing that a train is approaching. It will be fully automatic and will work even during the darkness of the night. The hooting will alert not only the driver, but will also act as a warning to the people near unmanned level crossing. The implementation of this system is likely to control the number of accidents at unmanned crossings.
Train tracking system
After GAGAN’s successful use by the aviation sector, ISRO is also planning to use it for tracking trains. Since GAGAN augments GPS position, its accuracy is better than GPS. According to GAGAN Project Director A.S. Ganeshan, a GAGAN receiver on a goods train can be used to track their location. “Sometimes, these goods trains are taken to a long route, but having a GAGAN receiver on it helps you to monitor the location,” he adds. Knowing the exact position of wagons will also enable railways to easily divert them according to needs or on uncongested routes.
The same system can also be used to know the exact location of the train. At the moment the real location of only a few trains are tracked. But real-time tracking of trains will help in better transportation management, ease to passengers and reduce the rush at the platforms.
Interestingly, the Railways had started a real-time train tracking project – SIMRAN – as a pilot project along with IIT-Kanpur. The pilot was scrapped in November 2012, and was followed with a similar project called RailRadar. “The trial run of live train tracking a few years ago was concluded after its objectives were met. The system is slated for full implementation as and when resources such as the requisite satellite bandwidth become available,” says Mathur. Passengers can track their trains through the National Train Enquiry System (NTES), available through the Web or as a mobile app. The technologies in use are being updated as and when required, he adds.
Safety and anti-collision
The Railway Budget 2011 had announced to cover all its eight zones with anti-collision devices (ACD). The ACD Network is a train-collision prevention system patented by the Konkan Railway Corporation, a public-sector undertaking of the Ministry of Railways. ACDs rely on GPS satellites for position updates and exchange information through radio frequency transmissions to automatically brake and prevent collisions. Today, the project is far from being implemented on 100% of the total railway route.
Sources say the the ACD system had an inherent flaw since the best possible horizontal accuracy with GPS is 10 meter. This is inadequate for detection of rail tracks separated by a distance of 10-15 feet. Now the GAGAN technology will come in handy at the time of accidents when it can be used to ascertain the exact location of trains and the topography.Additionally, GAGAN can also be used for the alignment of the railway tracks. In case of heavy rains, railway tracks get disturbed. All this can be managed with the help of GAGAN receivers, points out Ganeshan.
Meanwhile, the Railways is also using technology to improve passenger experience. Last year, Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu launched the paperless unreserved ticketing mobile application. While Paperless Unreserved Ticketing System for Chennai and Mumbai suburban sections were launched In April and June, respectively, the New Delhi-Palwal section of Northern Railway saw this in September. This system will soon be implemented in other important suburban sections of Eastern Railway, South Eastern Railway and South Central Railway shortly. “There is an app which uses GAGAN. It automatically deducts money when you board a train, so you don’t have to stand in a queue to get a paper ticket,” explains Ganeshan.
Satellite images are being used for geo-fencing of stations for the paperless ticketing system. Geo-fencing is a virtual barrier which uses the GPS or RFID to define geographical boundaries. Geo-fencing of stations is a must for going paperless and the tie-up with ISRO will enable railways in getting the required back-up from satellite.
More in the offing
More plans are on the cards such as establishing the Bhuvan node in railways data center for departmental application and citizen-centric services. This will provide Bhuvan imagery services to Indian Railways GeoPortal. Training of trainers for centralized training Institute of Indian Railways will be very crucial for them to reap all the benefits they will be getting from ISRO. Customized courses on geospatial technology tools for Railway officials will help them understand the field and utilize it in a much better way.
The Freight Monitoring App called Parichaalan is another development towards improving operating efficiency through improved Management Information System. The app helps the railway operating department to plan freight operations on real time basis. Further, there is a great discussion on about developing smart cities in India. A smart city must have smart transportation system and position information becomes fundamental here. Intra-city metro services and high-speed bullet trains are today’s needs and could be tomorrow’s reality. Satellite-based augmentation system like GAGAN as well as the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) will play a very critical role in all this.