"Important decisions need to be made between vision and viability"

TRIMBLE SOLUTIONS India, a subsidiary of US-based Trimble Inc. recently launched its global railway solutions portfolio in India and is eying the Indian Railways market which it believes has a lot of potential. In an interview with Manali Jaggi of BW Smart Cities, Rajan Aiyer, Managing Director, Trimble, SAARC Region talks about the need to make Indian Railways safe, financially viable, environment friendly and the role of cutting edge technologies to help address various challenges the railways is facing today.

How do you perceive Indian railways and metro rail system?

The Indian Railways is often termed as lifeline of India; as it connects the length and breadth of India by operating one of the largest railway networks in the world. Every day, over 20 million people travel on Indian Railways, making them also one of the busiest transportation systems in the world. To keep pace with the growth in India’s population and its economy, the Indian Railways has embarked upon a process of transforming itself into a modern, efficient and profitable organization, even as it seeks to continue being the preferred mode of travel by millions across India each day. To achieve this, the Railways in 2017 outlined a plan to invest Rs. 8.56 lakh crore in the five years leading to 2022. Of this investment, Rs. 65,000 crore are earmarked for high-speed rail and elevated corridor, with the goal of introducing high-speed trains at 350 kmph from the current high speed of 160 kmph. Apart from this, the central Government has also proposed redevelopment and expansion of 400 railway stations over the next five-seven years.

India’s metro rail systems on the other hand are solving the urban transportation problems in most of India’s large cities. Over 30 cities have metro projects planned or operational including state capitals and tier II cities like Ludhiana, Nagpur, Kochi, Coimbatore and Kozhikode. The nationwide expansion plans for the metro rail systems show a deep commitment of the Indian Government to provide world class urban transportation, which in turn has already started to prove its impact on the quality of life, as well as economy of those cities and towns where it’s already operational.

What are the areas where important steps need to be taken? Tell us more about the railways solutions you have brought to India?

Important decisions need to be made between vision and viability. We believe that the Government is rightfully seized of the two important areas for transformation: raising the bar on safety and building high-speed rail corridors. Both these initiatives are in fact inter-linked; high-speed trains will naturally require special attention to safety, while safety across the rail network is critical, as the recent spate of accidents have also demonstrated. Also, both these initiatives require a well-planned and executed approach towards construction, operations and maintenance, which is where technology becomes critical to the success of these endeavours.

Trimble’s Railways solutions portfolio covers the entire railways lifecycle; from planning & construction to maintenance, operations and safety. From a planning perspective, the company offers advanced technologies like Trimble Quantm alignment planning that assists railway planners in the complex process of evaluating and selecting transportation corridors. World class tools like TILOS enable time-location planning while VICO office helps estimate time (4D) and cost (5D). For construction of high-speed or elevated corridors, our advanced machine or grade control technologies can help increase safety, accuracy and efficiency of earthworks, paving and piling.

Our portfolio further includes several cutting-edge solutions that include GEDO CE and Beena Vision, which have been successfully deployed in major rail networks in the world. Our Railway solutions use integrated processes and workflows for complete railway infrastructure and asset lifecycle management from the infrastructure planning, design, construction, and maintenance phases, to the operation, maintenance and repair of rail transport assets. Real time remote diagnostic monitoring, engineering maintenance management, RFID and barcode asset tracking to provide accurate and timely data for a more valuable input into decision and enterprise resource planning, Trimble is well equipped to provide capability across the asset lifecycle.

What kind of technological transformation do you envisage for Indian railways and metro networks? How can it help improve efficiency and save costs at the same time?

The Indian Railways has to find the right balance between becoming it a self-sufficient revenue generating organisation while serving as a nationwide transport system for all classes of people, especially the poor. As a result, while passenger fares have to be controlled, new lines and trains often need to be added for reasons of public benefit. In order to keep finances in check, freight charges have been raised in the past, but again an equilibrium has to be found and maintained in order to avoid the shift of freight movement from railways to road or other means of transportation.

Finances aside, there are a number of other fronts where Railways is lagging behind at the moment, which include electrification, track renewals, bridge works, and doubling of tracks, besides of course safety, efficiency and cost control that will be crucial in its endeavour of transforming itself. By integrating technologies for positioning, measurement, communication and data management, engineering and construction solutions can be tailored to provide task-specific benefits in productivity, safety and cost efficiency, throughout the design, construction and O&M phases

Passenger safety is a big issue in India, what kind of solutions would you suggest be implemented to ensure maximum efficiency and safety?

Safety is always paramount in any mode of transport, especially against the context of the ambitious ‘zero fatality’ initiative of the railway ministry. With asset management tools that help gather precise 3D data using mobile mapping, Railways can maintain current, comprehensive information, spread over large areas. Accurate and timely data can provide valuable input into decision making; thus ensuring safe operations. In fact, it’s imperative to factor in safety from the start of the planning process, and of course post-construction.

Do you think the Government’s Smart Cities Mission will give an impetus to develop smart railways network and infrastructure in India?

The Smart Cities Mission initiated by the Modi Government in 2015 has already given an impetus to develop smarter railway network and infrastructure. Under the MoU signed between two ministries – Railways and Urban Development – railway stations and surrounding areas will be redeveloped with an aim to provide easy access to stations, better passenger amenities and also enable optimal utilisation of land at railway stations.

The undertaking of metro rail construction in over 30 cities is also a key element of the smart cities mission. The need for developing smarter in-city transportation for citizens underlies the expansion of metro rail in cities. A Smart city is significantly dependent on its transport network and with the increasing pressure on major cities due to migration and various other reasons, having an intra-city transport system is a must. If one looks at the Delhi metro, which has a successfully running and continuously expanding metro rail system, it’s clear that an efficient metro rail network can be an answer to making a city smarter and passenger commute efficient and less stressful.