India has the fourth longest railway network in the world and is at the cusp of a technology transformation. While it has invested heavily in upgradation over the decades,  in recent times, it has come up with a slew of  technological innovations in order to make railway journeys less mundane and ensure greater safety, as part of the government’s ambitious Digital India initiative. This was evident from last year’s Railways budget [2017-18] that promised to turn Indian Railways to turn smarter with apps, drone technology. Here are some of the very recent initiatives by the Indian Railways.

Wi-Fi facilities at stations

As part of the government’s ambitious Digital India initiative, the Indian Railways announced that nearly 8,500 across India, including those in rural and remote areas, will be equipped with Wi-Fi facilities at an estimated cost of Rs 700 crore or USD 110 million.

This initiative is an extension or an upgrade of Indian Railways partnership with Google two years ago when the tech major  started offering high-speed Internet access for free at select railway stations across India. Google has now started testing a paid model of the Google Station program. The program was started as a trial at Mumbai Central in January 2016 and officially launched in collaboration with state-owned telecom infrastructure provider RailTel at 53 railway stations in the country in September the very same year.

Until now, the Indian Railways currently commissioned Wi-Fi services at 216 major stations enabling about seven million rail passengers to log on to the free Internet facility. 

“Internet access has now become an important requirement in day-to-day working and we shall be providing this facility at all railway stations in the country,” a senior Railway Ministry official told IANS as quoted in an ET article. As per the plan finalized at a recent meeting, while 1,200 stations have been identified for this facility to primarily cater to rail passengers, about 7,300 stations have been earmarked to not only serve passengers but also local people in rural and remote areas.

The Wi-FI facility at these stations in rural and remote areas will be offered to the local population as part of the digital makeover of rural India to promote e-governance.

Kiosks/hotspots for better reach

Railway stations in rural areas will have kiosks with Wi-FI that will become digital hot spots offering services like digital banking, Aadhaar generation, issuing government certificates, including birth and death certificates, and filing taxes and paying bills, among others.

The kiosks will also enable the local populace to order and receive goods from e-commerce portals and will be operated at stations with private participation for the local population. The official told the agency that the modalities of setting up such digital hot spots are being worked out with the Telecom Ministry. As per the timeline, while 600 stations are targeted to be provided with the Wi-FI facility by March 2018, the Railways aim to cover all 8,500 stations by March 2019.

Ensuring greater safety 

In order to avoid delay due to dense fog and zero visibility during winters, the Indian Railways has now installed a fog-safety device in all the TRAIns to ensure that they complete the journey in time. The move to install fog safety device in the TRAIns comes at a time when entire North India continues to reel under dense fog, which has seriously affected the movement of TRAIns and flights operations.

”A fog safety device is being installed in TRAIns in Northern India by the Indian Railways to increase speed and reduce delay caused by fog,” a senior official was quoted as saying by ANI last week.  Officials have used GPS technology in the device with a map of tracks, signals, stations & level crossing of Northern Railway in it,” Nitin Chowdhary, Northern Railway CPRO, told the agency.

The fog-safety device is being installed in the driver’s cabin and alerts the driver of the approaching signal on the track in the fog. The foggy weather affects the visibility of signals.

Real time information

The Railway Miistry is further planning to set up one of the world’s largest digital display networks in India. The network seeks to provide real-time information on TRAIn arrivals and departures. The centrally-connected digital screens will also beam infotainment videos as the railways eyes to boost its non-ticket revenues.

As per the latest data, currently 15,000 e-tickets are being issued per minute and 68 percent of total tickets purchased are through digital platforms. The latest technology is being introduced for critical operations including manufacturing of rolling stocks. Manufacturing of conventional coaches has been stopped.

The Indian Railways is exploring different options to enable transport and logistics. The state-owned transport organisation might look at bringing in Road Railers to enable door to door delivery that can travel on roads as well as the rail tracks. As a result, in recent months, the Indian Railways has been in talks with e-commerce companies like Flipkart, Amazon, Snapdeal and Paytm for on-board sales of their merchandise in reserved compartments, giving rise to a new segment called ecommerce logistics.

More focus on Research and development

The ministry is also collaborating with a Railway research centre in Australia to support future research and technology development related to critical infrastructure in India.

Representatives from Monash University Institute of Railway Technology (IRT) and Indian Ministry of Railways Corporation DFCCIL (Dedicated Freight Corridor Corporation of India Limited) signed an agreement last years where the Australian partners will provide guidance on the establishment of a new applied research and development institute in India known as SRESTHA (Special Railway Establishment for Strategic Technology & Holistic Advancement).

SRESTHA even though locally engaged, should have a global reach with the aim to become a world leader in the advancement of rail. The project will provide guidance to the Indian Railways on international models that will be adapted to the Indian railway environment.

Gains from automation in Railways

Harshad Khadilkar, a scientist in the Decision Sciences and Algorithms Lab within TCS Research & Innovation mentioned in his blog that automation and development of Artificial Intelligence would make Indian Railways more efficient.

“This means the TRAIn dispatching system can observe past scheduling decisions and outcomes to make better decisions: for example, sometimes allowing TRAIn A to go before TRAIn B, and at other times allowing TRAIn B to go before TRAIn A. Such new techniques allow us to detect the long-term repercussions of short-term decisions, enabling more efficient and yet more robust operations.

Despite huge plans and some tech initiatives currently underway, experts believe, there is a need to accelerate the pace of innovation at the Indian Railways. Whether it be quadrupling of stations with WiFi services, tying up with ecommerce portals to expand services, or issuing smart cards for reserving tickets, these measures should include a plan to use the data generated by the railways to improve operations and investment decisions. 

Greater research, promoting greater engagement with the academic community and partnering with solution providers to ensure safety can make the Railways ready for the future. – CXO Today 


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