Our railway trains are usually late, but the delays are mostly avoidable

17 NOV 2014

delays are mostly avoidable

   We all experience the unpredictability in the arrival times of railways trains. The only predictability is that they will be late, though we can never predict how late they will be. Often, the train is almost on schedule till about 5 kms from the destination, and then it gets delayed by at least 30 minutes.

The reasons offered by Indian Railways are: we do not have powerful engines, the tracks are not strong enough for higher speeds and, of course, the absence of bullet trains! The complacent assumption behind all these excuses is that the problem is with the inadequacy of hardware.

If it is indeed the hardware that is to blame, then how does one explain that it is usually in the last 5 kms before the destination that the delay happens?

Has anyone considered improving punctuality in spite of the existing hardware? If hardware is the only constraint, will the advent of bullet trains guarantee punctuality?

Common sense suggests that hardware is by no means a crucial bottleneck. Let us consider the existing approach to punctuality. The Indian Railways has an exalted official who is designated ‘Director of Punctuality’. His role seems to be mostly clerical: print train schedules, collect related information and disseminate this information. No effort is made to monitor whether schedules are being adhered to and study and act on the root causes behind frequent schedule disruptions.

In our view there are fundamental conceptual flaws that are responsible for the delays, and these flaws will continue to plague the Indian Railways even if hardware constraints are removed. These conceptual flaws can be corrected immediately, whereas it will take decades for the hardware to be upgraded.

The first conceptual flaw is that the Indian Railways fixes the priority of all trains, and this fixed priority cannot be changed. It is this fixed priority which guides the controllers at the various stations to decide which train to permit into the station first, which second, etc. In other words, the order in which the trains waiting outside a railway station are permitted to arrive at the station platform that becomes free is the fixed order set by the authorities; there is no scope for the controller to actually control according to his on-the-spot assessment of the situation; the controller on the scene is in fact controlled by the fixed priorities set earlier in some office far removed from the scene. This is a very common scene at all junctions, along all routes!

Here is an actual example:

1. The Dadar-Chennai Express, waiting to enter Arkonam Junction, just one station before Chennai, is running an hour late.

2. Another train, this one from Chennai to Bangalore and with a higher priority than the Dadar-Chennai Express, is running on time and also waiting to enter Arkonam Junction.

3. Following the present system, the higher priority Chennai-Bangalore train is allowed into Arkonam Junction first, thereby adding further to the one-hour delay of the Dadar-Chennai Express.

4. The point that is missed is that the Chennai-Bangalore train has nearly 270 kms in which to make up for the small delay that will be caused to it if the priority at Arkonam is now shifted to the Dadar-Chennai Express (which has only 65 kms in which it can make up for the time already lost).

As you can clearly see, the rules often defy common sense. The concept of a specific train having a fixed priority irrespective of its location on the route and irrespective of the actual situations of other trains on the route is fallacious. The actual situation along the route, and not some fixed rule, should dictate train priorities.

We can come up with an algorithm that ensures that the cumulative delay of all trains is restricted to the absolute minimum on a daily basis. A software based on this algorithm can continuously prescribe the order in which trains can arrive and depart from stations. Controllers can then use this software to effectively control train movements into and out of stations. This can first be tried out in those critical routes and junctions that contribute the most to the delays in running of trains.

We must remember that people waiting in trains and on platforms costs India millions of man-hours of productive time every year, not to mention the idling railway infrastructure.

Two afterthoughts:

1. Why are trains with VIP passengers always on time?

2. Do VIPS travel on trains nowadays?

One affected Indian Bakra/bakri in the service of the people of India.

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