Indian Railway Engineering

On 16th April 1853 the first train between Boribunder (present day CST) and Tanna (present day Thane) chugged along the sole railway line and thus began India’s long and enduring tryst with the railways. Great Peninsular Railways had managed to tug at the heartstrings of the simple Indians with their steam locomotive and the carriages following it. A century and half after the historical journey we still find ourselves in awe of this transportation system, although the initial feeling of apprehension followed by euphoria has now been replaced by cynicism and frustration. The fact is that Indian Railways, in spite of its various shortcomings, have stood the test of time.

Let us embark on a journey through the annals of Railway Engineering via our very own, Indian Railways …….

Railway Constructions – Architectural Grandiose!!!

The earliest of railway stations were merely unimpressive sheds providing a 'landing' place for incoming trains. But as rail transport gained popularity among Indians the importance of this structure was realized and attempts made to enhance its appearance and utility. One of the earliest railway stations to be an example of sheer architectural finesse is the Victoria Terminus in Mumbai, formally opened in 1887, with a series of well proportioned and delicately ornamented arches, giving it a look of a grand cathedral. Of the seven railway stations in the world having the longest railway platforms, as many as five are in India. Now isn’t that something to be proud of!!!

Today railway stations are being given the shape of large complexes and besides having the usual amenities like retiring rooms, restaurants, they now include large office areas. Over bridges are now being replaced by underground passages providing more space above, on the platforms.

Railway Coaches – Mobile Homes?

Earliest railway coach was a rectangular wooden open box affixed to wheels with benches (rough wooden boards without backs) for seating passengers, exposing the passengers to the elements of nature. The coaches were connected by a primitive system of loose couplers, which jolted the passengers whenever the brakes were applied or the train accelerated. The design was colorful and looked like a stagecoach or horse carriage. In 1885, an all-steel under frame as developed in Europe was introduced in India. New Coaches developed at Chennai in 1940’s were world class with all steel, fully welded lightweight integral construction. These coaches were also anti-telescopic which meant high safety to the passengers in the event of train accidents. The present day coaches continue to be built in the same vein. Air-conditioned coaches were introduced in India in 1936.

Today IR proposes to have in-train internet and telephony, so that the commuters need not waste their valuable time staring at co–commuters or ruing over the couple of hours lost traveling to and fro in trains. Commuters will then be able to check their emails, check out what’s going on in the world around or even carry out their daily transactions within the train. So much for commuter satisfaction!

Rail Locomotives – Tugging Along!

In India Steam Trains were initially introduced for passenger and goods service. Thereafter the steam locomotives were utilised for handling goods and passenger trains for a long time. General Electric introduced the first Diesel engine in Indian Railways in 1945. First Electric Locomotive (1500V DC) was commissioned in 1961.

Railway Communications – Hello IR!

In the good old days, as the last millennium was coming to a close, the trains moved around without communications. Telegraph & Telephony progressively came into existence in India through Railways requirements. Earliest lines sanctioned in the direction of Rail routes were from Calcutta to Peshawar and Bombay area. Later, for longer distances, IR started using microwave communications (2GHz and 7GHz (7.125GHz and 7.425GHz) for administration, 8GHz and 18GHz for control communications) with backup wire line telephony. The microwave links besides having more bandwidth than the older telephony cables also avoid the problem of cable theft. Most links have 120 channels, and more recent ones (post-1987) have 960 channels. The four major metropolises are interconnected by a digital 34+2 Mbps microwave channel. In addition, spread-spectrum CDMA communication is in use between a few stations (Mumbai-Wadi on CR, Wadi-Secunderabad on SCR). Other major routes, not covered by these, have UHF TDMA links.

With the advent of IT, computers have made the job of traffic controllers a lot easier. Today, major stations' computer networks are also connected via trackside cables. Control communications and control (the SCADA system) for electric traction substations is usually done through trackside metal cabling. Since about 2000, a major effort has been underway to provide optical fiber communication links between stations. So far, fiber-optic links have been provided along the routes among New Delhi, Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad, and Kolkata. Since about 1999, handheld radio sets (walkie-talkies) have been issued to most drivers, guards, and other staff on the move. These handsets usually have a fairly short range (a kilometer or so). VHF radio sets have been installed in the loco cabs for a few important trains such as the Grand Trunk Express, Tamil Nadu Express, and the Rajdhanis and Shatabdis, for communication between the loco and station controllers. Some systems like the Delhi Metro also use mobile radio systems for train communication; the radio system is integrated into the larger system of communication, which includes optical-fiber communication between stations, etc.

Railway Signaling – Train Ahoy!

Signaling is one of the most important aspects of Railway communication. In the very early days of the railways there was no fixed signaling to inform the driver of the state of the line ahead. Trains were driven “on sight”. But several unpleasant incidents accentuated the need for an efficient signaling system. Earliest system involved the Time Interval technique. Here time intervals were imposed between trains mostly around 10 mins. But due to the frequent breakdown of trains in those days this technique resulted in rear-end collisions. This gave rise to the fixed signaling system wherein the track was divided into fixed sections and each section was protected by a fixed signaling. This system is still being continued although changes have been brought about in the basic signaling methods. Earlier mechanical signals were used but today block signaling is through electric instruments.

In the mid 19th century mechanical interlocking was used. The purpose was to prevent the route for a train from being set up and its protecting signal cleared if there was already another conflicting route setup. The most modern development in signal interlocking is SSI- a means of controlling the safety requirements at junctions using electronic circuits which replaced the relay systems supplied up to that time. In Indian Railways, first trial installation of SSI was provided at Srirangam station in 1987. Nowadays Track Circuits are used wherein the current flow in the track circuit will be interrupted by the presence of wheels and a “stop” signal will be shown. A “proceed” signal will be displayed if the current flows.

Today the Mumbai Suburban Section is provide with Auxiliary Warning System. It continuously monitors the speed and whenever a motorman passes a signal at “red”, applies emergency brakes to bring the train to a halt.

Train Management Systems

Early train schedules were displayed on the platforms on blackboards. Commuters had to ask the stationmaster to obtain any information regarding the arrival and departure of trains. No wonder people used to be in awe of this means of transport, as they had no idea why a train would arrive and depart at a particular time!!!

Today, the system is far more efficient and unbelievably commuter-friendly. The Train Management System project under execution on the Mumbai Suburban Section shall provide state-of-the-art hardware and software for managing the suburban train operations on one of the world’s busiest corridors. This project entails automated centralized operation of all train indicators, new video display units at station entrances and passenger announcement systems, all happening in real time, events occurring automatically, as trains come and go by.

The technological developments in Indian Railways though, not path breaking, are expansive enough to make every Indian proud. This fact has been validated by the Japanese Railway authorities who commended Indian Railways for providing an extensive transport system to a huge population like India. IR has been doing a wonderful job of making optimum utilization of the resources of our country. The best example of this could be the Konkan Railways where the human spirit surmounted the natural obstacles of a rough terrain and built a network over mountains and coastlines.

Three cheers to the Indian railways!!!!  


More by :  Sudeepa Nair

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