Arabinda Ghose

    About seventy two years after the first railway train had steamed off from the Bori Bandar (Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus) of the then Great Indian Peninsular Railway (GIPR) on April 16,1853, hauled by three steam locomotives, an electric locomotive had hauled a train from the same Bori Bundar (Victoria Terminus) station to Kurla via the Harbour branch of the suburban system on February 3, 1925.

    This was an epoch-making development, because it was realised that it would no longer be possible to run the suburban trains with increasing frequency with steam traction in order to cater to the heavy suburban traffic on both the GIPR (now Central Railway ) and the Bombay Baroda and Central Indian Railway (BBCI) (now Western Railway ) system in Mumbai. It was also realised that steam traction was no longer capable of hauling heavy freight trains across the Western Ghats through the Thal and Bhor Ghats (passes) with the high gradient of one in 37 on both the Igatpuri and Pune routes, with steam locomotives.

    Actually, both these railway companies based in Mumbai had been planning to introduce electric traction for quite some time. In 1913, Ms Merz and Mcellan had presented reports to both proposing electrification of the suburban lines. This was followed by another report prepared by the GIPR proposing electrification from VT to Igatpuri on the one hand and VT to Pune on the other.


    After the first electric train ran on the GIPR, the BBCI too electrified their suburban line between Colaba and Borivali and the first electric train ran on January 5,1928 . (Colaba station of BBCI was later demolished and the southern-most terminus of BBCI was built at Churchgate). In the South, the section between Madras Beach and Tambaram too was electrified on May 11, 1931. The GIPR extended electrification up to both Pune and Igatpuri and the BBCI extended it to Virar. By the time Independence came, the total electrified route kilometres over the Indian Railway System was only 388, the approximate distance between Mumbai Central and Vadodara .

    All these 388 kilometres were electrified on the 1500 Volt Direct Current(1.5 KV DC) system, because at that time there were technology constraints in introducting of the superior Alternating Current(AC) system. In fact, when it was proposed that the Calcutta Suburban System too should be electrified , it was decided that the system should be substantially the same, except that instead of 1500 volts, the system would have 3000 volt DC system. The first suburban train which ran in the Calcutta area in 1954 was on this system.

The Momentum

    The second Five Year Plan (1957-62) saw a spurt in railway electrification with the focus on the Eastern Region of the country where coal, steel, fertiliser and thermal power for meeting the needs of minerals for these plants including coal. The steam locomotives, which had served the railways in India faithfully for over a century were no longer capable of hauling such heavy trains. Rapid electrification was taken up during the third plan ( 1962-67) and routes from Burdwan to Asansol to Dhanbad and to Mughalsarai on the Eastern Railway were being taken up for electrification. The coal and steel belts of the South Eastern Railway too were being electrified at a rapid pace.

    It was at this point of time that SNCF, the French National Railway, developed a new technology of electrification based on the AC traction system. The voltage of the current was raised to as high as 25,000 (25 KV) and SNCF decided that the current should be supplied on industrial frequency of 50 cycles per second (50 Hz.). While this 25 KV AC 50 Hz. System was a revolutionary achievement, no other country in the world took it up. Only the then Soviet Union accepted this new system, but the rest of the world, steeped in the lower voltage DC system mindset, refused to accept the French system. The extension of electrification over IR too was started with the same 300 Volt DC system.

    It was a prudent and bold decision at that time that the 25 KV AC 50 hz system was worth a trial and the Ministry instructed the South Eastern Railway (SER) to electrify the Rajkharsawan-Dangoaposi Section (mainly an iron ore carrying line) with the new system instead of the 3 KV DC system. Sometime in December 1959, electrical engineers of the SER tried the first run of a train on the new system with hearts pounding with excitement and their lips chanting prayers that the move should be a success. And it was ! The 25 KV AC 50 Hz. System had arrived in India, the second country after the Soviet Union to accept the technology from SNCF.

    Meanwhile, a lot of equipment had arrived from abroad for the new electrification projects on the 3 KV DC system. These equipment were transferred to the Bombay area where DC system was – and still is – in vogue. Thus began the electrification of the AC system with frenetic speed. Soon, the Howrah-Gaya Mughalsarai on the Eastern Railway and Howrah-Tatanagar-Rourkela-Durg and the Tatanagar-Adra-Asansol sections of SER were electrified mainly to cater to the needs of the three new steel plants in the public sector built during this period – Bhilai, Rourkela and Durgapur.

    From 529 route kilometres before the onset of the Second Five Year Plan, the route-kilometre (RKM) of electrification rose by 216 during the second plan, as much as 1678 during the third plan, 814 during the annual plans (1966-69) and 953 during the fourth five year plan. Only 533 RKM were electrified during the fifth plan period, 185 during the annual plans (1978-80) and 1522 during the Sixth Plan, 2012 during the Seventh Plan followed by 1557 during the annual plans of 1990-92. The eighth plan achievement was of the order of 2708 kilometres. Another 2700 kilometres are to be electrified during the current plan period, but the total kilometerage as of now is upward of 14,000 kilometres, with the Rourkela – Hatia Section(SER) about to be energised.

    As of now, the entire route from Ludhiana in the North to Ernakulam in the South ( a short distance between Coimbatore and Ernakulam still remains to be energised) has been electrified. Very soon, Amritsar, Kalka and Jammu will come under electrification; the Delhi-Mumbai routes via both Western and Central Railways are fully electrified and the Howrah-Mumbai route via Nagpur too is electrified. Chennai-Bangalore,Vijayawada-Vishakhapatnam are already under electrification, Vadodara-Ahmedabad, most of the coal and steel belt lines in Bihar and West Bengal have been electrified and the remaining ones too will soon come under electrification. Two major projects now under implementation are the Sitarampur(Asansol)- Mughalsarai via Patna and Kharagpur-Bhubaneshwar-Vishakhapatnam. Both these major routes are due for complete electrification in the next one to three years.

Electric Locomotives

    Along with electrification, the country has made significant progress in manufacturing of electric locomotives at the Chittaranjan Locomotive Works(CLW). Beginning with a factory building steam locomotives in 1950, CLW today is the largest producer of electric locomotives in the world at one location. Although in the initial years of electrification, the Indian Railways had to import a large number of electric locomotives from Japan and the European Group. The country now is not only self-sufficient in the manufacture of electric locomotives, but is now in a position to export them too.

    Here too, a courageous decision was taken in 1992 to import and then indigenously build them at CLW, the state-of-the-art AC three phase, 6000 Horse Power Electric Locomotives. Both the freight (WAG-9) and Passenger (WAP-5) versions are now in operation and are indigenously built. India was among the very countries of the world which had opted for this most modern locomotive.

    In traction too, India has adopted the more advanced 2 X 25,000 Volt AC 50 Hz. System and the Bina-Katni-Anuppur-Bishrampur sections of the Central and South Eastern Railway have been electrified with this system.

    Railway electrification may be costly at the initial stage but in the long run it is economic and non-pollutant mode of traction. Consumption of power for electric traction may be high, but is hardly likely to be more than two per cent of the total electricity produced in the country. Besides, the railways consume electricity at night when most utilities reduce or stop running on electricity. However, electrification is plagued now by the very high and arbitrary rates charged by the State Electricity Boards which are threatening to make the system uneconomic. A possible solution might be to switch over to central sector power stations for electricity but there are hassles involved in that too. Unless the States charge reasonable rates for power supply, the future of further electrification is likely to be jeopardised.

New Perspectives

    Dieselisation had begun since the very beginning of the planning process and the Diesel Locomotive Works (DLW) was set up in 1964. The advantage of diesel locos is that they can run on any section, while electric locos can be operated only on electrified routes. DLW has recently acquired the state-of-the-art, 4000 Horse Power Diesel locos from General Motors, USA and indigenous production of these locos too has commenced. One of the main handicaps for further dieselisation is the fact that diesel has to be imported while electricity is produced locally.

    The mismatch between the Bombay system of 1500 Volt DC and countrywide 25 KV AC 50 Hz. System is now sought to be removed by converting the old system gradually. About Rs.1000 crore has been earmarked for this project being undertaken by both the Central and Western Railways but this conversion will take quite some time since it is virtually impossible to stop the running of trains on the old electrified routes which carry about six million commuters every day. A beginning has been made by deploying dual voltage (WACM) locos and Electric Multiple Units (EMU) with dual-voltage traction motors.(PIB)