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From steam to magnetic levitation: Indian Railways’ quest for traction

From steam to magnetic levitation: Indian Railways’ quest for traction
The railways has constantly been on a lookout for better ‘traction’ or power since it made its grand entry in India.

Among the many monikers earned by Indian Railways over the years, ‘people’s carrier’ describes it the best. In order to carry passengers on its network, the railways has constantly been on a lookout for better ‘traction’ or power since it made its grand entry in India.india-at-70-logo-2

A railway locomotive, or an engine, is the most integral part of a rake that provides motive power. The construction of Indian Railways started in 1840. It today has electric, diesel and in some cases compressed natural gas traction, and is now looking at magnetic levitation for increasing speed to ease congestion and attracting traffic to increase its freight and passenger revenue.

At the heart of this playbook are locomotives which drive the economy. Railways transport around 36% of India’s freight. The country’s gross domestic product expanded 7.9% in the January-March quarter, and is projected between 7% and 7.75% for the current financial year.

In the beginning, it was the steam engine

In August 2008, Mark Allatt, board chairman of the UK-based A1 Steam Locomotive Trust, said steam locomotive “is the nearest thing man has ever created to a living thing”. The occasion was completion of building the LNER Peppercorn Cass A1 no. 60163 ‘Tornado’ locomotive to commemorate steam locomotives from a bygone era.

The Bengal Sappers, now a regiment of the Corps of Engineers in the Indian Army, was the first to run a steam locomotive, named Thomson, in the year 1851.The steam locomotive led to the revolution of rail travel in the country. At the time of Independence, the Indian Railways experienced an acute shortage of locomotives as a majority of them remained in Pakistan. 

The WP 7200 was the first WP class of engine that was handed over to the Indian Railways in the US on 15 August 1947, the day of India’s Independence. Though the engine physically arrived in October 1947. The locomotive which was previously named after Mughal emperor Shahjahan was later re-christened as Azaad (liberated). 

The Indian locomotive class WP was introduced after the Second World War, designed especially for high-ash Indian coal. ‘W’ marked the classification code for broad gauge locomotives. The locomotives had a distinct cone-shaped bulging nose with (usually) a silver star painted on it.

According to Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation, steam locomotive WP 7161 became the standard passenger locomotive for the Indian Railways post 1947. The locomotives were capable of running up to the speed of 110km per hour (kmph). Contrast this with the railways current plan to upgrade its network and focus on indigenous production of semi high-speed trains running between 160 kmph and 200 kmph.

The setting up of the Chittaranjan Locomotive Works (CLW) in West Bengal—on 26 January 1950, the day India declared itself a Republic—soon scripted a new era in the railways with the factory producing steam locomotives in collaboration with the North British Locomotive Company. The factory, which would later go on to become one of the largest locomotive manufacturers in the world, produced its first WG class steam locomotive on 1 November 1950 which was named after freedom fighter Deshbandu Chittaranjan Das, after whom the factory was also named. 

CLW produced broad gauge and metre gauge steam locomotives till 1972. Production of steam locomotives was discontinued in 1972. Today, CLW is the largest maker of electric locomotives in the world.

These locomotives though ‘lost steam’ soon. The last meter gauge steam locomotive, Antim Sitara (The Last Star), was rolled out in 1972.  The number of steam locomotives fell from around 2,300 in the early 1990s to around 200 by 1995. On 6 December 1995, WL 15005 named Sher-e-Punjab, the last broad gauge locomotive from Ferozepur to Jalandhar in Punjab ceased to run. By the year 2000, all steam locomotives had stopped running in the country. Though some are still in service on tourist and heritage lines, the sun had set on steam locomotives. 

The biggest impact of the phasing out the steam locomotives was on haulage capacity. 

“The biggest impact of phasing out the steam locomotives, and building diesel and electric traction, was on the haulage capacity. Both in terms of tonnage per train, the number of loaded wagons with good capacity and horsepower—a diesel or an electric engine can carry which was not possible by a steam engine,” said former Indian Railways’ Accounts Service Officer Akhileshwar Sahay. 

There were four distinct advantages of phasing out the steam locos—greater haulage, larger ballroom per train, high speeds, and less pollution. Ballroom refers to tonnage and the number of wagons.

According to transport economist G. Raghuram, the phasing out of steam locomotives helped in increasing the average speeds of the trains as they had a constant requirement of water and coal.

“They could not usually do a long run with the same locomotive and they had to change it every 8-10 hours which meant more locomotive sheds. Because of the change of locomotives, their utilisation was much lower as more locomotives were required and infrastructure to maintain and take care of the locomotives. Another implication was pollution. Because coal was burnt directly, there was a lot of coal dust which affected passengers, the environment and the stations,” said Raghuram, who is also a professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. 

As of 2015, the Indian railways haul 85% of freight and passenger traffic with electric locomotives. In the suburban railways of Mumbai, Hyderabad, New Delhi and Bangalore, all trains use electric locomotives. 

Around the late 1950s, the Indian Railways began favouring diesel and electric traction over steam, and in 1963 CLW began production of electric locomotives. Though electric locomotives began functioning even before independence—the Mumbai-Pune route was electrified as early as 1925 on 1.5 KV DC—the decision to electrify prominent routes in India came by the late 1950s. The first electric train ran between Victoria Terminus and Kurla along the Harbour Line of Central Railways in Mumbai on 3 February 1925.

The French connection

As overhead DC traction had reached its saturation level, the Indian Railways decided to adopt 25 kV 50 Hz AC traction based on the French Railway (SNCF) technology in 1957. 

Introduced in 1959, the WAM-1s were among the first AC locomotives to run in India.  Manufactured by Kraus-Maffei, Krupp, SFAC and La Brugeoise and Nivelle (50cycles European group), they were mostly deployed by the Eastern Railways in the Howrah-Asansol-Dhanbad-Mughalsarai section. 

The Indian Railways’ first fully indigenously designed and built electric locomotive, WAM-4 model, was produced by CLW in 1970-71 and were hailed as the country’s most successful electric locomotives.

Post-1968 CLW began manufacturing diesel-hydraulic locomotives as the production of steam and diesel locomotives were discontinued in 1973 and 1994, respectively, at CLW. It has since been manufacturing only electric engines. It is now the only government electric locomotive producing factory in India.

The other locomotive unit set up in the country was dedicated to diesel traction. The Diesel Locomotive Works (DLF) in Varanasi, set up in 1961, rolled out its first diesel locomotive on 3 January 1964.

As the conversion of Indian Railways’ mainline from steam to diesel in the early 1960s began, the national carrier turned to General Motors Electro-Motive Division and the American Locomotive Co. (ALCO) to seek designs for new diesel locomotives. Following which, both companies submitted their prototypes based on which the Indian Railways began production of its first set of diesel locomotives.

Among the first diesel locomotives which began operating in the country were imported from ALCO in 1962. After the inception of the DLF, all WDM-2 units have been manufactured in the factory. 

During the early 1980s, the number of diesel locomotives stood at 1,866, a figure which nearly tripled by 2000-01 to 3,881 diesel locomotives. In comparison, the meter gauge steam locomotives numbers fell from 2,763 during 1980-81 to 33 by 2001-01. 

As on 2015, there were 5,375 broad gauge diesel locomotives compared with 5,016 electric locomotives. Also there were only 30 and 203-meter gauge steam and diesel engines respectively, according to the Indian Railways Statistical Publications 2014-15.  

According to Sahay, there is a need for faster electrification of railway lines for economic reasons.

The need for speed

Currently, the Indian Railways, which is desperately hoping to meet international standards to make leaps in technology, is experimenting with various modes to modernise its rolling stock. However, it took 163 years to put a toilet in an engine room.

The national carrier has been experimenting with push-pull locomotive which allows the train to be driven from both ends as it has locomotives attached to the front as well as the rear of the train in an effort to boost its speed.  The Antayodaya Express, which was announced in the railway budget this year, may be the first train to be hauled by push-pull locomotive. 

Apart from the Shinkansen Bullet Train project between train between Ahmedabad and Mumbai which is proposed to be operational by 2023, the national carrier has also expressed interest to explore Maglev train technology which uses magnetic levitation to suspend and propel vehicles with magnets without touching the ground. Maglev trains are said to be the fastest trains in the world.

Railway engines have evolved over the years—from steam, the fire-spiting demons, to technologically advanced electric locomotives and continue to drive the Indian economy.


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