Track shipments

The path to transport decarbonization: imperative to increase the efficiency of terminal operations through innovation

By Viral Joshi

An important part of India’s transport decarbonisation strategy is to increase the market share of railways to at least 45% in total freight transport by 2030. It is currently estimated at around 26%. The re-establishment of Indian Railways (IR) as the national carrier with a dominant market share is a desirable step as it remains the most environmentally friendly mode of land transport.

From the perspective of decarbonizing the transport sector in India, targeted initiatives to boost rail freight business and achieve greater modal share in the movement of goods are needed. The government has made huge investments to increase the capacity of the railway network lines, including the construction of dedicated freight corridors. In addition, the railways have launched the massive electrification of almost the entire network, allowing the circulation of citizens and goods involving carbon emissions close to zero.

Increased road capacity and new lines have significantly reduced transit time, ensuring rapid delivery of goods. Even though detentions at loading and unloading terminals are responsible for nearly three-quarters of total transit time, innovations in terminal operations have received little attention.

Loading and unloading operations in almost all freight sheds are done manually, and deficient facilities, scanty mechanization, and shortage of labor often make railcar and freight detention a common feature. The comprehensive assessment of terminal operation issues and corrective actions are less than satisfactory, except in a few places. Many cargo terminals remain under restriction for consecutive days due to operational constraints, inadequate handling capacity and other reasons. In 2019-2020, approximately 500 terminals were subject to restrictions for varying periods on the IR network. About 20 terminals were subject to restrictions for about three months a year.

Poor car release and heavy channeling are the most common reasons (91.5%) behind the imposition of restrictions on further loading by railways. Poor release can occur due to inefficient loading/unloading practices. A heavy pipeline can grow because the demand is greater than the existing capacity and the terminal needs expansion or a new terminal to handle the increased traffic. The need is to develop a few efficient terminals in places with high demand. Uncertainty at unloading terminals could be a reason to explore other options; a recurring and prolonged terminal restriction could deprive the railways of their legitimate traffic.

The manual loading-unloading system of IR is not only time-consuming, but also easily affected by factors such as labor management and climatic conditions. For areas where the loading/unloading of goods suffers from labor issues, mechanization may be a better solution to take advantage of the 24-hour operation of terminals. Along with mechanized loading/unloading systems, the availability of warehouses will facilitate faster and round-the-clock customs clearance of goods, and a dock will be available to place a new rake.

Railways could consider taking the initiative to introduce mechanized loading/unloading operations in railway freight sheds and start a pilot project in high demand areas by appointing a mechanized handling agency that could undertake the loading/unloading operations at a predetermined rate, the cost of which can be borne by the user. Railroads can expand their collaboration with the Central Warehousing Corporation to develop more warehouses with a mechanized loading/unloading system on railroad-owned freight sheds. Based on these pilots, IR is to develop its own set of product-specific guidelines for mechanical operations.

The modernization and mechanization of infrastructure will allow faster evacuation of goods during free time. This will result in less incidence of heavy demurrage and wharfage penalties, thus removing the unnecessary burden on private actors.

Realizing the potential of privatization to increase the efficiency of terminal operations, IR continues to promote the development of private sidings and private cargo terminals under the Gati-Shakti Multimodal Cargo Terminal (GCT) Policy , 2021”. In addition to relaxing the application and development conditions of the terminal, IR ordered the zonal railways to open railway land for the development of the freight terminal. The easy availability of land will attract more players. Assisted branch lines can also lead to the development of more freight terminals, as the cost of development will be shared between the railways and the private actor.

While development of private freight terminals is underway, railways should also focus on improving existing terminal infrastructure, including access roads, to maximize efficiency. The integrated development approach, which integrates major industrial units and logistics parks, national and national highways and rail freight terminals, will not only improve operational feasibility, but also capture new traffic.

It is high time for IR to make infrastructural and institutional changes focusing on freight terminal infrastructure and management to meet the projected freight demand of 3,000 MT per year by 2027.

(The author is an associate researcher at the Energy and Resources Institute – TERI)