The government is promising to use technology to give the old-economy Indian Railways a much-needed digital facelift and transform it into a more modern, secure and consumer-friendly service over the next five years—all integral moves to making a Digital India.

On Thursday, among other things, railway minister Suresh Prabhu spoke of soon unveiling an information technology (IT) vision for the railways, which will include online information on the latest berth availability on running trains and an integrated mobile application including a station navigation system, besides customer-friendly freight movement initiatives such as introduction of barcoded/RFID (radio frequency identification) tracking of parcels and freight wagons, automated parcel warehouses and a customer relationship management system.

Of the cumulative 8.5 trillion proposed investment plan from 2015-19, 5,000 crore has been dedicated to IT and research.

If the Indian government’s railway budget speech of 2014-15 mentioned the word technology only once, this time around there were no fewer than 14 mentions, with an entire section dedicated to leveraging technology that also spoke of manufacturing Braille-enabled coaches to help the visually-impaired.

The government made the right digital moves too—right from the presentation of the railways budget as a live webcast to taking questions on Twitter and having a Facebook page, talking about SMS alerts, hand-held terminals for travelling ticket examiners (TTEs) to verify passengers and download charts, a move towards expediting refunds and saving more paper, and, more importantly, talking about putting in place an integrated customer portal to serve as a single interface for customers to access different services.

There are plans to offer an SMS alert service to inform passengers in advance about the arrival and departure time of trains at starting or destination stations; install surveillance cameras on a pilot basis in selected mainline coaches and ladies’ compartments of suburban coaches “without compromising on privacy" in order to provide more security to women; provide mobile phone-charging facilities in general class coaches; and Wi-Fi services at more stations.

The government also hopes to have a centrally-managed railway display in place at over 2,000 stations over the next two years in order to promote its Digital India campaign and for “unlocking huge advertising revenue potential".

The minister added that the government will continue to pursue with vigour special projects such as a high-speed rail between Mumbai and Ahmedabad. “The feasibility study for this is in advanced stage and report is expected by the mid of this year. Regarding the other high speed routes on the diamond quadrilateral, studies are being commissioned."

The diamond quadrilateral is a plan to connect Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata by high-speed rail.

In terms of safety, the ultimate objective, according to Prabhu, is to eliminate all unmanned level crossings and replace them with road over and under bridges.

In the short term, the Research Designs and Standards Organisation (RDSO) has been asked to develop a suitable device with a reliable power supply system based on theft-proof panels/batteries in consultation with Indian Space Research Organization (Isro), using geo-spatial technology for providing audio-visual warning to road users at unmanned level crossings. Further, a radio-based signal design project has been taken up with the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kanpur for warnings at unmanned level crossings.

From a strategic point of view, the government has stated its intention to set up an innovation council called Kayakalp for the “purpose of business re-engineering and introducing a spirit of innovation in railways".

Ashok Chandak, chairman of the India Electronics and Semiconductor Association (IESA), said the steps outlined by the railway minister “will motivate to the electronics industry and bring cheers to the travellers through technology integration. The budget will also boost entrepreneurship in the electronics with the ministry focusing on new-age technologies through Kayakalp to ensure enhanced passenger safety and security, customer service and trade management. We also foresee this railway budget to motivate design-led electronics manufacturing in India, with innovations and technology leading the growth of Indian Railways."

Modernization is an ongoing task. On 8 July 2014, too, the government in its railway budget had proposed bullet trains, bio-toilets, ultrasonic fixes for railway tracks, GIS (geographic information system) mapping, digitization of railway land, Wi-Fi connectivity at select stations and in trains, logistics support for e-commerce companies and going paperless in five years.

In its Vision 2020: Telecom Implementation Plan January 2010 report for the ministry of railways, the Indian Railways spoke about tapping the revenue generation potential in the telecom and IT sector, using the 64,000km-long right of way for laying optical fibres, signalling towers and other infrastructure assets that railways owns.

This was to be done in collaboration between the RailTel Corp. of India Ltd and private sector companies in a transparent framework. The proposals were under the consideration of an information and communication technologies expert committee headed by Sam Pitroda for expanding the RailTel business.

But, then, it was the Congress-dominated United Progressive Alliance (UPA) party in power at the centre, and Pitroda quit as chairman of the National Innovation Council (NIC) in June 2014 after the UPA lost the general election.

Since 1964, many countries have developed high-speed rail to connect major cities. These countries include Austria, Belgium, the UK, China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Poland, Portugal, Russia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, Turkey, the US and Uzbekistan, Peter Wilkinson, a director of SamWilko Advisory, noted in a 13 January note.

Wilkinson argued that high-speed passenger rail represents a prime opportunity for nation building. He cited the example of China’s high-speed rail plans to invest $300 billion to build a 30,000km network as the largest, fastest and most technologically advanced high-speed railway system in the world by 2020.

India’s rail system may still be a far cry from that of China’s, but it is taking the right steps towards building such a system.

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