Indian Railways last week shut its alternative energy arm as it pursues its goal of full electrification of its network in two years. The surprise move was prompted partly by the perceived non-performance of the unit, railway officials said.
The closure of Indian Railways Organisation of Alternative Fuels (IROAF) doesn’t mean the scrapping of the national transporter’s dream of finding eco-friendly fuels to power the railroad network.
The transporter will continue to adopt a focussed approach towards hydrogen fuel cell technology, an Indian Railway official said on condition of anonymity.
The alternative energy research arm primarily focused on bio-diesel. It was closed because Indian Railways is chasing the goal of full electrification by 2023, slash its use of diesel and become a net zero emitter of carbon emission by 2030, the official said.
Railways has accelerated its pace of electrifying the network and producing electric locomotives. By the end of March 2021, 71 percent of the total network spanning 64,689 km had already been electrified.
The erstwhile Diesel Locomotive Works, Varanasi, renamed Banaras Locomotive Works, does not make any diesel engines now and mostly manufactures electric locomotives (275 out of 285 engines it made in 2020-21 were electric).
Barring one project with US-based Wabtec Corporation, with which Indian Railways is bound by a pre-commitment to procure diesel locomotives, based on a 2015 contract it signed to buy 1,000 locomotives for $2.5 billion over 10 years, the public transporter is not buying diesel locomotives.
IROAF was set up in 2008 when Lalu Prasad was railway minister and started its work with a primary focus on sourcing biodiesel from jatropha trees planted on narrow patches of land alongside railway tracks, among other sources.
Indian Railways also tried to run trains with various levels of marginal blending of biodiesel, but faced challenges in terms of availability and prices of these alternative fuels.
Apart from biodiesel, IROAF did make a few attempts to introduce other fuels such as compressed natural gas, liquefied natural gas and solar energy to run trains. It had little by way of results to show for its existence of over a decade.
“IROAF was largely managing tenders. It could neither act as a knowledge bank nor acquire any useful expertise or skill-set by building its own laboratory or a research unit,” Sudhanshu Mani, a former general manager of the Chennai-based Integral Coach Factory, told this writer.
When the Railway Ministry announced the closure of IROAF on September 7, it handed over the unit’s functions to Electrical Development Department in the Railway Board and Northern Railways.
IROAF had invited bids for conversion of two diesel electrical multiple unit rakes and two hybrid locomotives to the hydrogen power fuel cell for a proposed trial between Jind and Sonepat, according to a statement it released just a month ago.
Mani and some his colleagues were puzzled about the functions of IROAF shifting to Northern Railways.
“One is not sure if the Northern Railway officials – who are already engaged in their daily core operations -- will be able to make time for such research-oriented projects,” said Niraj Kumar, a former director general, National Academy of Indian Railways.
Mani said Lucknow-based Research Design and Standards Organisation (RDSO), which has a dedicated wing for such functions, could do more justice to these projects.
Indian Railways plans to pursue phase-wise trials from diesel to hydrogen fuel cell in select segments to test its feasibility. This comes at a time when, globally, railways have stepped up experimentation with the use of hydrogen fuel cells in trains as an alternative for diesel.
“First, we will try replacing diesel electrical multiple units with hydrogen fuel cells. Second, diesel locomotives plying on thinner rail tracks like hill railways, and shunting yards will be tried with hydrogen fuel cells. Third, diesel genset units across railways will be replaced with hydrogen fuel cell,” the official cited above said.
The tendering process of the hydrogen fuel cell project was shifted to Northern Railways from IROAF because the trial rail stretch is located in the Northern Railway Zone, he added.
For hydrogen fuel cell trials, Indian Railways may explore entities that have developed expertise in the use of hydrogen fuel cell technology in buses. “Vendor base for hydrogen fuel cell can be used from the bus segment in India,” the official quoted above added.
In the domestic bus segment, Tata Motors Limited won an order from Indian Oil Corporation to supply 15 hydrogen fuel cell powered buses to study the potential of fuel cell technology, Tata Motors said on June 30.
NTPC Limited’s subsidiaries have also invited bids for such clean energy buses to be run between Leh and Delhi, according to the energy company. The Kerala state government is also working actively to pilot a fleet of hydrogen-powered buses, starting in 2021. Globally, Japanese automobile giant Toyota Motor Corporation has developed modular hydrogen fuel cell systems for buses and trains.
In railways, French train-maker Alstom’s hydrogen fuel cell-based trains are being tried in Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Sweden and Italy.
Diesel locomotives will continue to be in significant use because hydrogen fuel cell technology has not advanced enough in India to haul heavy loads.