Electrification of Indian Railways to Lower Carbon Footprint

India has set ambitious goals to reduce carbon emissions and increase the use of clean energy as a first step on the road to low-carbon economic growth. According to the Paris Climate Change Agreement, India has committed to reducing its Gross Domestic Product's (GDP) emissions by 45 per cent of 2005 levels by 2030. Additionally, India has pledged to generate nearly half of its installed electric power capacity from sources other than fossil fuels. The Indian railways are one of the crucial economic sectors that can significantly boost India's efforts to meet its 2030 emission goals.

In terms of scale, Indian railways have the fourth-largest railway network in the world. It is one of the major consumers of electricity in the nation. The railroads run 9,146 freight trains and 13,523 passenger trains per day. The freight loaded onto Indian railways during the financial year (FY) 2021–22 increased by 15 per cent from the previous year to a value of around 1418.1 MT. With 1.3 million employees, Indian Railways ranks seventh globally and the country's top employer. All this makes it clear how railways are an essential means of communication to transport people and freight in India. Also, as people's livelihood also depends on it, it makes it necessary for the electrification of Indian railways to take place to benefit people and the environment at the same time.

Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in railways in India is considered beneficial for the construction, operation, maintenance and safety of railways. There is 100 per cent FDI allowed in railway infrastructure under the automatic route to attract investment in this sector. By 2050, India is anticipated to represent 40 per cent of all rail activity worldwide. Between April 2000 and March 2022, FDI inflows into railway-related components totalled $ 1.23 Bn. By 2030, $ 715.41 Bn will be spent on rail infrastructure.

India's transport sector's greenhouse gas emissions are 12 per cent, out of which 4 per cent contribution is from the railway industry. Recently, passenger traffic revenue and commodities transfer traffic increased for the Indian railways. The dependence on railways for communication and movement of bulk commodities thus increased. This has led to a dependency on fuel for the efficiency of the railways. Reliance on fuel for railways has further increased the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere leading to pollution, climate change and an increase in the carbon footprint. As India moves towards n et zero carbon emitter, let us understand what 'net zero emission' means and how India is taking a big step toward this through the electrification of railways.

Net zero emission means achieving the overall equilibrium between greenhouse gas emissions created and emissions removed from the atmosphere. For this to occur, firstly, the emissions produced by people (such as those from companies and automobiles that use fossil fuels) should be minimised or eliminated. Secondly, any greenhouse gases (GHGs) that are still present should be offset by equal amounts of carbon removal, such as reforestation. Thus, moving toward an electrified railway system and minimising the usage of diesel-powered trains as much as possible are prerequisite steps to achieving "net-zero" emissions. If Indian railways accomplish this goal, it will reduce 15 million tonnes of Carbon Dioxide (CO2).

The Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) is a climate action plan for reducing emissions and adapting to climate impacts. The Paris Agreement requires each Party to create an NDC and to revise it every five years. Additionally, this might contribute to India's goal of 5 per cent in NDC and result in annual fuel savings and other savings of INR 17000 Cr.

For a very long period, coal and diesel were the primary sources of energy for the Indian railway system. Later the system of electrification of the railway tracks came into the picture. The percentage of the electrified track has expanded significantly over the past few years going from 24 per cent in 2000 to 40 per cent in 2017 and over 65 per cent by the end of 2020. In September 2022, Indian railways completed 100 per cent electrification on its east coast, southeastern, eastern, and central-eastern railway zones.

Electrification of railways has significantly reduced the dependence on non-renewable sources of energy for the functioning of railways and benefits both environment and efficiency. According to the railways, the increase in electrification since 2014 has been about ten times as of June 2021. Recently, the Indian railways achieved a milestone towards their goal of complete electrification of the railways in India. The electrification of the 741-km route between Roha (Maharashtra) and Thokur by Konkan Railway Corporation (Karnataka) was completed.

Additionally, South Central Railway declared that several sections of its 163 km railway in Andhra Pradesh would be electrified next. The tremendous growth in the Indian railways electrified network over the year may be observed in the following graphical representation. The broad gauge network for electrification is 64,689 route kilometres (RKM). Out of which, more than 42,600 RKM, or more than 66 per cent of railway lines, have already been completed.

The growth of the electrified railway network in India in five year period

Shift to solar energy sources

According to the reports, switching to solar energy would result in a 6.8 million tonne yearly decrease in carbon dioxide emissions, "significantly" adding to the 15 million tonne reductions from electrification. For both traction loads (trains) and non-traction loads, the Indian railways intend to install 20 gigawatts (GW) of solar power (offices, railway stations etc.). India is currently setting the pace for the world to deploy solar energy and the electrification of rail systems. Thus, integrating these two essential low-carbon technologies into Indian railways can accelerate economic growth.

The head-on-generation systems (system for supplying electricity to trains that includes power for lighting, catering, and other train-related loads), bio-toilets, Light-emitting diode (LED) lights and rebuilding the train itself into a travel mode are being carried out that kinder to the environment. Along with this, the equivalent passenger experience is preserved, which will help make the railways more environmentally and passenger-friendly. 

Indian railways plan to electrify the entire rail network, use more renewable energy, and take other steps to become a "net zero" carbon emissions by 2030. Other actions to achieve this goal include cutting back on diesel use, increasing the energy efficiency of locomotives, trains, and fixed installations, green-labelling facilities and stations, and installing bio-toilets in coaches. With these initiatives, Indian railways are moving towards achieving their ambitious goal of being a net zero carbon emitter. Indian Railways, the country's lifeline, is taking the lead in rapidly electrifying railway tracks to lessen the country's reliance on energy derived from petroleum. 

This has been co-authored by Bhakti Jain and Ishita Dhar.