Indian Railways is linking its trains to an ISRO satellite. How will it use 1.4 crore daily updates?
It is 2.58 pm on Monday. An Indian Railways (IR) controller, Kapil Dev, is focusing on one train — No. 22430, Pathankot-Delhi Superfast Express, which has just departed from Karnal station in Haryana.
The next half hour will be critical for Dev, located in New Delhi’s control room, as well as a group of track maintainers waiting on the outskirts of Panipat Junction. By the time the train reaches Panipat, it will have run past four lesser known stations — Bazida Jatan, Gharaunda, Kohand and Babarpur. The track maintainers have asked for what’s called a block in railways jargon, which means no other train will run on that stretch while the block is enforced for repair.
At the control room, Dev has a quick telephonic conversation with the Panipat station master even as he takes a close look at his colour-coded dashboard showing movement of trains — freight, passenger, express — before granting a 15-minute block near Panipat.
For Dev & his fellow controllers taking impromptu and sensitive decisions on train movements in 305 section controls spread across India, what has emerged as a gamechanger is the Indian Space Research Organisation’s GAGAN (GPS Aided GEO Augmented Navigation), a satellite-based augmentation system (SBAS) that was initially developed for the Indian airspace. It now relays train-running data — both location and speed — every 30 seconds, making the system far more accurate and efficient.
Dev, who was a railway guard in Jind till he cleared a departmental examination and got promoted, is one of 38 section controllers stationed in Delhi. In his own section, between Delhi and Ambala, he is fully empowered during his six-hour shift to halt a train or allow it to move forward on a priority basis, and even to grant a block for repair.
The key difference is that now a controller does not need to manually feed data, which means he has more time to plan more effectively train movements, including halts. This has the potential to improve punctuality in IR. A controller, for example, can intervene if a train runs at 60 or 70 kmph when the maximum permissible limit in that section is 100 kmph. Earlier, only details of arrival, departure and running through stations were recorded. Half of IR’s 12,000-odd locomotives are now enabled with Real-time Train Information System (RTIS) that relays signal via GSAT satellites that have GAGAN payloads. The project has cost the IR Rs 120 crore since January.
The entire network is expected to be covered in a year’s time, say railway officials. ET Magazine has withheld the name of the specific satellite that is being used by the IR as it is considered strategic, demanding confidentiality. This radical change of track, embracing satellite technology, was first seen on the ground on January 8 when the IR rolled out RTIS in a few routes such as Mumbai-Katra, New Delhi-Patna, New Delhi-Amritsar and Delhi-Jammu. Earlier, the ISRO had conducted a pilot project in July-September 2017.
The system being adopted works as follows: A locomotive is fitted with an RTIS device, which has two units — one is kept in the engine and the other placed on top. SIMs (subscriber identification modules) of two mobile operators — Airtel and Vodafone — are placed in it. However, thanks to the use of a dedicated satellite, tracking train movements is possible even in areas where there is poor or no mobile connectivity. The RTIS device uses GAGAN to transmit signal.The satellite then relays data first to the control hubs, which finally reaches the railway enquiry system. Both passengers and freight customers receive a more accurate information on train status when the train concerned is connected to a locomotive equipped with RTIS.
“Apart from knowing the exact location and speed of a train, this ISRO-aided system will help us in future planning. In case of a disaster, the driver can directly communicate with the control room by just pressing a button,” says Railway Board chairman Vinod Kumar Yadav. ET Magazine boarded a locomotive fitted with the new system and also spent 15 minutes in Delhi’s control room to piece together this story on how this system is being put to practice.
Loco pilot Surendra Kumar, who was introduced to the new system only a couple of months ago, explains how it functions. “Before the journey begins, I need to key in my user name, password, train number and date. The system gets activated and keeps relaying information to the section control. Multiple emergency messages, for example, running over cattle, can be relayed to the control room,” he says. Kumar and assistant loco pilot Navdeep Kumar were on duty at the New Delhi railway station early this week when this writer met them. Significantly, as the location and speed are relayed every 30 seconds, the IR can easily locate its trains between stations as well.
Further, unscheduled stoppages can be detected and interventions made. It also allows loco pilots to send emergency messages to the control room. This is significant as drivers are strictly not allowed to use their mobile phones for reasons of safety. Now, the driver simply needs to push one of the six buttons on the new device to alert the control room and apprise it of the nature of the fault — coach-, track- or engine-related, or running over an animal.
While the immediate gains of the satellite-enabled relaying of data are visible, the system will turn out to be far more productive if the IR finds multiple ways to analyse and use the humongous volume of data that it receives daily, for its future planning. The correlating of this new data with the information on tracks and topography that the IR already has may open new windows on research and development.
According to Mukesh Nigam, managing director of CRIS (Centre for Railway Information System), an IR arm that is the custodian of such data, there are 14 million daily updates at present, up from a mere half a million before January 8. Once all 12,000 locomotives are equipped with the system in a year, the volume of data is expected to rise to 30 million daily updates, he adds.
Can the system in its final avatar forecast for the driver the scenarios that could happen on the track? “Yes, there is potential to give forecasts to drivers when trains approach a neutral section (no-electricity zone) so that drivers can lower the pantograph (an apparatus mounted on the roof of an electric train). We are still working on this,” says Nigam. The only concern is, what if the 30 million daily updates become too voluminous to handle and remain mere statistics?
Controllers can now plan train movements better: Mukesh Nigam, MD, Centre for Railway Information Systems
Mukesh Nigam, managing director of the Centre for Railway Information Systems, the IR arm that is anchoring the project linking locomotives to a GSAT satellite, tells ET how this makes manual plotting of train movements redundant and improves punctuality. Edited excerpts:
How is the satellite-enabled real time train information system different from the one used in the past?
We are now making use of an ISRO satellite. The ISRO has given us a bandwidth for our locomotives to transmit data every 30 seconds. Our data centre receives the GPS/GAGAN updates from the devices placed on locomotives, and control rooms across the Indian Railways network receive the updates. The system works even in remote areas where mobile connectivity is very poor or nil
How has its progress been after the system was first rolled out in January?
We have so far put the system on 6,000 locomotives. By the end of this month, it will be installed on another 300-400 locomotives. We expect all locomotives (about 12,000) to be covered by the scheme in a year.
How will the railways benefit from this system?
First of all, we are now getting more accurate information on the location of trains, as updates come every 30 seconds. Both our passengers and freight customers are benefitting from it. Second, it is very helpful for section controllers (those controlling the movement of trains real-time over the phone with station masters). Let us not forget that the volume of railway traffic in several sections has substantially gone up. So, plotting of trains manually has become very difficult. Here, charting takes place automatically, which means, the controller does not need to use her hand to plot the movement of a train on the chart. So, the controller can now concentrate more on her real task, which is planning the movement of a train.
Can this system help the railways in long-term strategic planning?
The volume of data that has started coming in is enormous. Earlier, we used to receive 500,000 updates daily — on arrivals, departures and running through stations. Now we receive mid-section updates every 30 seconds. That is why the daily updates are now about 1.4 crore. When we cover the entire fleet, the data on train running will shoot up to about 3 crore every day.
Such enormous real-time data will help us develop better modules on train running. We will correlate this data with the ones on tracks and other operation-related data that we already have. We have done the GIS (geographic information system) mapping of the entire railway network. The correlation of data will give us better insights into train running, which will help the Indian Railways improve operations. There is also potential to give forecasts to drivers when trains approach a neutral section (no-electricity zone) so that drivers can lower the pantograph (an apparatus mounted on the roof of an electric train). This is only a potential. We are still working on it.