If you were wondering why headlines from several clickbait-ey news outlets were screaming about many changes coming to train timetables, you are not alone. Many of those headlines bandied about a new term – a Zero-Base Timetable.
So much that it now sounds like a pin stuck on a vinyl record. However, few seem to know exactly what the Zero-base timetable is all about. Much is based on speculation, unauthenticated ‘leaks’ and the usual IR expertise at non-communication.
Not the first Zero Base Timetable Exercise
This is not the first attempt at a zero base timetable exercise on the Indian Railways. In 2006, the then Railway Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav had announced a full revamp of the timetable starting with a zero base. Much was talked about the exercise back then.
However, the task proved too complex for the technology and the traffic situation at that time and was quietly abandoned. Only minor changes were made to some train schedules. Other trains received an upgrade to ‘superfast’ status with a little creative modification of their existing timings.
We talked to several sources, including those in the Indian Railways, went through public statements from officials and more. A questionnaire on the subject was sent to the Railway Board, but we have not received any response so far.
Here’s the sum total of what we found:
What we know of the Zero-Base Timetable So Far
Why a Zero Base Timetable?
- The exercise is a part of Mission Raftaar that aims to speed up train travel in the country.
- To accommodate the recent 130 kph speed upgrades underway on several trunk routes.
- Improve capacity utilization for Indian Railways.
- To create dedicated freight traffic and maintenance slots in a daily 24 hour period. This will help segregate freight traffic from passenger traffic on the same lines.
Zero-Base Timetable Benefits for Indian Railways Passenger Travel
- Potential reduction in journey times for several trains with a higher maximum permissible speed, removal of unnecessary halts and improved average speeds.
- Possible increase in ‘useful’ trains with better schedules.
- Change of terminal could improve accessibility – no need to fight your way to and through crowded terminals.
- Extensions of trains could mean better connectivity with existing services.
Zero Base Timetable Benefits for Indian Railways Operations
- A fresh start without the baggage of old timetables may help clear cobwebs, optimize schedules, save on slots, combine train services into one.
- More predictable freight traffic movement. Reduced detention, timebound movement of goods traffic.
- Better rolling stock utilization: Operating trains at higher speeds with the 160 kph capable LHB coaches.
- Improved utilization of sectional capacity: Segregated traffic is expected to improve track capacity use.
- Improved maintenance: Predictable maintenance block schedules will improve the planning and execution of work.
- Creation of new slots for adding trains, including for the planned private-operator run trains.
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Potential downsides of the Zero-Base Timetable
Inevitably, there may be some downsides if things go according to plan. Here are some of them:
- You may have worked out a great train or connections for your regular trips over the past several years and decades. All your meticulous planning could well be up in the air if schedules change significantly. But on the bright side, you get a chance to demonstrate your route planning skills again.
- If the elimination of stops is done at scale, access to smaller stations may not be so easy anymore. It is Russian roulette, but with trains.
- Poorly occupied trains that you could rely on for confirmed berths on a last-minute trip could disappear.
- Convenient trains could be shifted to not-so-convenient terminals. Some zones are regular terminus change offenders and not too worried about minor issues like convenience or connectivity.
- Clear and significant improvements from the whole Zero-base Timetabling exercise are not guaranteed. Creating segregated freight and passenger train slots on routes with junctions and merging or diverging traffic every few hundred kilometres is going to be tricky.
How the Indian Railways is creating a Zero-Base Timetable
A massive revamp often needs a lot of groundwork. IR benefits from owning granular data for every train, station, line and day throughout the year. Thanks to this data, Indian Railways is
- Conducting a comprehensive review of non-remunerative stoppages across the network and removing such stops from many trains.
- Upgrading passenger trains travelling more than 200 kilometres to mail/express category. Stoppages at many stations are likely to be eliminated for these trains.
- Taking a fresh look at terminals of major express trains keeping in mind path and platform availability. Issues that may have impeded a faster time table for these trains.
- Reviewing occupancy of trains, planning to combine services of multiple trains or cancelling poorly patronized ones.
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All this is fine to work out, but what is the base on which the entire exercise is carried out. Nothing – IR started from scratch, as though no time table existed. Railway Board Chairman V K Yadav has stated that external consultants are also being utilized.
This institution ran simulations of time tables of various trains across all sections of the network at various speeds, factoring in elements that impede speed. Some of the factors we know impede fast movement are slower trains ahead of faster ones in the network, freight trains, crossings in the single-line sections, etc.
The results were then presented to the Railway Board. The zones pitched in with the data for the elimination of stoppages, conversion of passenger trains to expresses, etc.
Buffer or allowance timings being reviewed
The concept of buffer time or slack as some people call it was also comprehensively reviewed.
Presently, trains have two types of time allowances factored in at various stages of their trips. One is the Engineering Allowance (EA), to allow slower movement at maintenance locations). The other is Traffic Recovery Time (TRT, the time allowed for trains to stop for overtaking by a faster train, wait at outer signals for want of platforms, wait at previous stations for want of clear path to the next block, etc.).
The multiple iterations of these allowances are reviewed and rationalized, and may save more time.
Rationalization or consolidation of slots, terminals
Mentioned earlier, another exercise that apparently has gone is the reworking of daily slots for freights, normal trains, and maintenance blocks across a section. Importance has been given for all three with a certain amount of rationalization in timings allocated for freights and passenger-carrying trains. This is also expected to help speed up trains.
Rationalizing the terminating points also helps in faster turnaround of a rake. Instead of travelling almost empty (or on a section served by numerous other trains) for the last leg, if the train is terminated at a shorter location, the rake gets more time for attention, watering, maintenance, etc. This is one exercise among the many that have gone into the Zero-Base Time Table.
Slots for Private Trains
Another important factor that has probably played a role is the privately operated trains that IR proposes to introduce. These private trains also need to be run on the same network and IR has to find slots for them.
Starting with a clean slate, formulating a totally new time table that has enough spacing for these trains with the requisite gap before and after will need some rescheduling.
Work in Progress
It is important to remember that the project is a work in progress. Things could change. We will be keeping track of more updates on the Zero-Base Timetable for you. So stay tuned.