Friday, August 3, 2012

Freight Trains Suffer Worst Cargo Disruption in Indian Power Crisis

Lessons Must be Learned Before Future Disruption
Shipping News Feature

INDIA – The three days of power outages across the country are feared by many to be a portent of things to come, and not only for India. The power grid failure which blacked out large parts of the northern, eastern and north-eastern areas of the country have not been fully explained but to many the cause is obvious, too little generation caused by insufficient infrastructure linking ports to coal fired power stations and excessive draw down due to reduced monsoon conditions leading to wholesale irrigation using pumps and water bowsers delivering to outlying areas. What was interesting was the way the freight industry was affected by the crisis.

Despite having the world’s fifth largest power generating capacity the collapse sent more than 600 million people into darkness, traffic was reduced to a crawl, coalminers were trapped underground and railway lines were bought to a standstill. Any outside observer would immediately think that traffic would gridlock delaying trucks as signals failed completely yet this seems not to have happened. In a country where traffic lights are often treated as advisory rather than instructional, and with reduced traffic levels overall as people remained at home it seems there were no known major disruptions to the road haulage sector.

Similarly with air freight, the fact that there are few worse scenarios than the collapse of the air traffic control system as screens simply blacked out has prompted the authorities world wide to install the most rigorous back up systems for any transport sector. After the initial shock it took, according to an Air India spokesperson only 15 to 60 seconds for lights to blink on and normal service to be resumed.

The rail cargo industry was by far the hardest hit of the freight services, with the spectre of millions of stranded passengers looming the authorities chose the lesser of two evils and switched every diesel locomotive available from freight to passenger traffic. Even though the crisis was mostly resolved within 48 hours the backlog of freight traffic took up to three days to resolve itself.

The most worrying aspect is that this incident might be a snapshot of the potential damage should a lengthy outage or series of blackouts ensue at a later date. MP’s laughed outright a couple on months ago when the Parliament was plunged briefly into darkness, there will be little humour if a longer stoppage means coal from the ports is severely delayed exacerbating the situation and grain and agricultural freight either fails to arrive or rots in the sidings.