Optimizing Indian Railways

Indian Railways: A Great way to See India

Trains are a great way to see and understand India and experience its pluralism, dharma civilization and culture. The railways reach many remote parts of the country. Dharampal, the legendary Indian historian of Indian science triggered a movement that has inspired many Indians in STEM disciplines to start researching and rediscovering Indian history. He mentioned how his travel in an Indian train and conversing with simple village folk going on a pilgrimage created a profound impact on his own thinking about India and its peoples, and this was a key moment in his journey that eventually resulted in his monumental works on Indian historiography.

Per Wikipedia, the Indian Railways employs more than 1.4 million people who manage the 3rd largest rail network in the world running on more than 100, 000 KM of railtrack, and serving 22 million passengers daily. It also carries more than a billion tons of freight annually. In recent years, the Indian railways has steadily modernized and begun to embrace new technologies and science to improve operational safety, efficiency, profitability, and travel comfort. I came across a few OR stories in this regard that are worth sharing.

Time-Tables for Mumbai’s Local Trains

Here is the report about how the Professors from the Industrial Engineering and Operations Research (IEOR) department at the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai  worked with the Central Railway division of India to develop algorithms that greatly simplified the process of generating railway time tables “to a degree that the suburban railway schedules can be created in as little as five minutes.”. This fantastically complex process used to take more than a fortnight previously.

This is just one example of how Operations Research, the science of better, is continuing to make life better for people all over the world.


Pythons and Anacondas

The Indian railways is trying improve their freight operations and reduce congestion without additional investment by optimizing existing infrastructure. Toward this, they came up with idea of making mile-long trains out of empty wagons and put them to work on long-haul routes. This resulted in long, snaking trains consisting of more than 100 wagons. Here is a Youtube video link. The goal is “to meet freight traffic demands requiring movement across already congested sections and to reduce the per-unit cost of operation..”.


Dynamic Pricing

Last year, the railways introduced dynamic pricing for the first time ever on premium routes (e.g. Rajdhani trains) on an experimental basis to maximize revenue. The press was not particularly kind to this move, and hopefully, the railways will be able to come up with an improved pricing policy the next time around and do a better job of explaining how and when it can be beneficial.

Air India

Ok, this post is not just about trains. India’s air traffic is likely to start growing exponentially and will begin to compete with rail for market share in multiple domestic markets. Employing OR methods and advanced analytics can benefit both modes of transportation and be a win-win for travelers. There is an interesting airline optimization story too. Air India operates, arguably, the world’s longest non-stop route (for the time being until Singapore airlines resumes its non-stop service to the US), from Delhi to San Francisco. They achieved this record by switching from a standard to-and-fro route to a longer around-the-world kind of route (almost 1000 miles longer) that got them home a couple of hours earlier while also saving precious fuel. The reason quoted in the linked report: ““The Earth rotates from west to east, and winds flow in that direction too,” a senior Air India official told the Times of India. “Flying west means facing strong headwinds, that decrease an aircraft’s actual ground speed, and flying east means getting strong tailwinds, which do the opposite.”  OR methods too are like that – they often throw up interesting solutions to problems that initially seem ordinary, but turn out to be pretty good when you think about it.

India’s dharma traditions always talk about optimizing in harmony with nature, and clearly, this approach paid off for Air India.