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Mr. Alok Perti, Chairman (CPSI) and Former Secretary, Ministry of Coal

Need to fast track modernization of coal transportation to improve productivity

In this article, Alok Perti, former coal secretary, Government of India, talks of the need to improve and modernize coal transportation infrastructure in India to increase coal production. Perti feels that while there is still scope for improvement in movement of coal by rail, especially in thel major potential coal producing areas, there is also a need for coal companies to set up modern coal handling plants along with adequate coal washing facilities.

Coal production in India has been constantly increasing with demand and this has had a fall-out on the methods of transportation being employed by the coal companies and the coal users. In 1973 when coal mining was nationalized, the production was about 80 million tons and this was mainly from underground mines located in parts of West Bengal and erstwhile Bihar. The famous mines of Jharia and Raniganj are in these areas. With exploration, increasingly more and more areas were brought under mines. The main areas where coal was found are in the Gondwana belt which spreads over large portions of the states of Jharkhand, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Maharashtra. Some coal is also found in the North Eastern states but the origin of this is different. Moving this mineral out to the users requires an elaborate transport infrastructure both for rail as well as road. These coal bearing areas in the country have unfortunately not been the focus areas for development of good infrastructure, as a result when the demand for coal grew rapidly mainly for power generation, movement of coal to utilities became a major hurdle.

Trends in movement of coal

Coal is being moved from the mines to the end users by various means. Rail is the dominant means followed by road and MGR (merry go round). Small quantities are transported by belts and rope conveyors. Table 1.0 provides details of the trends noticed in the past several years in coal movement.

Table 1.0: Trends in movement of coal (2006-07 to 2015-16)





























































It can be seen that the maximum increase has been in road transport. It has almost doubled in the last ten years. Rail movement has improved significantly in the last four years. Movement through MGRs has been more or less steady. This is because MGRs caters to only pithead power stations and establishment of such power stations have considerable gestation periods. While the number of such power utilities is increasing, the coal supply does not seem to reflect this increase in demand. These figures are related to the movement of coal from the mine lease areas of CIL and SCCL against linkages and movement of coal by other private and public sector companies from their captive mines or against e-auction. Normally, a railway rake will be transporting 3600 mts, except in the North East where coal transport is still being done through meter gauge rail lines. If we presume that loading will be on an average 300 days, then one rake loading per day would mean transportation of one million tons annually. A truck is expected to transport anything between 10 to 20 mts, depending on the capacity. For transporting, one million tons of coal by road would require anything between 50,000 to 100,000 truck loads. Moving coal in bulk through road transport will lead to excessive air pollution and extensive damage to roads. For supply to power stations and large steel plants, the mode of transport should be rail and only small consignments should move by road. Unfortunately in India, coal movement by road is increasing much more rapidly than rail. The mail reason for this is the lack of proper infrastructure for moving coal by rail.

Inadequacy of rail infrastructure

The main method of transportation is the railways. Coal mining is being expanded by Central Coalfields Ltd (CCL), Mahanadi Coalfields Ltd (MCL), Eastern Coalfields Ltd (ECL), South Eastern Coalfields Ltd (SECL) and Northern Coalfields Ltd (NCL). As far CCL and ECL are concerned, the North Karanpura area has the potential to enhance annual production by about 70-80 million tons. In the master plan prepared by CIL, there is a proposal to build a rail network in the area to evacuate the mineral. Since this area is densely forested, the Ministry of Environment did not give clearance for forest diversion for several years and as a result coal production had to be suppressed. In addition, this area also had insurgent activities which restrained the establishment of rail infrastructure. Subsequently, the Ministry of Railways had to re-align the railway line squirting the forest. Finally, the clearance was accorded in 2012 and the work was to be started. This a project to establish about 60 kms rail line. The MOEF&CC later imposed a restriction of rail movement during night in the area. It is not known whether this has been lifted. The work on this sector has been initiated and is progressing well. It is still a single line, though this will require strengthening if the full potential of the area is to be exploited.

Similarly, the Talcher and Ib valley areas of MCL have additional potential of producing about 80-100 million tons annually. Here again there are rail lines proposed. The progress has been tardy mainly because it was taking years to get environment and forest clearances. Land acquisition in this area was also difficult. The procedure of getting NOCs from Panchayats under the provisions of the Forest Rights Act is also quite troublesome. Invariably, the quorum required for holding these panchayat sabhas was easily fulfilled and hence meeting had to be convened by the collectors repeatedly for this purpose.

The third critical area is the Mand-Raigarh area in South Eastern Coalfields Ltd. Here, the initiative taken by the state government to team up with CIL and the Ministry of Railways to expedite the implementation of the project helped to move faster. IRCON was given the responsibility for both project formulation and execution. The project envisages construction of about 60 kms of rail line in a large coal bearing land area which has a huge potential to produce about 70 million tons of coal annually. The project is now progressing and is expected to be completed in the next 2-3 years.

CIL had initiated these proposals some 10 years ago and this excessive delay had resulted in the company suppressing its production despite having the necessary environment and forest clearances. Expansion projects of coal mines were also held up due to lack of EC and Forest clearance. This combined effect of lack of rail infrastructure in critical areas and delay in awarding EC and forest clearances for expansion projects resulted in slow growth of coal production.

Coal handling: Lack of modern technology in mines

Besides the need to have a good and modern infrastructure of railway in the coal mining areas, it is also necessary to have rapid loading systems to ensure bulk movement of coal to large users. A power plant of 1000 MW should get about 4.0 to 4.5 million tons annually to be able to operate efficiently at 85% PLF. This would mean that such a power plant should be receiving on an average of 4.0 rakes per day. Today, we are thinking of mega plants of capacities of 4000 to 6000 MW. Getting 16 rakes of coal every day would demand a very efficient highly-automated system to unload and convey to the boiler of the power station. Similarly, mines producing 10 million tons and above would require a rapid loading system. Conventionally, the coal companies had been loading coal in rakes at railway sidings which meant initial movement from mine to railway siding by truck or tipper and then either manual loading or with mechanical shovels. This is a time consuming process limiting the loading capacity. In newer mines the coal is being crushed at the mine-pit and transported by conveyor to the silo for rapid loading. Lack of such modern facilities for transporting coal within the mines not only limits the loading capacities but gives ample opportunity to unscrupulous transporters to pilfer the coal. Except in Northern Coalfields Ltd such facilities are not adequately available and the progress of establishing them is dismally slow despite the urgent need to do so.

Coal Terminal

There is the classic case of a very big mine in SECL where even the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change had given an ultimatum that if a proper coal handling plant is not established they would be constrained to close the mine. Putting up a modern system of coal handling can help to increase the speed of loading of railway rakes and also provide the necessary arrangement required for installation of auto analyzers needed to measure the calorific value and hence determine the quality. Unfortunately, despite the coal company being flushed with funds, the enthusiasm to set-up modern coal handling plants is lacking.

Conditions imposed by MoEF on movement of high ash coal

Most Indian coal as we know has very high quantities of ash. Ash content in most of the coal in India is around 40% and in some places even as high as 52%. MOEF&CC had imposed a restriction on movement of high ash coal stipulating that coal of less than 34% ash will be allowed movement beyond 1000 kms from the coal mines. Further, no movement of coal having more than 34% ash can be allowed to environmentally sensitive areas. Subsequently, in 2012 this limit was proposed to be brought down to 500 kms. This should have been achieved by 2014-15 but because of lack of adequate coal washing facilities this date has been extended repeatedly. The coal companies are trying to set up a good number of washeries but unfortunately the process of tendering has been such that in each case it is taking considerable time to place orders. In some cases the matter has also been challenged in courts. However, the end result is that such a stipulation will put severe restriction on the movement of coal if adequate facilities for washing are not established. With the current level of production, there will be need to beneficiate about 250-270 million tons of coal and the present capacity including the private sector is just about 130 million tons which is running at sub-optimal efficiency (less than 50%).

Coal Terminal

Way forward

The improvement in movement of coal by rail has been noticeable and despite very good progress there is need for further improvement. Firstly, there is need to strengthen the rail infrastructure in the three potential coal producing areas to a level that is adequate to handle the increased production. There may be need to have double or triple lines in these areas. The Eastern Rail Freight Corridor being constructed will be a great boon for coal movement from the eastern region to northern India, once it is operational and connected to the rail networks in the major coal producing areas. The coal companies also need to improve their internal arrangements by setting up modern coal handling plants in at least most large mines having capacities of over 5 million tons. Further, to be able to meet the requirement of the MOEF&CC, the establishment of adequate coal washing facilities is imperative.