With the catastrophe of the Coronavirus pandemic in the country, wherein over two lakh cases being reported each day over the last 10-15 days, the requirement of respiratory apparatus and oxygen have created a panic situation in the country
India is not prepared for such a high oxygen demand. It is struggling with a second wave of the pandemic with hospitals in several states reeling under a shortage of medical oxygen and beds. In case we manage to produce oxygen, its transportation is a measure challenge. The liquid Medical Oxygen is stored at a temperature of -185 C and it needs specially built cryogenic tankers to transport this gas because of its hazardous nature, it can burn anything in the shortest time. Currently, we have only 1172 cryogenic tankers with a capacity of 15,900 MT. People often wonder why these huge plants in our neighbourhood can’t supply oxygen to the city, the answer is the shortage of cryogenic tankers, not the oxygen gas.
To mitigate the crisis of medical oxygen across the country, the Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation (PESO) has now permitted the conversion of nitrogen and argon tankers, which need similar conditions to transport and storage, to enable the transportation of oxygen. There are 765 nitrogen tankers with a capacity of 8,345 MT and 434 argon tankers with a capacity of 7,642 MT in the country. Permission for converting a portion of them for carrying oxygen has been issued by Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation (PESO).
In the meantime, Indian Railways has done some fantastic work by taking up the challenge of transporting the oxygen tankers by railway rakes. Railways timely assessed the shortage of tankers in the country. The Railway came up with a novel idea that if the running time of a tanker can be reduced without causing fatigue to the drivers, it can do several trips and transport more gases. On April 15, 2020, Maharashtra Government approached the Ministry of Railways to explore whether they can transport Liquid Medical Oxygen (LMO) tankers by rail from different oxygen generation facilities from across the country to different supply points in Maharashtra. The Ministry of Railways immediately started to explore the feasibility on war footing about the route, working out the modalities and preparing a plan for the movement of tankers.
The main challenge in transporting Medical Oxygen Tankers is to find the shortest suitable railway route from origin to destination. The physical dimension of the tanker loaded on the railway wagon (Over Dimensional Consignment (ODC) in railway’s technical language can safely pass through various fixed railway installations without any infringement. There are several other constraints like the presence of low height fixed structures like Road over Bridges (ROB), low height overhead equipment wires, restrictions on bridges, curves, running through platforms were examined expeditiously and a suitable route was identified from Mumbai to Visakhapatnam.
The next challenge is to identify suitable railway wagons, it was done quickly and a trial was organised at Boisar on April 18th. A loaded tanker was placed on the wagon and all the required measurements were taken. Specifications for checking/securing for the safety of the tanker during the movement were successfully worked out by Railways and Industry representatives. The trial was successful, the first LMO Express was planned and started on April 19th.
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal is always busy crying foul but his team couldn’t utilise these COVID-19 care coaches. Neither is Maharashtra, which has the highest number of daily cases in the country, but has 21 coaches with 378 beds. It has only 32 patients as of date admitted to these coaches
In this LMO Express from Mumbai to Vizag, it was ensured to select only those tankers which would not exceed the height beyond the A or B class ODC so that good speeds could be achieved. The availability of tankers of 3330 mm or lower were requested from the industry. But out of 12, only seven could meet the height criterion. Ramps were constructed within 24 hours to facilitate the loading of road tankers on rail wagons.
Efforts were made to ensure intensive monitoring and route mapping has ensured that the train could cover this distance in a short time. The top management of Railways i.e., the Railway Board, Zonal/Divisional level management have spent a lot of time to make this happen in the shortest time to bail Mumbai city out of the oxygen crisis. This all was done despite COVID-19 pandemic and shortage of working staff and resources and running all coaching and freight trains. This movement was successfully planned as a green initiative project (green corridor). This also required coordination with states, industry and other stakeholders viz Ministry of Road Transport and Highways and DPIIT etc.
The Indian Railways Oxygen Express trains carrying liquid
medical oxygen to Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana
The results were amazing too. Movement by Rail has proved to be faster than road tankers. Whereas average time taken by road tankers is close to 70 hours from Mumbai to Vizag (compared to 55 hours by rail) and we could transport more quantity of oxygen at a go.
This success led other State Governments to approach the railway to arrange transportation of LMOs through Railway wagons. On the request of UP government, one such train left from Lucknow (U.P) to Bokaro on April 22 and reached Bokaro in the early hours of April 23 clocking an average speed of nearly 50 kmph despite the normal traffic on the rail route.
Meanwhile, requests are pouring in from Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh to move Oxygen Express from Reliance Jamnagar Refinery to Uttar Pradesh and Angul (Odisha) to Vijaywada (Andhra Pradesh). Now Madhya Pradesh has also evinced interest and many more are in the queue to transport Medical Oxygen through railway wagons. But it's equally important to mention here that liquid oxygen is hazardous and its transportation requires stringent protocols such as the least sudden acceleration or brakes, restricted maximum speeds, avoiding sharp curves, pressure adjustments etc.
The liquid Medical Oxygen is stored at a temperature of -185 C and it needs specially built cryogenic tankers to transport this gas because of its hazardous nature, it can burn anything in the shortest time. Currently, we have only 1172 cryogenic tankers with a capacity of 15,900 MT
This quick and effective action is contrary to the rigid image Railways have been having for decades. They have shown proactively and flexibility in their approach to making this endeavour a success. The Maharashtra government has made last-minute changes in delivery points, has requested for a change in destination of loaded tankers from Vizag to Nagpur and Nashik which has also been accepted by Railways at short notice and route mapped accordingly.
Lack of Utilisation
Railways have made 3816 coaches available as COVID-19 isolation care beds in different locations. The state governments have been apprised about the availability of coaches. So far only Delhi and Maharashtra demanded the coaches. Delhi has asked for 50 coaches (800 beds) at Shakur Basti and 25 coaches (400 beds) at Anand Vihar. Till date no patient has been admitted to these care centres, even though Delhi is seeing over 25K cases daily and needs to utilise this facility. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal is always busy crying foul but his team couldn’t utilise these COVID-19 care coaches. Neither is Maharashtra, which has the highest number of daily cases in the country, but has 21 coaches with 378 beds. It has only 32 patients as of date admitted to these coaches.
This pandemic has made drastic changes in the approach of government working and has changed the mindset positively. The word protocol is being in discussion these days, we are happy to see these railway and industrial safety protocols are being broken for the greater cause and good for society. Railways under the leadership of Piyush Goyal have broken the rigid boundaries set from a century-old pattern of working in this organisation.
(The writer is a research scholar, NIT Surat)