India’s transportation cost is 14 per cent of the GDP. However it only 7-8 per cent in developed countries, a figure that both Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MORTH) and Commerce Ministry aspire for. The thrust towards better road infrastructure is now well known. For better utilisation of road infrastructure, recently, the permissible axle loads of trucks has also been increased. With this the roads can carry more at lesser transportation costs.
It must be noted with a degree of alarm that many National Highways (NHs) are utilised to barely 25 per cent of their designated capacity for various reasons. It affects the overall transportation costs and with it the cost and time for building new infrastructure – a double-whammy, affects both commerce and development, especially along the Northern and North East border States. This needs to be addressed urgently.
Understanding Cost of Transportation
A brief discussion on how utilisation of NHs affects transportation costs will help better understand how to optimise it on existing NHs. Improved road infrastructure allows for heavier loads to be carried quicker and with minimum disruptions. It directly reduces fuel consumption/ton load and running time (and so the over-heads). Maintenance cost is also reduced with better roads, which is easy to perceive. The increase in permissible axle loads, notified by MORTH in 2018, allows for trucks to carry 20-25 per cent more and therefore a higher utilisation of the NH capacity. This is aimed at lowering logistic costs by 2 per cent as per the Government Notification.
Few realise the kind of savings that is possible by using larger trucks for transportation. In December 2020, Bihar banned use of trucks with 14 wheels and above by a notification, because a few bridges did not allow their movement. A road construction agency immediately claimed a compensation of nearly Rs 58 crores as the additional cost of transportation of sand and aggregate due to the ‘Change in Law’. This was upheld in the arbitration that followed and the contractor was compensated. The episode came as a surprise to many.
Figure -1 shows the affect on cost of transportation due to the truck size. If you use a 6- wheel truck instead of a 12-wheel truck, the cost of transportation of aggregate can go up by 71 per cent according to the State Government. In actual practice, the cost almost doubles due to increased handling charges when using smaller trucks. While Bihar State had temporarily restricted use of vehicles that were over 14 wheels, the Jammu and Kashmir Government has issued a notification which has existed for some time now, restricting movement to twin axle, 6-wheel trucks with stipulations to use bigger trucks. This has reduced transportation to mostly 6-wheel trucks. During an interaction with some truckers, it was found that a petroleum truck with 12K litres capacity was only loaded to 10K because of local restrictions, making 20 per cent capacity go waste. Truckers felt that had bigger trucks been permitted, the cost of transportation of goods could be halve. Considering the wonderful infrastructure being created at great costs in these areas, this is a cause for concern. This is happening to various degrees in all States, more along the hilly border-states. The affect on cost of transportation due to this is already huge. The resultant losses in commerce and the burden on the public add up exponentially. The increase in carbon foot-print due to this is another dimension.
This underutilisation does not directly affect the road construction agencies – the contractor or the Government agencies such as the NHIDCL, NHAI or BRO. While common sense tells you it affects the nation, there is no ownership to this underutilisation and for very long, this has been neglected. The Ministry of Commerce needs to study the losses due to this.
Bridges and bottlenecks?
While NHs are constructed to take double lane, Class A traffic or more, it requires only one bottleneck to reduce the capacity of the entire NH. Bridges can be such bottlenecks when they are weak or narrow, restricting loads and traffic. A typical example is in Figure-2. The bridge had to be replaced in 2012 when the original bridge collapsed during floods. Since the only option was to launch a Bailey bridge, the capacity has remained single lane with Load Class 24. And so, the load carried on the entire NH is limited to only 6-wheel trucks with a gross weight of 18.5 tons. Along with reducing the load to 25 per cent of the specified Load Class 70 R (wheel trains of 100 tons), vehicles can cross the bridge only one at a time, increasing travel time. Carriage of construction materials or heavy machinery will also be restricted. Such bridges need urgent up-gradation.
Figure 2: A bottleneck for a long time due to a weak bridge affects commerce and development in the region. It increases the carbon-footprint due to slow traffic. Swari Gaad is not an isolated example of a weak bridge that has remained for so long. On NH 37 the Irang Bridge which is Load Class 18 is a more recent example. The bridge collapsed due to overloading on November 1, 2020. It was replaced by a similar Bailey bridge by NHIDCL, with the help of the Army. This was again washed away on May 12, 2022. The option is still only a Bailey bridge. In the meanwhile, the two other major bottlenecks at Barak and Makru have been upgraded at great cost and inaugurated with well-deserved fanfare, considering the difficult conditions. But the utilisation of the highway Figure-3: NH 37 is underutilised even after upgrade of two major bridges. It operates at 25 per cent capacity because of the Irang Bridge. This is likely to remain for 2 more years. The NHAI is also facing similar situations. The Shillong by-pass is a typical example where a bridge was declared distressed when cracks were noticed on the girders. Heavy ore-carrying vehicles had to be diverted through Shillong in October 2020. A temporary solution using a single lane Bailey bridge now allows limited loads. Moreover, this bridge must be closed regularly for repairs and the construction of a new bridge is yet to start. With better modular bridges, the distressed bridge could have been refurbished in four months to full capacity and prolonged restricted traffic avoided. But better equipment is not with NHAI. Examples of underutilisation continue to increase by the day. Because of poor response to routine emergencies triggered by natural calamities or other technical reasons, bridges are often closed and each time, the nation bears the cost for the losses due to increase in transportation costs. The poor response is a result of poor preparadness. Having better modular bridges, to meet the emergencies, rather than relying on the obsolete Bailey bridges, would make the critical difference here. With the build-up along the LAC, operational logistics will also get a boost with better equipment at the Nation’s disposal.
The Way Forward
Today construction agencies the world over have graduated from Bailey bridges to 3rd Generation Modular Bridges. These are as fast in construction as the Bailey bridge and able to provide bridges of spans up to 65m with double lane width and NH specifications (see Organiser, August 16, 2022, ‘Bridging the Gap’, page 40-41, for a detailed article on this where ICT helped launch one such 3rd Gen Modular Bridge in the Kedarnath Valley. Instead of relying on the Bailey bridge of World War II vintage and reacting to bridge emergencies by requisitioning the Army or calling the BRO, it is high time that construction agencies developed their own capability to deal with such situations and took responsibility to utilise the highway to full capacity. For this they need to be equipped with the right equipment.
Yes, the 3rd Generation Bridges will cost more than the Bailey bridges, but the value earned is much more. These bridges carry four times the load, have a life of 100 years as against 25 years for the Bailey bridge and are fast to launch. The effect of reduction in transportation cost due to deployment of these bridges has also to be factored in and the net value earned must be pragmatically worked out. It will be seen that the savings each year are multiple times the total cost of the bridge. Decision making must shift from just looking at costs to ascertaining the value earned by the overall impact of a better solution. Just understanding the value is not enough. Response must change from being reactive to being proactive. This means better bridges must be stocked as reserves by construction agencies and should be made available within 2-3 days of the emergency. Only then will we be able to ensure the NHs are utilised to full capacity for the maximum time.
The MORTH seems to be seriously looking at better Modular Bridges and have also formulated an IRC Committee to evolve guidelines for this, which will take time. While that happens, the way forward is to get a feel for the 3rd Generation Modular Bridges by stocking a few to address emergency situations. Simultaneously, with these bridges, one could address critical problems such as the Irang Bridge. The bridge can be upgraded with these advanced modular bridges in a matter of a week to allow larger trucks on NH 37. The positive effect on transportation costs will be immediate. The effect on commerce will start to show the very next week. The State of Manipur would celebrate for NH-37 is its lifeline which has never ever functioned to full capacity.
It is time we looked at transportation costs and optimal utilisation of NHs as inter dependent factors and make agencies accountable for this. They must have a policy for time-bound restoration of traffic in emergencies. They must be proactive in emergent situations, with reserves to act in a timely manner; equipped not with World War II equipment but with the best available equipment in the world. It is too important to settle for anything less if we are to check the adverse effect on both commerce and growth in the country, more so along our Northern and NE Borders.