India cancels more than 700 passenger trains to ramp up coal supply amid dire power shortages

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India’s railways have cancelled 753 passenger trains for almost a month to ramp up coal supplies as the government rushes to overcome the country’s worst power crisis in years and prevent widespread power cuts.

The cancellations of passenger, mail and freight trains is so coal can be transported from mines to power plants on the verge of exhausting their supplies.

The country has less than eight days worth of coal stock as against the norm of 24 days.

The suspension of the trains is expected to cause a major disruption in the world’s largest rail networks that ferries nearly 22 million commuters everyday.

“The government has decided to cancel... passenger trains in order to prioritise the movement of coal rakes (trains) across the country to deal with an unprecedented shortage of the vital input at thermal power plants,” the coal ministry said on Saturday.

A total 713 trains have been cancelled till 25 May by the South East Central Railway division of the Indian Railways, while 40 trains were suspended by the Northern Railways till 8 May, reported the Indian Express newspaper.

Coal inventories in India, the world’s second-largest coal importer, are at the lowest pre-summer levels since at least nine years.

This is in part because of a significant jump in power demand that has grown at a pace not seen in the last 38 years.

A reason for this surge in power demand is because of a debilitating extreme heatwave that has struck India and wider swathes of south Asia, including Pakistan, sparking power outages in rural and urban areas.

At least 108 of India’s 173 thermal coal-fired plants have critically low levels of stock to keep up with the demand.

Several Indian states, including Maharashtra, Punjab, Jharkhand, Bihar, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh, have suffered power outages amid the crunch in supply.

Indian capital Delhi on Friday issued an SOS call to the federal government, saying it had less than a day’s worth of supplies. Delhi’s government also said it could face problems in providing 24-hour power supply to many essential institutions, including hospitals.

Delhi’s chief minister Arvind Kejriwal later said the city has “somehow managed” to ensure supply, but pointed to a grave situation in India.

“We have to find a solution to this quickly. It is necessary to take quick measures to deal with the problem,” Mr Kejriwal tweeted.

On Thursday, India suffered an overall shortage of 192.1 million units of power as demand reached an unprecedented level of 204.6 gigawatts (GW).

The coal ministry has said the country’s coal companies have a sufficient coal stock despite the record-low inventories.

It said state-run Coal India, which accounts for 80 per cent of the country’s coal output, increased production by 27 per cent in April and has 57.7 metric tonnes of coal.

Coal shortage has occurred as power consumption has increased manifold because of the heatwave and economic recovery after easing of Covid-19 restrictions.

This has put more pressure on thermal plants that use domestic coal, straining coal supply chains.

The demand for power is expected to rise in the coming days and peak at about 215-220 GW as no respite from the sweltering heat is expected as of now.

Temperatures are forecast to soar to 47C in some parts of the country.

Three of the most industrialised Indian states, meanwhile, are planning to import 10.5 million tonnes of coal in the coming months, a move that could push global coal prices to new heights.

Maharashtra plans to import 8 million tonnes of coal, while Gujarat and Tamil Nadu will order 1 million tonnes and 1.5 million tonnes respectively, with the latter expected to further import 20 per cent of its requirement.

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