With the increase in demand for oxygen on the back of rising Covid-19 cases, the union and state governments and the industry have roped in rail, road and air transport to move oxygen and other required machinery in the biggest logistic exercise undertaken in modern India.
When the Indian Railways received an SOS from the Government of Maharashtra for transporting oxygen from plants situated in far off locations, it had to first fix the infrastructure needed at loading and unloading points, and the routes for trains carrying trucks or wagons containing oxygen tankers.
The railways, which had never moved oxygen as a part of its commercial traffic or on a roll-on-roll-off (RORO) basis, readied a policy specifying rates and a standard operating procedure (SOP) for such traffic. It waived the busy season surcharge and specified the number of drivers who would accompany the trucks on the train as moving such cargo requires technical knowledge. RORO services will permit bulk trucks to be moved over long distances; for the last mile, the trucks can drive straight to the destination.
“Earlier, such traffic was moved primarily between army points, so the infrastructure was missing. Ramps are required to load the tankers,” Railway Board Chairman and CEO Suneet Sharma explained.
Rail over-bridges, tunnels, over-head equipment, wires and platform canopies also limit the routes a large-sized train can take.
The railways also asked its general managers to map the shortest distance between loading points and destinations. Most loading points are in the East while the consumption points are scattered across the country.
Oxygen is typically transported by three means: Directly through pipelines from a plant to the end-user (about 80% of all supplies), delivered in liquid form through tankers (15%) and through small cylinders (5%).
Logistic bottlenecks including the shortage of expensive distribution assets such as road tankers, storage tanks and cylinders have added to the woes of transporting cargo that does not cost much but whose life-saving potential is priceless.
Tanker prices vary based on size. A tank without a vehicle costs about Rs 60 lakh and one with a vehicle about Rs 1.3 crore. But a cylinder costs around Rs 10,000 and contains oxygen worth Rs 300.
Distribution assets have to travel distances ranging from 200-1,000 km. Even with good roads, a tanker takes between 7 and 10 days to make a round trip. A cylinder also takes that much time to be used and sent back for refilling at the loading point, stretching the supply chain, an executive who has spent more than four decades in the oxygen industry said.
Circuitous routes of oxygen across country
Railway Board Chairman Sharma pointed out that on April 22, the first Oxygen Express — between Visakhapatnam and Nagpur and Nashik — was flagged off. It traversed 1,800 km, taking a circuitous route. Till Friday morning, 20 expresses had delivered oxygen to Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and other states.
The road-cum-air route — airlifting oxygen — is also being done, but poses challenges. When oil retailer IOC hired tankers from Chaudhary Transport Company, a firm that moves cargo for Public Sector units, some tankers could not fit into a plane at Vadodara and had to be loaded from Jamnagar where there was a bigger aircraft, said SP Singh, Head, Policy and Planning, Chaudhary Transport Company.
All India Motor Transport Congress president Kultaran Singh Atwal said trained drivers were required for transporting oxygen tankers. “We have deployed 2-3 drivers for round-the-clock movement with stand-by drivers and mechanics to take care of breakdowns,” he said.
The biggest bottleneck in the process is the shortage of cryogenic containers, said TV Narendran, Confederation of Indian Industry president-designate and Managing Director, Tata Steel, which is importing 36 cryogenic tankers. Cryogenic tankers are used as they provide the subzero temperatures needed for storing oxygen. Manufacturing a cryogenic tanker takes four months.
Other companies are also helping. ITC is airlifting 24 cryogenic containers from other Asian nations to India while the Adani Group is importing four cryogenic tanks from Saudi Arabia.
Reliance organised the airlifting of 24 ISO containers into India from Saudi Arabia, Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands and Thailand, adding 500 MT of new transportation capacity for liquid oxygen. These ISO containers will help remove transport constraints for medical grade liquid oxygen in the country. Reliance is airlifting more ISO containers over the next few days.
Engineers at Reliance Industries Ltd have made smart logistical modifications to rail and road transport, such as laying parallel lines, using hoses, and loading up liquid tankers through pressure differentials, since liquid oxygen pumps cannot be installed at short notice.
To expand the pool, regulatory body Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation has permitted the use of tankers built to move industrial oxygen and other gases for hauling medical oxygen.
With this, the oxygen tanker fleet (big and small) will rise to about 1,700 from 1,650, says the Indian Foundation of Transport Research and Training (IFTRT). But this is not enough to meet the rising and sudden medical demand. “Transportation adds to the cost, making the price of oxygen unsustainable,” said SP Singh, who is also senior fellow, IFTRT.
Centre-owned major port trusts and ports run by Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone Ltd have waived cargo storage and vessel-related charges for ships carrying medical grade oxygen and related equipment and to give priority berthing to vessels carrying such cargo. The Customs Department has also moved swiftly to clear cargo in record time on landing in India.
Some states are using planes to move empty tankers to loading points, and loaded tankers are being driven by road to the destinations, saving time in one-way travel. Loaded tankers are not allowed on aircraft for safety reasons, the executive said.