For many years, railway BOOT laundries looked like an established model that was here to stay. Recent events suggest otherwise. From reopening after lockdown to rising energy costs, dealing with old and unused linen to an entirely new model for processing passenger linen, BOOT laundry operators are up against a host of challenges. Who better than Yashodhar Vallala, President, Railway Boot Laundry Operators Association and CEO, Supreme Laundry Services to tell us about these changes, and how they are being addressed?
Once the Railways restarted supply of passenger linen, what challenges did BOOT laundry operators continue to face?
Since the laundries were shut for almost two years, the biggest challenge was to revive and service the machinery, and get the manpower back together. We took time to restart units everywhere, because we didn’t know when the order to restart would come. A lot of money was spent in bringing them back to optimum working condition.
Another challenge was the age of the linen which had to be washed. After two years, the linen supply was suddenly restarted and there was no time to procure new linen. Handling linen which is 2-3 years old and had been left unused for a long time was difficult.
The Railway Board has stipulated that the age of linen should not be more than one or two years, but even now, we are dealing with linen from 2019-20, because the tender process to procure new linen takes time.
As Opex costs increase, how are BOOT laundry operators able to sustain their business?
The beauty of these long-term contracts is that there is a price-variable clause (PVC) built in. For example, at the time of tendering, say the rate was 15 rupees per kg; this doesn’t mean that it will remain so for the entire 10-15 year life cycle of the contract. Every quarter, there is a PVC correction of the price. For example, if the rate was 15 rupees for a contract signed in 2017, it would have become around 21 rupees by now.
But in some variables like power, the increase in expense has been tremendous. Still, we are able to cope, thanks to the PVC.
What methods are you using to reduce discharge of wastewater?
The post-wash reject wastewater can be recirculated for gardening or toilets. We are also trying to implement another method. Post-wash water from the last wash-cycle has lesser residue of chemicals in it; this can be used for the first cycle of the next batch of linen, as is done in tunnel washers. We are planning to implement this in the Nagpur laundry. With this, we can save on intake of almost 30% freshwater.
Overall, we can reuse around 25 to 30% of waste water. 100% reuse is not possible.
What technologies should be used to keep the demand for fresh water to a minimum?
Many new technologies have come in for this purpose. The problem is that for huge institutional linen loads like railway laundries, these won’t work, since the capacity of those machines is 25-35 kg only.
The best way forward is to use a tunnel washer. However, not every laundry can afford it, because the volume has to be at least 12-20 tonnes for it to be financially viable.
When contracts were signed 5-7 years ago, we didn’t realise that we should have invested in tunnel washers. Given a chance now, even for an 8 tonne laundry, I would go for a tunnel washer. Though it is capital-intensive, it will pay for itself in 4-5 years.
Recently, there was talk of the Railways outsourcing laundry operations to a single player who will also look after catering, on-board housekeeping and other services. What is your opinion of this model?
I don’t know where BOOT laundries will fit into this. A laundry operator has no expertise in catering, and a catering contractor has no expertise in laundry; these are two very different domains. Personally, I feel such a model won’t be successful. Some kind of integration of BOOT laundries into this model would be ideal.
Can Railways go beyond the BOOT model?
The Railways spends hundreds of crores on passenger linen, without making any money from it. We tried to impress upon the Railway Board that they should consider transforming linen from a cost centre to a profit centre. How? By outsourcing the entire linen supply service through a linen rental model; the service provider will purchase, supply, collect and wash passenger linen, for which the Railways needs to pay a per kg cost, without worrying about anything else.
How is the demand for passenger linen set to increase, and how should the Railways match this?
Currently, the daily requirement of linen is around 550 tonnes. With the introduction of new LHB coaches, new trains and Vande Bharat trains for overnight journeys, we project that by 2024-25, the linen load will become around 1,000 tonnes per day. South Central Railways currently needs 56 tonnes per day; in a year or so, this will go up to 100 tonnes.
I would suggest continuing with the existing policy of setting up BOOT laundries in each zone/headquarter. BOOT laundries are on railway property, and can be supervised 24×7 by the Railways to ensure that processes are properly followed.
If laundries are clubbed with catering, the laundries will be elsewhere, and quality control is out of question.