Railways: Dream, Design & Make In India: II

Railways: Dream, Design & Make In India: II

Value is in design, value is in creation. By suitably leveraging committed expenditure of Indian Railways and Metros, and learning from the Chinese, we can achieve Make in India in its true spirit.

The big daddies in railway technology are understandably in the First World (China is set to gate crash!). However, a captive domestic market and a benevolent support of the State played key role in nurturing these players. These giant redwoods were also once a tiny seed. ASEA was nurtured by Sweden, Brown Boveri by Switzerland, Alstom by France.

The Japanese rail market was protected by their own set of regulations (we don’t come across a non-Japanese-origin rail technology in Japan) and by national resolve, mobility was made rail based—opening opportunities of regular high-value supplies. These countries didn’t shy away from supporting their private industry.

Europe and Japan are largely electrified and the US is largely run on diesel. Thus, one finds that US companies (essentially two–GE and GM’s EMD; the latter is now owned by Caterpillar) specialized and cornered the world diesel locomotive market (starting from the North American market—again, one doesn’t easily come across non-US-origin diesel in North America) and the Europeans and Japanese became supplier to the world for electric locomotives and train sets.

This continental specialization finds reflection in Indian Railways also. India’s electric motive power has European and Japanese lineage whereas the entire diesel locomotive population is drawn from the US (barring small fleet of diesel shunters for which technology from MAK-Kiel, West Germany was taken in 1968 by CLW).

China, as it embarked upon an expansion of its economy, invested heavily in its railway system, but with a caveat and a purpose. The caveat was that the state-owned enterprises (SOE) undertook ToT from each of the existing giants and created JVs with them with terms loaded in favour of domestic partners. The purpose was to make global leaders emerge—mastery in railway technology called for upgradation of an entire spectrum of industries.

China attached their universities in this exercise and made sure that the technology so received gets seeded for its proliferation. Manufacturing hubs need continual inputs to upgrade manufacturing techniques, new analytical tools, robotics, machining techniques etc. Each ToT was taken to bridge the technology gap as part of the plan of becoming world leaders. It hence doesn’t surprise serious watchers that leading journals are all flooded with academic papers from China in the railway sector.

A clever and well-designed association of universities permitted the Chinese to truly leapfrog in just one decade from attempting to acquire the technology to bridge the knowledge gap to be knowledge explorer and inventor. The concomitant development of other industries in China played no less an important role as a complete industrial and academic ecosystem was created under clear political direction.

Today, Chinese companies bring disruptive competition to their erstwhile technology principals. Amazingly, all these major players have JVs with the Chinese state-owned enterprises even today. With its own set of regulations, the Chinese market presents a similar roadblock to foreign manufacturers of railway systems as the Japanese.

The US still frets and fumes that they lost the plot in railway equipment manufacturing, more so in electrical multiple unit-based platforms of which high speed and metro trains are derived. China is the clear leader in this space—all in a short span of fewer than two decades.

It would be an irony of sorts if the reports of Chinese manufacturers buying out one of the world’s largest rolling stock companies—Bombardier Transportation (successor to ABB Transport) are true. It needs to be noted that we have to strive to be suppliers of tools, plants and machinery needed for manufacturing. China not only now supplies the rolling stock to the world, they also now supply the tunnel boring machines.

Mature design-based industries develop their own design and manufacturing tools. One can note that large utilities designed their own power system analysis tools which are now a business in its own right. Similarly, Dassault Aviation, the manufacturers of Mirage fighters make Catia design software, a highly sophisticated mechanical design platform. Such developments show the depth of technological competence.

A back-of-the-envelope calculation indicates that the per year requirement of Indian Railways alone is of the order of Rs 10,000 crore for rolling stock. This includes locomotives (electric and diesel), coaches, EMUs and wagons. If we add the requirement of metro rolling stock, the figure increases substantially.

However, though several metros are coming up, each looks at its infrastructure and rolling stock in silos. In fact within NCR itself, one sees several rolling stock platforms (2 with DMRC, 1 with Airport Express and 1 with Rapid Metro Gurgaon), more are likely to be inducted in the future. Principal players in metro technology are either European or Japanese. It’s a myth that a product designed in India is a contender in supply to the metro network. Metro is already operational in NCR, Jaipur, Bangalore, Kolkata, Mumbai; at an advanced stage in Chennai, Hyderabad and at initial execution/planning stage at Kochi, Ahmedabad, Lucknow.

With expansion of existing metro and mainline rail networks (regular requirement to meet replacements and increasing traffic, freight corridors, port connectivity projects, logistics parks, ramping of industrial activity), clearly there is a sufficient business which will be offered by the country.

As discussed above, China used its large domestic market as part of larger plan to drive hard bargains in selecting truly state-of-the-art railway technology. This technology was then handled by a few selected bodies with substantial government stake. This model ensured:

  • By leveraging volumes, got best-in-class technology and upgraded entire industrial base of railway and heavy industry.
  • Ensuring technology residency, permitting asset (platform) support to the metro owners over the life of asset,
  • Involving academia permitted generation of IP, assimilation of technology, engineering students getting exposed to world-class practices and technology, elimination of need of frequent ToT (scourge faced by India), so the Chinese now can design their own platforms.

Research Needs & Hope from the 2015-16 Rail Budget

The last Rail Budget announced setting up of a material science chair in IIT(BHU) and four railway research centres at four academic institutions. Material science has been Achilles heel of India and recognized as a national weakness. Material science oriented research in India doesn’t get reflected in business as one finds in Dupont, 3M, Johnson & Johnson which deliver products based on innovative material technologies.

Good magnetic steel, paper and pressboard, insulating material for high-performance transformers are still imported despite the immense investments being made in the power sector. Applied material science research can’t be done divorced from an application. It is hence imperative to create the first rail research centre as announced at IIT(BHU) which has the country’s oldest material sciences department. Advanced mobility solutions need a platform and product-oriented research which would take material sciences as a critical input. A segmented approach can’t make us achieve ‘Design in India’, a key component of India’s technological growth.

A lot of research happens in academic institutions. Each Ph.D. and M.Tech. dissertation has research elements—they don’t, however, contribute to platforms and products. One can’t fault academia alone. China has worked out the formula by involving their universities in the process of industrialisation and ToTs.

In the West, industry-academic relationships drove businesses and gained a head start, as there has been a steady source of quality manpower. Government, hence, has to lead by designing railway research facilities in a manner that they first aim to bridge the technological gap and then grow upon it—learning from the lessons of last transfer of technology. Otherwise one would get the sweatshops, which qualify suppliers for the Make in India requirement and we lose them as rest of the Third World starts to leverage their labour arbitrage (we have seen that in the call centre industry).

To begin with, such a research centre along with the material science chair can be mandated to work towards the creation of the node which coordinates the research and ToT in guided rail transport. As HR policies of Indian Railways are eminently unsuitable to undertake even medium-term research, an academic institution can be an excellent space to undertake the challenges discussed above with active participation of Ministry of Railways permitting spirited officials to work unfettered by its HR practices.

However, a careful analysis of options is called for and institutions with strategic locational advantages and hunger for such work be so mandated. Mechanisms need to be created to make available to such centres, research funds and experienced rail professionals with R&D aptitude. There is no alternative to nurture expertise in railway technology space and reorienting and realigning our engineering colleges to undertake platform and product based research.

Agenda for the Proposed Rail Research Bodies

Using the domestic market, it is possible to insulate the Metro and main line railways from the issues of heterogeneity and multitude of vendors by fostering tech residency in the country. If leveraged properly, the domestic market size is attractive enough to jumpstart railway technology research and development meaningfully and sustainably. The railway sector would, not in distant future need a tech regulator— such centres of competence can make such an idea viable by being competent tech masters available on tap to such regulatory bodies.

Various new rolling stock induction programmes have large non-resident or imported component (rolling stock manufactured in India is a melange of assembled systems, with ‘know-why’knowledge residing off-shore). This figure shows a possible way to kickstart the process of assimilation and proliferation with academic institutions as key players.

Figure I and II

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The Government needs to step in to provide initial momentum to achieve national competence in rail systems. It needs a reorientation of our line of thinking and practices. It is hence imperative to create a body as discussed, with the necessary mandate as discussed below: Bulk rolling stock induction should take place with ToTs. These ToTs can be handled in conjunction with centres created with academic institutions. The elements can be quickly atomised, and discrete elements mastered.

There would be a need of creating a master plan where generic platforms for the bogie and, car bodies be identified and design skills internalized–this can serve as a platform for proliferation by manufacturing by PSUs or private entities. This would enable the creation of platform-based design skills for complete mechanicals. These centres would train manpower which can be deployed by the rail road industry. Mechanical rehabilitation and rehabilitation, safety analyses need such a skill set.

Further, this centre would facilitate the creation of skill set for a vehicle level integration of electrics and auxiliaries. Integration at this level would permit part replacement of equipment facing fast obsolescence. Products for power conversion, traction motors and transformers can be sourced with Indian designs.

It can act as referral body on asset-related technical issues which arise over the life of the asset. This body would create/facilitate Centres of Excellence in public/private space depending upon the strategic interests involved to cover each aspect (eg. strong incentive exists for power electronics if we see its application across large earth moving equipment, locomotives, sub-urban and metro trains, merchant & naval vessels).

Technology received through ToT would reside in hands of globally competitive public/private enterprises supported by a system which produced international quality manpower skilled in manufacturing and design. Such an approach would reduce the cost of the asset by creation of a standard platforms across sectors (something with large multinationals serving multiple sectors already do).

The long-term aim of the group can be: technology forecasting, development of technology on lines of DARPA, nodal body to support fleet over its life, support creation of local competitive vendor base and groom them for global markets, homologation to meet international standards (needed if we want to export our designs), participation in international standardization initiatives and represent India in such bodies and serve on joint working teams for development of new systems with their domain research bodies like JTRI.

It would be instructive to note that Shinkansen of a certain series may look the same but carries electrics of different manufacturers (A Kawasaki Heavy Industry made train can contain Fuji or Toshiba electrics).


Not a single Apple’s signature product gets manufactured in the USA—it’s made by Foxconn in faraway China. Still, it’s Apple and not Foxconn, which is one of the most valuable companies in the world. Value is in design, value is in creation. By suitably leveraging committed expenditure of Indian Railways and Metros, we can achieve Make in India in its true spirit.

We already spend billions of dollars every year on rolling stock—this spend needs to be oriented to deliver not just the product but also courage to dream and competence to design.

Views expressed are personal.

Dr. Sujeet Mishra is Chief Design Engineer (Electric Locomotives) at BLW, Varanasi. Views expressed are personal.

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