One of the highly ambitious announcements in the 2022-23 Union Budget was about Vande Bharat trains. “Four hundred new-generation Vande Bharat Trains with better energy efficiency and passenger riding experience will be developed and manufactured during the next three years,” Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman promised in her speech.
This was surprising to one and all because the movement on this front over the last three years inspires little confidence.
Originally called the Train 18 (since a world class train that was targeted to be indigenously developed by 2018), Vande Bharat was built from design to development in just 18 months by Integral Coach Factory (ICF) in Chennai under the leadership of the then general manager Sudhanshu Mani. It was a historic achievement by the ICF team, something even the Indian Railways’ (IR) own board had doubts about.
Two trains were built in record time and were delivered in 2018. But after that, no new train has seen the tracks and passengers. It’s a mystery how a team of IR’s own engineers built something from scratch, creating this world-class product (which is a great intellectual property of IR that can even be exported) in record time but somehow it’s manufacturing is stuck for the last three years.
In his Independence Day speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had promised 75 Vande Bharat trains in 75 weeks. One-third of the targeted time has passed but no new trains have been delivered yet.
Nonetheless, the government has set a big target and it’s better if everyone focused on discussing ways to achieve this rather than being stuck on calling it impossible. And who better than Sudhanshu Mani, creator of the Train 18 aka Vande Bharat Express, to chart this seemingly impractical path, an accusation that he is not unfamiliar with because no one believed that ICF could build such a world-class train until his team delivered it.
The technology is already there. Now it’s just a matter of scaling up the production. Of course, that’s easier said than done.
”If judicious ordering of equipment is done and if the orders are finalised by say, September, then I believe that ICF Chennai and the supporting industry has the capability to deliver 40 trains a year. By September 2025, which is marginally more than three years, we can have 120 Vande Bharat trains in the country. ICF Chennai is already in the process of building, or ordering the equipment, for 102 trains. So, increasing it to 120 is quite practical,” Mani says.
The issue will be finding enough routes for these high-speed day trains. Now, Vande Bharat models are good enough to replace other fast trains but given that these typically run on longer routes (and overnight), it would be wise to invest in tweaking them and building a version for sleeper coaches. Mani believes that the ICF can put a tested prototype of a sleeper Vande Bharat train in service by early next year (if designed in time) and series manufacturing can kick in sometime in 2023-24. In three years, there will be a healthy mix of car coach trains and their sleeper versions.
IR has other integral coach factories too apart from Chennai one but they have no experience in production of 3-phase self-propelled trains. But to impart knowledge and prepare them for future, Mani thinks that a small contract (so that quality is not compromised) can be given to the rest of the factories to build a total of 12 trains in the next three years.
Mani’s reason for ICF Chennai building only 120 trains over the next three years is not because it can’t manufacture more. It certainly can. The current capacity is to produce around 4,500 LHB coaches and some of those production lines can be sacrificed to manufacture more Vande Bharat trains. But IR cannot have a tunneled vision and simply focus on increasing one type of trains.
The number of available tracks, trained personnel to efficiently manage those new sets, the absorbing capacity of the Indian consumers to actually pay a higher fare, importance of maintaining good levels of production of LHB coaches for replacing less safe ICF ones and IR’s red tapism are some other factors that also need to be kept in consideration while moving ahead.
Nonetheless, this still leaves out 270-odd new trains that need to be built. The idea is to have passengers enjoy services in world-class train sets like Vande Bharat, not exact or upgraded replicas of the one in operation. Once this is internalised, the target will appear achievable (though it will take longer than three years).
Mani suggests two ways — reviving the project for private trains and IR’s own Train 20 project, which seeks to have much better Vande Bharat models with light weight and energy efficient aluminium-body coaches, speeds up to 200 km/hour and possibly even tilting mechanism which allows faster speeds on curves as well, etc.
Mani says that the project for private trains did not elicit interest from the private sector thanks to stubborn IR bureaucracy which failed to assuage the concerns of prospective bidders such as allowing an independent regulator for them, freedom to choose train timings, a comforting exit clause and fair revenue sharing arrangement. “Private trains would drive down the government’s capex which is important given that IR’s operating ratio is above 100 and interest burden is rising,” he adds.
Mani also impresses upon the importance of reviving the Train 20 project (whose nomenclature will have to be changed to Train 25 perhaps, ie, to be delivered by 2025). Because the technology for aluminium body and tilting cannot be developed in the country in an early time frame, Mani recommends that the IR engages an established manufacturer from abroad, however, with a mode of contracting that’s different from the run of the mill ‘transfer of technology‘ projects.
Mani says that IR should not only have know-how but also the know-why of these models and for that it’s critical that contract is such that the project is carried out inside the ICF where the IR’s engineers are deeply integrated in the process right from the design phase all the way to manufacturing with supervision by contractors’ experts. The idea is for ICF teams to gain enough expertise over time that future versions of the trains can be developed locally.
The roadmap that Mani suggests means IR will be able to deliver 400 trains in five to six years rather than three but he believes that it is no mean feat. Given his experience in how the IR machinery works, Mani has perhaps rightly erred on the side of realism. One can only hope and wish that the Modi government delivers what it has promised.
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