A high-speed Talgo Train stands on a platform next to a Rajdhani Express in New Delhi, India. (Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • Developing cutting-edge railway technology has always taken a backseat in India. But this is soon set to change.

    Railway Ministry has introduced SRESTHA, whose purpose will be to drive long-term R&D in guided transport in India.

    This can help cut down import of advanced rail technology and provide impetus to high-tech production within the country.

Indian Railways are in a state of churn. Born in the nineteenth century, this state-owned company is in need of change to adapt to the challenges of the twenty-first century.

Railway engineering represented the cutting edge of human ingenuity and enterprise, introducing a new perspective to something as basic as time in everyday life. What began as a tool of exploitation and domination became intertwined with the socio-economics of the nation.

By its very nature, the railways carry a huge overhang of legacy, and changes are not easy to bring. This is something which every rail network in the world has come to realise.

Like its peers, Indian Railways must come up with its own answer for this imperative. The key existential threat faced by the company is the massive modal shift, reflecting the steady decline of Indian Railway’s share in national transport. This also shows that Indian Railways’ offerings are not in sync with the needs of the economy. As the economy de-materialises and digitises, railway operations and services need to be plugged better into the new narrative.

It has been argued here and here that Make in India, in its true spirit, encompasses the complete ecosystem of Dream, Design and Make.

As the nation aspires to become a net intellectual property creator, technology-driven mega sectors like railways have an important role to play. Saliency is brought forth by the fact that cumulative investments into dedicated freight corridors, high-speed metro rail, capacity augmentation and rolling stock acquisition are staggering, adding up to in excess of Rs 2 lakh crore (not counting in the project shelf of railways). Unless concerted efforts are made, this investment would be just a ‘spend’ and not used to realise the ambition of becoming a net intellectual property creator.

We must leverage access to our huge domestic market unabashedly to gain access to knowledge and do a catch-up with the state-of-the-art. However, aspirations must be matched by capability; what if we cannot absorb the technology? After all, have we not been doing technology transfers since independence? What has been going wrong?

Existing Mechanism

The Research Designs and Standards Organisation (RDSO) has been the repository of knowledge on railway technology, maintenance engineering, standardisation, inter-operability, vendor development, certification and safety. Can a single organisation, following the same set of rules for human resource management as its train operating units, do justice with such disparate requirements?

It has been realised that though the RDSO has done a sterling job of maintenance, reliability, life extension and safety engineering, its focus on cutting-edge railway technology has been usually subordinated to the former. Its entire leadership and governance structure is drawn from the battle-hardened pool which is groomed fighting day-to-day challenges of running trains. Secondment to RDSO happens for a few years and thereafter officers return to the trenches. Enduring priorities have been safety, punctuality, capacity and vendor development in a highly resource-constrained environment.

Realising this need and keeping in view the constraints faced by the RDSO, the Railway Minister announced the setting up of a ‘Special Railway Establishment for Strategic Technology and Holistic Advancement’, or ‘SRESTHA’ , in the Budget speech 2016-17. The purpose of this move was to drive long-term research and development (R&D) in guided transport in India.

After the announcement, the Minister requested Dr V K Saraswat, Chairman of ‘Advisory Group of Experts for Upgradation of Technology and Leveraging Make in India on Railways’, to prepare a concept note on SRESTHA. The Group engaged with the matter and through several consultations, field visits and technology reviews prepared the concept note and submitted it to the Railway Ministry.

The highlights of the note are:

Vision

To make Indian Railways a global leader in railway technology by developing advanced R&D capabilities for breakthrough innovation and empowering railways to deliver quality service, making it the preferred mode of transport.

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Mission of Srestha

  • Shall engage itself in building new products for Indian Railways, based on available technology in the world. In newer areas, R&D shall be initiated in synergy with the needs of Indian Railways, along with focus on applied R&D.
  • Shall be the design centre for Railways as a ‘System of Systems’ along with being a technology incubation and commercialisation centre, and shall assist to build design centres at production units of Indian Railways and other centres of excellence in academic institutions.
  • Aims to transform India from a net technology importer to exporter in 10 years, and work towards a modal ‘Shift to Rail’ in India. SRESTHA shall be structured across multi-disciplinary streams, covering all aspects of guided transport.

Implementation Plan for Setting Up SRESTHA

SRESTHA needs to break away from the routine and implement the lessons learnt from slipping on rail-tech leadership despite the clear intent. Thus, from its governance structure, accountability, human resource policies to selection of projects and partners and implementation, new rules of engagement are necessary.

A detailed project report is under preparation for incubating and setting up SRESTHA. The report will include all aspects of establishment and functioning of SRESTHA, including its R&D centres and programmes for rolling stock design and dynamics, track, bridges and structures, sensors, instrumentation and control, signalling and telecommunications, operations and asset management, geotechnical engineering, metallurgy and material science, engines and fuels, testing capability for high speed, robotics, urban transport technology and logistics.

Under the stewardship and mentoring of Saraswat, NITI Aayog member, the report is being prepared by a newly created Project Management Unit (PMU), which is currently headquartered at the Rail Coach Factory, Rae Bareli’s Lucknow Camp Office. Upon the acceptance of the report, the new organisation would take shape. It is targeted that by next fiscal, work on the constitution of SRESTHA would begin.

Gaining Early Traction

It has been a painful realisation that due to uncoordinated and sporadic efforts and despite making heavy spends, as a nation we have not able to make technologies resident. This is reflected in consistently higher prices and the need to import. Absorptive capacity resides in networks of manufacturing and research and academic institutions, which keep researching in their respective fields. Though the report’s preparation and acceptance would take some time, the PMU has been mandated to work forthwith on strengthening of absorptive capacity for railway technology using the network of academic institutions and other centres of higher learning.

Several Centres for Rail Research (CRR) are being primed at leading academic institutions to take ownership of specific areas and create a network under their guidance involving other institutions. These CRRs need to be exposed to cutting-edge products and technological components which are currently being inducted. These CRRs would in turn create human resources well exposed to bridge the technology gaps and to feed the industrial ecosystem to design and develop products and platforms which currently need to be imported.

Thus, by the time SRESTHA is operationalised, work on strengthening absorptive capacity would be well underway.

Technology Paradigms

Three technology paradigms are broadly discernible when we look at how a country takes leadership in a specific domain.

Paradigm 1 is typically a ‘business as usual’ (BaU) approach. Incremental improvements are driven by the organisation. This is low-slope trajectory.

In Paradigm 2, there is an effort to bring higher level of changes by bridging the gap. Here, one typically goes for a technology transfer (ToT) or licensed manufacture or learns by use. In India, despite these sporadic ToTs, the BaU approach overwhelms in the long term.

In Paradigm 3, one builds on the acquired or learnt knowledge and innovates. If we map the Chinese effort to take leadership in high speed, the following emerges:

How the Chinese changed gears to move to a higher trajectory (click to enlarge) How the Chinese changed gears to move to a higher trajectory (click to enlarge)

Conclusion

Several economists have buttressed the need for technology residency as a key component of a nation’s progress. However, where India has repeatedly stumbled is in creation of absorptive capacity. Research, on one hand, cannot be dealt with on the same principles as running operations, but at the same time, research efforts have to be accountable and in credible hands. The success of the Department of Atomic Energy, Indian Space Research Organisation and missile development have been sterling examples of what our country can achieve even in the face of crushing technology denial.

If SRESTHA internalises these lessons, it can make every rupee spent overseas on imports count as a learning experience and realise the dream to design and make in India. The wherewithal created for knowledge residency would lead to the creation of most sought-after skills to feed industrial and academic ecosystems so that India stays on the trajectory of Paradigm 3 – the path of technology creators and leaders.

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SRESTHA can, as envisaged, drive the research, ensuring that all major platforms imported or designed overseas are developed in India. In 10 years, if we keep the course as envisaged, one can ensure that India would have its own high-speed platform, complete with fixed infrastructure, control and communication and rolling stock. The massive domestic market can then be fed by Indian factories producing Indian-designed products.

There are many examples which amply prove that this dream is realisable. We have briefly seen how China switched to higher trajectories. Similar efforts were successfully made by South Korea. Legendary platforms like Shinkansen and TGV also are products of national resolve; no wonder then that China’s efforts at dominance in high-speed rail were also borne out of a resolve at the highest level of government.

Subsequent parts of this series would explore how these countries plotted their way to dominance of rail technology domain.

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