Vande Bharat Push: Future Of Rail Travel

Amit Mishra

Feb 04, 2022, 05:00 PM | Updated 05:00 PM IST

Train 18 Vande Bharat Express. (@ManiSudhanshu58 /Twitter)
Train 18 Vande Bharat Express. (@ManiSudhanshu58 /Twitter)
  • Vande Bharat Express, also known as Train 18 is India's first Semi High Speed Train and the first successful attempt to adapt Trainset technology.
  • India has decided to manufacture 400 new, more efficient Vande Bharat trains in the next three years, according to the announcement made by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in the Union Budget presented in the Parliament on 01 February 2022.

    “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”, Nirmala Sitharaman said while presenting Union Budget 2022-23.

    What is Vande Bharat?

    Vande Bharat Express, also known as Train 18 (T-18) is India's first Semi High Speed Train. It is a collection of 16 coaches, self-propelled, and does not require an engine to haul them. This is called distributed traction power (also known as Trainset technology). This technology is increasingly becoming the norm world over, as opposed to conventional system of Passenger coaches hauled by separate locomotives.

    Vande Bharat Express is thus India’s first successful attempt at adaptation of Trainset technology. Trainset configuration though complex than conventional train arrangement is faster, easier to maintain, consumes less energy, and has greater flexibility in train operation.

    So what is a High Speed Train?

    While there is no single international standard for high speed rail, new train lines having speeds in excess of 250 km/h, and existing lines in excess of 200 km/h are generally considered to be high speed.

    According to the Union internationale des chemins de fer (UIC), high speed rail combines many different elements which constitute a whole, "integrated system”, infrastructure (new lines designed for speeds above 250 km/h and, in some cases, upgraded existing lines for speeds up to 200 or even 220 km/h), rolling stock (specially-designed train sets), telecommunications, operating conditions and equipment, etc.

    Globally, high-speed trains cover a total network of over 52,000 km across Asia Pacific, Europe, Middle East, North America and Africa as on 27 February 2020, according to data compiled by UIC’s Passenger Department. This figure is expected to double (to 104,413 km) in the near future with several countries planning to expand their networks and new ones entering the fray.

    Semi-high-speed trains travel at speeds ranging from 130 to 180 km/h and are a cost effective sustainable transportation model for countries like India.

    Timeline of Vande Bharat

    The Vande Bharat Express was launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi between New Delhi and Varanasi on 15 February 2019. The Train18, later named Vande Bharat Express, was rolled out by the Integral Coach Factory (ICF), Chennai in an incredibly short time span of 18 months under 'Make in India' program at a cost of Rs 97 crore.

    Months later, the second rake was made operational in October 2019 on the New Delhi-Katra route. Currently, only these two semi-high speed trains are in operation.

    After 22 months of launching Vande Bharat Express for Katra, Indian Railways awarded the contract for manufacturing 44 more such trains at an estimated cost of Rs 2,211 crore. In a major push to the 'Make in India' initiative, the Hyderabad-based Medha Servo Drives bagged the contract for making 44 Vande Bharat trains with 16 coaches each. For the first time, the tender required a minimum of 75 per cent local content requirement of the total value of the tender.

    These 44 rakes are being manufactured at three production units of Indian Railways - 24 at ICF, Chennai, 10 at Rail Coach Factory (RCF), Kapurthala and balance 10 rakes at Modern Coach Factory (MCF), Raebareli. The first prototype is expected to be rolled out by March 2022, and thereafter on successful commissioning, the firm will be delivering an average of 6 rakes per quarter.

    In his Independence Day speech on 15 August 2021, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that in the 75 weeks of ‘Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav' being celebrated to mark the journey of 75 years of Independence, the Indian Railways would launch 75 Vande Bharat trains to connect different parts of the country.

    Days after the PM's announcement, the Railways floated tenders for manufacturing 58 rakes, each comprising 16 coaches. Nine players including Bombardier, Siemens, BHEL, Titagarh Wagons have submitted their bids for manufacturing of 58 Vande Bharat trains at an estimated cost of Rs 2,500 crore. Currently the bids are being technically evaluated and it would take about a month to complete the process, said a senior Railway Ministry official.

    With the latest tender, 102 such trains would be commissioned by March 2024, an official said, adding 75 of them will be available by August 15, 2023 itself.

    How different is Vande Bharat?

    Since the launch of Rajdhani trains, Vande Bharat Express is the next major leap for Indian Railways in terms of speed and convenience. The train is equipped with ‘State of the Art’ passenger amenities and aims to provide a totally new travel experience to passengers.

    Vande Bharat Express has 16 air-conditioned coaches with Chair Car type configuration with 2 Executive Class Chair Cars and 14 Chair Cars. The total seating capacity is 1,128 passengers. The seating capacity is much more than the conventional Shatabdi rake with an equal number of coaches, thanks to shifting of all electric equipment below the coaches and seats in the driving coach also.

    It can achieve high speeds (max speed of 160 km/h) due to faster acceleration and deceleration and reduces journey time by 25 to 45 per cent. Further, it has an intelligent regenerative braking system which can save up to 30 per cent of electrical energy, thereby making it cost, energy and environment efficient.

    The Vande Bharat self-propelled train set does not need any locomotive to pull it, hence also reducing the turnaround time, something that is important for railways.

    Vande Bharat Express incorporates many modern features which debut for the very first time on Indian Railways. All coaches are equipped with automatic entry/exit doors with sliding footsteps, CCTVs, GPS based audio-visual passenger information system and on-board Wi-Fi for entertainment purposes.

    The trains have fully sealed gangways for dust-free environment, modular bio-vacuum toilets, rotating seats in Executive Class, personalised reading lights, diffused LED lighting, mini pantry and sensor-based interconnecting doors in each coach. It also has provision of Divyang-friendly facilities.

    The controversy

    The Vande Bharat on its launch was showcased as a gleaming state-of-the-art train and celebrated as one of the most successful products of the “Make in India” mission.

    However it ran into a controversy over allegations of compromises on safety bringing production of more rakes to a grinding halt despite demand. There were also allegations of undue favours shown to a particular indigenous firm in awarding contracts for the crucial propulsion system leading to vigilance investigation.

    Meanwhile, Sudhanshu Mani, who had spearheaded the Train 18 project - from its conception and design to its launch - as General Manager of ICF, was not even extended an invitation for the train’s ceremonial inaugural run in February 2019. The team was shifted out of the ICF to insignificant posts and vigilance cases registered against them.

    The making of more rakes resumed after PM Modi announced the operation of 75 Vande Bharat trains in his Independence Day speech. With renewed push from the top dispensation, the project has got a new leash of life.

    What is special about the Budget announcement?

    The 400 new Vande Bharat train sets announced in the budget are going to be made of light-weight aluminium, as against steel, marking a departure from India’s traditional choice of metal for making its coaches, railway sources said.

    Since these trains will be made of aluminium, each train set is around 50 tonnes lighter in weight, consuming much less energy than their counterparts made of steel.

    The cost of each train set is expected to be approximately Rs 25 crore more than current ones, which cost around Rs 106 crore per set of 16 coaches. Despite the cost differential, the railways expect the money saved by way of less energy consumption would translate into a significant revenue potential.

    Version 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0

    “Any new technology we bring in should be viewed from the perspective of passenger… reduced noise levels, reduced vibration, better safety and experience. That kind of Vande Bharat we will bring,” Railways Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw told the media after the Budget presentation.

    Addressing reporters, Vaishnaw said, "The first version of the 180 km/h capable Vande Bharat is already running on the network. A second version has been designed and is currently being manufactured. It will be ready for testing by April this year, and the serial production of these trains is likely to start by August-September this year."

    Some of the improvements in the second version include Centralised Coach Monitoring System, push back reclining arrangement for seats, emergency windows for easy evacuation, disaster lights, flood protection for underslung equipment, more emergency push buttons etc.

    Vaishnaw added that a third version of Vande Bharat will now be designed and developed based on the Budget announcement.

    The technical challenge

    Vande Bharat Express is capable of running at 180 km/h but currently runs at a maximum permissible speed of 160 km/h. This is due to the lack of rail tracks which can support such a high speed. Only the Delhi-Agra track can support 160 km/h trains in a small part. Even the current Vande Bharat trains running on the Delhi-Varanasi corridor are running at 130 km/h between Delhi and Prayagraj and at 110 km/h on the Prayagraj-Varanasi section.

    With fresh talk of aluminium coaches and 200 km/h trains, the Railway needs to seriously work on track upgradation and other related infrastructure. There should be clear targets outlining the sections that would be upgraded to support 160 km/h trains.

    What lies ahead?

    Train 18 propelled India into the exclusive club of 7-8 other countries in the world that operate such high speed trains. At a time when low cost airlines and improved road connectivity is offering stiff competition, the new trains can help railways retain traffic and even grow it.

    With timely execution and demand consideration for various passenger classes, the Vande Bharat project would be a win-win for end users and the Railway.

    Impact of this train, matching global standards of performance, safety and passenger comfort and yet costing less than half of global prices, has the potential to be a game changer in the global rail business.

    Amit Mishra is Staff Writer at Swarajya.

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