Sujatha Narayan, Senior Vice President and India Region Leader, Wabtec Corporation, speaks to Swarajya about the company's various activities in rail transportation and other sectors.
Excerpts from the interview
Q. Could you please give us an insight into Wabtec Corporation and its India presence?
A: Wabtec Corporation is a leading global technology company, providing equipment, systems, digital solutions, and value-added services for the freight and transit rail sectors. Listed in NYSE (WAB), Wabtec draws on over 150 years of experience, leading the way in sustainability, safety, efficiency, reliability, and productivity.
A Fortune 500 company, Wabtec is counted amongst the most valuable rail technology companies in the world. The company has grown significantly in the recent years, largely through mergers and acquisitions.
The most transformative mergers were of Faiveley Transport in 2016 and GE Transportation in 2019.
Wabtec India, present in India for three decades, is amongst the largest companies in the India Rail Transport industry with a varied portfolio of solutions.
This ranges from diesel locomotives to critical sub-systems and components such as brakes, doors, pantographs and couplers that go on locomotives, passenger trains, metro trains and freight wagons.
The company in India boasts of close to 3 million sq ft of operational footprint which includes five factories, two large warehouses and two locomotive maintenance sheds; one of the largest rail engineering centres of excellence in India and close to 3,000 employees in the country.
The world class factory at Marhowra in Bihar builds 100 locomotives every year that are used by Indian Railways to haul heavy freight, under the most difficult situations to meet their freight ambitions highlighted in the National Rail Plan.
These locomotives are fully serviced in two maintenance sheds in Roza, Uttar Pradesh and Gandhidham, Gujarat delivering a greater than 95 per cent and world class reliability.
Wabtec also assembles its key sub-assemblies in the three factories in Hosur (Tamilnadu), Baddi (Himachal Pradesh) and Bahadurgarh, Haryana.
Wabtec India hosts the single largest engineering centre in the Wabtec world — WITEC (Wabtec India Engineering and Technology Centre). This centre has facilities in Bangalore and Hyderabad which power Wabtec’s innovation across the complete lifecycle of rail and digital products.
Q. Wabtec is a key supplier for the Indian Railways. Can you share some insight into 2023 for Wabtec?
A: The year 2023 has been eventful for the Wabtec team in India. This year, we handed over 100 locomotives, marking the mid-point of our contract with the Indian Railways (totally 570 locomotives supplied). Our locomotive services sheds are maintaining locomotives and delivering outstanding results for Indian Railways.
In 2023, we successfully homologated brake and door systems for the Vande Bharat trains, scaled up the indigenously developed high reach pantograph to be used on electric locomotives and Vande Bharat trains, introduced a new micro-processor controlled brake panel for electric locomotives called ILS — which are designed and built to suit modern and semi-high-speed railway operations.
We also expanded our mechanical labs footprint in Bangalore and increased our team size by 200 people across locations. We will close the year at roughly around $550+ million in revenue in the country with an additional ~$200 million in engineering services for global projects, product and technology development and components sourced in India for our global factories.
Q. You have a large engineering centre, what is the global strategy and how does it benefit India operations?
A: Wabtec globally intends to retain its position as the most valuable rail technology company in the world. Our mission is to unlock our customers' potential by delivering innovative and lasting transportation solutions.
The India Engineering Centre is a global operations nerve centre for Wabtec Corporation and plays a critical role in the aforementioned mission of the company.
It supports each and every one of our product groups in the whole range of engineering services developing brand new technology, designing new products and solutions, validation and commissioning of these solutions, providing technical support to customers, testing and validation of globally developed solutions, etc.
We are proud that all international locomotives are being designed, developed, validated, and commissioned out of India currently.
Locomotives designed in India can be found in countries like Egypt, Kazhakistan, etc. Cutting edge technology for the next generation locomotives based on Hydrogen are also being developed from the India Engineering Centre.
This centre hosts a large number of engineers that support the global Wabtec digital intelligence business developing and testing the large portfolio of products in that business. The largest engineering team for this business is located in India.
While the engineering centre supports global products and projects, they play a pivotal role in the growth of the India business as well. The diesel locomotives that are assembled in Marhowra today was designed, developed, tested and built by the India team with guidance from our US centre of excellence.
Products such as high reach pantograph, brake systems, couplers and passenger access doors that are unique to India have been developed and commissioned in India in collaboration with our global centers of excellence in Europe.
Over the years, the team in India has taken on leadership roles leading global engineering for specific product portfolios and have engineers across the globe working for them.
This WITEC centre is working hard to make the company’s vision to “Revolutionise the way the world moves for future generations” a reality.
Q. How do you see Wabtec supporting the Indian Railways in its sustainability goals/National Rail Plan?
A: Rail transportation is believed to be the most sustainable mode of transportation with ~12x energy efficiency in freight and ~3x in passenger transport. The ability to move freight and transport people sustainably has always been at the core of the Indian Railways' vision.
With the National Rail Plan, the government and Indian Railways has created a blueprint on how to take steps to help move towards the country’s Net Zero Carbon Footprint by 2070. The plan calls out specifically a vision to be a net zero railways by 2030.
Wabtec also has strong sustainability goals and they are based on three principles:
(1) Innovating with purpose — We are committed to developing responsible and sustainable products that minimise the impact on the planet.
(2) Driving responsible operations — We are committed to providing safe work environments and products that enable productive and efficient use of resources.
(3) Empowering people and communities — We are committed to driving an inclusive culture grounded in integrity, committed to the development of, and investment in, the communities where our teams live and work.
We are proud that Wabtec in India plays a very significant role in Wabtec’s global sustainability ambitions. Implementation of waste management, rainwater harvesting, solar panels, LED lights, planting of Miyawaki forests across our sites have supported the scope-1 targets of the company.
As mentioned before, Hydrogen-based internal combustion engine is considered the holy grail in sustainable rail transportation and the India engineering team is in the forefront of the technology development.
Similarly, developing digital technologies to drive fuel efficiency are being led out of India. Strong measures in the area of people, health, safety, development, diversity and inclusion are also being pursued.
One of the key Indian Railways’ strategy for sustainability is the almost complete electrification of the rail network. Wabtec has played and will continue to play a critical role as a supplier of one of the most critical systems — which are the high reach pantographs that collect the power from the overhead cables and provides it to the propulsion of the train and the brake panel that is the brains behind the braking of the train, which is most important for safety, especially at higher speeds.
At the same time, we believe our 1,000 diesel locomotives with tremendous fuel efficiency will play a terribly important role when it comes to areas that are difficult for electrification, border areas that are vulnerable, any potential threats that can bring down the grid and specially difficult hauling application in gradients and wet conditions.
Q. What are your predictions for 2024 — for Indian Railways/Metro and Wabtec?
A: Indian Railways are going through a critical phase of transformation in speed, safety, efficiency and comfort. While the strategy was brilliantly laid out in the National Rail plan, execution of the strategy has been mixed. I expect the first quarter to be a little sluggish given the typical shortage of funds in the fourth quarter (Q4), as well as the looming national elections.
After Q4, I anticipate that the much-required execution efficiency will regain momentum. Specifically, the Vande Bharat semi-high speed trainset implementation has been slow due to clarity of format that is needed and specific supply chain challenges. I do believe that the Railways will finalise their strategy on train format soon and the rail-eco-system will solve the challenges of supply chain and the vision to provide Indian passengers a safe and comfortable journey will begin to show fruition.
The aggressive ambition to increase freight modal share for rail has seen good momentum, but can move to the next level in 2024. This depends not only on the rolling stock (locomotives and high-performance wagons) but a major revamp of the rail network itself to make them compatible for higher speeds; deployment of dedicated freight corridors; transformation of signaling system to ensure safety at higher speeds; condition-based monitoring of railway assets and digitalisation of the railway operations to a large extent.
We do believe the speed of transformation of Indian Railways will accelerate in 2024. The continued extensive urbanisation in India with debilitating traffic and pollution in cities makes the need for Metro almost an emergency need.
We believe that India is the largest opportunity for growth for Wabtec Corporation and Wabtec’s intent is to invest significantly to bring new technology to India, setting up footprint for manufacturing in line with 'Make-in-India' and 'Atmanirbhar Bharat' and help drive the sustainability efforts, as well as bring new jobs to the country.
I do anticipate that 2024 could potentially be a game changing year for Wabtec, India rail transportation and the country.
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