A rail switch is a fascinating mechanism. A pair of rails are linked in such a way that even a high-speed bullet train can change its track without a hitch. In Rail Bhawan, though, a policy shift is not that easy. It comes with many jolts and lurches.
Till July this year, the railway top brass was gearing up to deploy 150 swanky private trains across India. Tenders were floated, a dozen bidders stepped forward and there was a great deal of hope that India’s railroads would soon carry state-of-the-art trains equipped with the latest, globally available technology. That didn’t happen. The tender for rolling out private trains has been shelved due to lukewarm response. The project, though not officially dead, is now slowly slipping into oblivion.
Indian Railways is now embarking on a fresh journey — to quickly build 75 indigenously designed, semi-high speed Vande Bharat trains by August 2023, a deadline publicly set by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “During these 75 weeks of the Amrit Mahotsav of Independence (March 12, 2021, to August 15, 2023), 75 Vande Bharat trains will connect every corner of the country,” said Modi from the ramparts of the Red Fort.
Vande Bharat is a 16-coach, stylish train set with no separate locomotive. Designed and developed in the government-owned Integral Coach Factory (ICF), Chennai, its first prototype was ready by the end of 2018. Two such trains have so far been manufactured — one is currently running between Delhi and Varanasi and the other between Delhi and Katra (Jammu and Kashmir). Its operational speed is 160 km per hour although it recorded 180 kmph during its trial in 2019.
“Delivering 75 such trains in two years is a tall order, yet achievable,” says a senior official closely connected with the project, explaining the tricky math of producing the trains within the timeline. At present, electrical paraphernalia and bogies for 44 such trains have been awarded to private manufacturers, and sub-systems such as dampers, wheel axles, traction motor, brake system etc., are being produced, according to a review report dated September 27, a copy of which has been seen by ET. The prototype is expected to be rolled out by April 2022 so that it can have a mandatory 100,000-km trial run before regular production could commence. Though IR initially planned all 44 trains to be manufactured in ICF only, it later decided to distribute their production among three factories — 24 in ICF and 10 each in Modern Coach Factory (MCF), Raebareli, and Rail Coach Factory (RCF), Kapurthala, to fast-track the delivery. There will be two prototypes, and assuming the trial is successful in the first attempt, the production of the rest of the 42 trains could start in August 2022. If three new rakes are manufactured per month, as is being planned now, all 44 pieces could be ready before the deadline, by accelerating the speed of production a bit.
What about the rest of the 31 trains?
Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, an IAS officer turned politician, is optimistic when ET asks him about this unsolved problem. “Apart from 44 Vande Bharat trains which are already awarded, we have invited bids for 58 more trains. That will be awarded by December. As the technology upgrade will be over in the first 44 trains, the manufacturing cycle for the next lot will be faster,” he explains. He also adds that the production of the Vande series will continue beyond 2023 as the Railways is contemplating to export this made-in-India train by 2026-27.
Railway Board Chairman and CEO Suneet Sharma says the present series of production will be chair cars. “In future, we will manufacture Vande Bharat trains with sleeping arrangements,” he adds, indicating that the present lot won’t be able to replace the long-distance Rajdhanis. Vaishnaw further informs that the cost per train will be Rs 110-115 crore, i.e. 10-15% more than that of the first two pieces. Also, the first 75 Vande Bharat trains will be able to connect about 300 Indian cities and towns, he says.
According to the Railways’ blueprint, 32 coaches will be ready by March next year whereas another 672 will be manufactured in FY2023, making it a total of 704 — enough for the first 44 rakes. The Railways is also planning to manufacture another 944 coaches in FY2024 although the details about their rollout is linked to the current tender.
Private to Aatmanirbhar
Two years ago, Vande Bharat’s production came to a jarring halt when the Railways favoured the introduction of private trains with improved technology. “The riding quality for long-distance travel was a problem in the first two Vande Bharat train sets,” says VK Yadav, who was the chairman and CEO of the Railway Board till the end of 2020. “The problem came from both electricals and bogie design. For shorter travel, it is comfortable. That issue is expected to be resolved while manufacturing the upcoming rakes,” he says.
Sudhanshu Mani, former general manager of ICF and the lead engineer behind the roll-out of the first Vande Bharat rake in record 18 months, says the morale of the factory staff has to be boosted if the government wants the delivery of the newer lot on time. “Junior-level officers who took instant decisions for faster delivery of the first rake of Train 18 (Vande Bharat’s initial codename) were later targeted (by the vigilance department). The morale of the ICF staff is now low. That needs to be corrected,” he says. He also suggests a modification in the present blueprint. “The new Vande Bharat trains should be built with sleeper arrangements so that those can replace the Rajdhanis. Riding issues were blown out of proportion. With some improvements, the train can be highly comfortable for any long journey,” he adds. Other prominent ICF engineers who stood behind Mani in producing the first rake include Shubhranshu (he uses only his first name, had supervised the mechanical part), Debi Prasad Dash (looked after the electricals), S Srinivas (design) and Manish Pradhan (workshop management).
The big question is how did the Railways, which had put the Vande Bharat project in cold storage for a couple of years, suddenly discover its merits and embark on building new coaches in a tearing hurry?
The answer is simple. The Railways has decided to change its track after a futile attempt to procure 150 private trains. While the Railways was expecting an investment worth over Rs 30,000 crore from private bidders, only two companies (government-owned IRCTC and Hyderabad-based Megha Engineering and Infrastructures) jumped into the fray — quite a lukewarm response, which prompted the Railways to cancel the bid in the current format.
After talking to four railway officers and a CEO, ET has figured out some key reasons why the private players hesitated to gamble on India’s private train bet. First, the private companies wanted a rail regulator immediately. Second, they wanted a shorter concession period — 18 years, as coaches usually go for mid-term retrofitting after that period, and not 35 years as mentioned in the bidding document. Third, the private companies were nervous about competing with sarkari trains as the Railways may not raise passenger fares for many years to come.
“In a pre-bid meeting, a company representative suggested that we should give a guarantee in writing that the Railways too would increase the fare on the routes where private trains would compete — a proposal impossible to even consider,” says an officer present during the meeting.
MD of Talgo India Subrat Nath says India will lose foreign investment if it discards the private train venture altogether. “We did not bid for private trains but were expecting the winner to place an order with us. Our headquarters in Spain were giving us a go-ahead to invest in a big factory in India, provided we received any order,” he says. Talgo is a global train manufacturer.
Atmanirbharta, no doubt, comes at a price. While the Vande series will make India proud, the nation will miss newer rail technology and foreign investments if its private train venture is halted for good.
Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw
We plan to export Vande Bharat by 2026-27: Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw
Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw is confident that his ministry will be able to meet the August 2023 deadline for rolling out 75 Vande Bharat trains. Edited excerpts from an interview:
What’s the rationale behind the Indian Railways’ recent focus on Vande Bharat trains?
Vande Bharat is a successful train with a potential speed of 180 kmph. It’s a new design, new technology and a new way of manufacturing trains. Its pick-up is one of the best in the world. The experience of travel is fascinating. If such a train is developed in Europe, it will cost some Rs 150-160 crore. In Japan, it will be about Rs 180-190 crore. In India, it costs Rs 110-115 crore. Two Vande Bharat trains that are operational have run more than 10 lakh kilometres successfully. Our prime minister’s vision is that we should scale up its production as we have understood its technology.
Will you be able to deliver 75 trains by August 2023, a deadline publicly announced by the PM?
Yes. Apart from 44 trains which were already awarded, we have invited bids for 58 more trains. That will be awarded by December. As the technology upgrade will be over in the first 44 trains, the manufacturing cycle for the next lot will be faster. We will manufacture the trains in all three railway factories.
Which are the potential routes?
In the current format, this train is best suited for a distance of about 500 km. We plan to connect 300 towns and cities with the first 75 Vande Bharat trains.
Once the initial target is met, will you continue producing those?
Of course. We plan to export Vande Bharat trains by 2026-27. Our vision is to improve the existing tracks so that we can run trains at a speed of 200 kmph and more. In future, our target will be to produce Vande trains that can run at a speed of 225 kmph.