Akhil Vaani | Train 18 is fully ‘Make in India’ and truly aatmanirbhar: Sudhanshu Mani

A tell-all conversation with Sudhanshu Mani, the innovator par excellence and creator of Vande Bharat trains

Akhileshwar Sahay September 20, 2022 16:48:20 IST
Akhil Vaani | Train 18 is fully ‘Make in India’ and truly aatmanirbhar: Sudhanshu Mani

File image of a Vande Bharat Express. Wikimedia Commons

The brand new third train set of Vande Bharat genre from the stable of Integral Coach Factory (ICF), Perambur, Chennai, has been rolled out. It has undergone the test run and received the safety certification from Chief Commissioner Rail Safety (CCRS). The third train set has superior technical features and passenger amenities as compared with two first train sets. It transpires that the commercial run of the third Vande Bharat Trains between Ahmedabad and Mumbai will be inaugurated on 30 September.

Semi High-Speed Vande Bharat Trains arrived as a gift to the nation in the first term of the Narendra Modi government, and it fell on the shoulders of Sudhanshu Mani, then General Manager, ICF, to conceptualise, design and deliver the first two Vande Bharat trains in record time. This success has enabled Prime Minister Modi to up the ante with an audacious agenda to roll out 75 Vande Bharat train sets within 75 weeks, by 15 August 2023. And the agenda got bigger, in her 2022 Union Budget Speech, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced the country will have 400 new Vande Bharat trains in the next three years.

In this inaugural piece on Firstpost platform, as the third Vande Bharat train from Ahmedabad to Mumbai gets ready for the commercial run, ‘Akhil Vaani’ holds a tell-all conversation with Sudhanshu Mani. Excerpts:

A week ago, in the trial run between Ahmedabad and Mumbai, India’s very own third Vande Bharat train achieved two milestones: Of clocking the speed of 180 kmph, and then, accelerating 0-100 km in 52 seconds, breaking bullet train records. What significance do these milestones have to the big picture? And which of the two milestones have greater long-term significance and why? What is hype and what is the substance? And which of the two will bring the real change in the average speed of Vande Bharat trains above 100 kmph; Delhi-Varanasi Vande Bharat in real life has average below 100 kmph?

Also, an auxiliary question: How robust is the OHE/Traction system of the Indian Railways to withstand the onslaught of sudden speed acceleration, and what is its impact on energy consumption? And if the speed acceleration is a record as being parroted what is its true worth?

The real value of Train 18 Vande Bharat trains was that the design was entirely ours, ‘IPR rested with ICF’ and that it was trains set without locomotives which was being talked about in India for more than two decades. Train 18 changed the recall of the typical IR train and its box-type look. It proved to be remunerative too as the first two trains run to capacity as the passengers appreciated the cut down in travel time besides other improved amenities.

Akhil Vaani  Train 18 is fully Make in India and truly aatmanirbhar Sudhanshu Mani

File image of a Vande Bharat Express. Wikimedia Commons

When it touched 182 or 183 kmph speed in trials, it was not planned, 180 kmph was what was required for qualification. The media, however, hyped it as breaching the 180 kmph barrier for the first time; remember even LHB coaches and WDP5 locos had earlier been tested at 180 kmph. Similarly, the absence of locomotive(s) was fashioned as an engine-less train although it conveys a wrong meaning. But beyond the hype, the train got a lot of love, a feel-good response as everyone saw it as a product of our own.

The push for more and more Train18 (Vande Bharat) is welcome and the credit goes to the Prime Minister and the Railway Minister. But there is a question. Where will you run all these day trains? More than hundred such trains will be rolled out of ICF, and a small number from RCF and MCF, in around two years. Considering that we have only around 25 Shatabdis and an equal number of faster intercity day trains, the balance rakes are likely to be assigned to insignificant OG pairs of trains and that would be a gross under-utilisation. Have we evaluated this?

The present hype about the previous two trains being good for 160 kmph and the latest for 180 kmph is not even a half-truth, it is what it is, a hype. Saying this has no technical basis. Similarly, a comparison with bullet trains is so misplaced. As I wrote in my blog, the bullet train is God; the first high-speed train was built 58 years ago, starting with 210 kmph and reaching 320 kmph today. We will also reach there someday, through genuine aatmanirbhar push, not through mere imports or screwdriver builds here, but for once, be proud of the improved creation with a view to egg ourselves to more accomplished higher speed design. But why indulge in scooping senseless brownie points which are pretentious to say the least.

You are right, our average speeds are poor and train sets with their faster acceleration help. But other measures like increasing the speed of good trains, which again is being talked about for ages but what we see is two steps forward, one step backwards. A more consolidated approach is called for.

A related issue is the capability of the OHE to handle higher currents which are drawn with higher acceleration and energy consumption. Back in 2019, all this was used to vilify the train and its creators with the sole aim to derail the project. Simple physics would tell you that Train 18 with less number of rolling stock, only sixteen, as compared to say a hypothetically equivalent 160 kmph Shatabdi with two locos and 18 coaches, including Power Cars, accommodating the same number of passengers, would consume approx. 15 percent less energy, for the same time-tabled run over a section. We, however, now have some IR flyers claiming 30 per cent improvement in energy-efficiency.

Upgrade of OHE is in hand which is required for genuine 160 kmph and higher capacity operation of multiple trains. That is a separate matter. It should not be juxtaposed with train sets, first to debase the train and now pushed as a requirement.

Do we have such dearth of genuine accomplishments that we have to hype? Point to ponder.

In China, semi-high-speed trains mean 250 kmph trains running on the existing upgraded lines while the high-speed trains are 350 kmph trains running on newer dedicated high-speed lines. To reach the next level of running future-ready trains in large numbers on the existing network, what are key challenges? Also, how fast can IR move to 250 kmph trains and what will it take to reach there?

Without drawing too much from the experience of Europe or China, in my opinion, our track can be upgraded to 200 to 220 kmph operation with commensurate investments. But for speeds above, dedicated tracks would be needed.

I say, let us not even talk of the challenges going above 160 kmph operation: ‘Let us first focus on making our quadrilateral and diagonal tracks suitable for 160 kmph, which has been talked about for decades’.

You assumed the mantle of General Manager, ICF, in 2016, and soon got the mandate to churn out the futuristic Train 18. If you recall, in 2012 the High-Powered Committee on Railway Safety headed by noted scientist Anil Kakodkar had christened ICF as the manufacturer of “Killer Coaches” and recommended total stoppage of the ICF coaches and time-bound roll back of such coaches in operation. When you got the mandate for Train18, how could you convert “Killer ICF” into “ICF the Innovator” with the same set of staff and similar set of officers?

There are two aspects here. First of all, a coach type which has carried billions of Indians since the 1950s, albeit with the stain of a few thousands killed in accidents where these coaches capsized, climbed, or telescoped, should not be dismissed as killers. Well, ICF was the first recipient of this technology from the Swiss in the 1950s and the design was identified as ICF design. It gave some visibility to ICF but soon it became a bane as a killer design. It should be remembered for its wide-spread usage as India developed after independence and as something which became redundant with advent of new technology. Yes, with the increasing sensitivity towards fatalities in railway accidents, it became necessary to phase out ICF coaches.

Akhil Vaani  Train 18 is fully Make in India and truly aatmanirbhar Sudhanshu Mani

Screenshot taken from video. Twitter/ @GMSRailway

But there is a lot of dilly-dallying in this switch over.

You are right, the mandate to build two train sets and stop manufacturing ICF coaches came almost at the same time in early 2017. It is a long story of abdication and indecision involving many individuals which we would not visit.

As for how the same staff managed to design and build train sets, I have said this many times, and I will say it again, the officers and staff had this chutzpah, the technical audacity, built on capabilities gathered over decades of coach building to do something more than more of the same; my job was only to channelise this energy and lead from the front. That was easy, given such a foundation and the opportunity.

I was fortunate to have been bequeathed this superb team without which building this train from concept to delivery in a short period of 18 months would not have been possible.

In the process of ushering in the new era with Train 18, what were the challenges that you faced as a leader? I ask this question with the hindsight knowledge that it is the success of the first two Vande Bharat trains that has helped the government to commence the journey of a mega plan to roll out 75 Vande Bharat trains by 15 August 2023 and 400 trains in the next three years.

The biggest challenge was convincing the Board to give ICF the mandate to design and build this train. In spite of all the negativity and scepticism which prevailed, partly due to jealousies and partly due to the plans for import, it was AK Mittal, the then Chairman Railway Board (CRB), who somehow allowed us to do two trains.

Other challenges were in respect of the mode of building this train. Whose technology? We decided that good or bad, it was going to be our own technology and unlike the transfer of technology mode that we were used to, we would challenge ourselves to do it ourselves and whether we fail or succeed, the future path could only be of successes as it is always easier to improve your own baby than trying to tinker with someone else’s.

Having decided this, we had to be a ‘witty fool’ and not a ‘foolish wit’ a la Feste in the bard’s ‘As You Like It’: “Go strongly in areas you are confident of, or could master with some extra effort, but do not be shy in accepting what you were not good enough to do”.

We identified three areas where we needed handholding and engaged consultants, not large firms providing technology but small firms which provide design consultancy. The caveat was that everything that they do would be in association with ICF’s technical staff so that next time we need to design a better train, they would do it all by themselves.

That done, the biggest challenge was the timeline.

The train had to be turned out before I retired in December 2018. With a clear resolve to turn out the train in calendar 2018 itself, we christened it Train 18 in April 2017 when the work started and due to the stupendous work done by the team, the train lived up to its name twice with the turn out taking place not only in 2018 but in a span of 18 months.

You rolled out two sets of sixteen coach Vande Bharat trains in less than two years. Thereafter ICF took more than three years to bring the third train. What could be the reasons behind the delay? Also given the fact that it has taken five years to roll out three Vande Bharat trains does ICF have the bandwidth to rollout 75 Vande Bharat Trains by 15 August 2023. Do partners and vendors have the matching capacity? Will mass production affect the quality? What preparations will be needed in Zonal Railways to receive, operate, and maintain seventy-five trains? Also, to produce 25, 50 or 75 Vande Bharat trains simultaneously in a short span of time, what are the things that will need to be done differently?

That manufacture has finally started after a gap of more than three years is important and this minister has to be credited with the change in vibes. The sordid story of indecision, or worse, the machinations to derail the project, are a thing of the past so let us bury that.

The turn-out of the third and fourth rakes has been watched very closely. Starting with a target of two rakes by 22 March, repeated slippages occurred but the third rake was finally turned out in August. Well as for seventy-five trains in 75 weeks as announced by the Prime Minister on 15 August 2021 and now modified to 75 trains by 15 August 2023, do remember, better is half a loaf than no bread.

I heard of announcements that the production capacity of these trains was being enhanced from four to six rakes per month at ICF. ICF is stressed out to go into a mad rush to reach close to this lofty timeline, but this seems unnecessary as even if they reach a level of four trains per month, it would be a job well done because after all they did not make any train for more than three years.

My experience says that such an aggressive timeline is not only unnecessary but also too ambitious as the pressure of numbers may cause ICF to lower the quality of the train. Nobody would need to offer any excuses if ICF goes about making these trains more cautiously so that the quality does not deteriorate.

As you say, it is not only about ICF, but a complicated supply chain and the industry partners too need breathing space to keep delivering quality products.

One good decision has been that the initial lot of seventy-five trains, if not more, would be made only at ICF, and MCF and RCF would not be the eager beavers to join the bandwagon, not as yet. Their time too would come but let the product stabilise.

There are issues about maintenance infrastructure as well. IR seems to have finalised the plan of setting up depots for maintenance at 15 stations on the possible twenty-eight routes of Shatabdis and other intercity trains. We need a robust plan to run these trains in large numbers, with proper maintenance facilities and training of staff, before we push these rakes on unprepared railway zones, running the risk of frequent cancellations and disruptions due to maintenance downtime and reduced reliability. In the beginning for 30 rakes or so, the routes should first be concentrated around 2 or 3 depots in addition to Delhi and only after the system for their running and maintenance is consolidated, should they think of introducing more routes with additional maintenance depots.

It is often said that the Railway Board is an unwieldy bureaucracy with’ with entrenched ‘silos’ and ‘fiefdoms. To what extent the task of making two Vande Bharat trains in a compressed time frame was facilitated by the Railway Board? Did you have full freedom and empowerment by the Board, or did you feel constrained at any point of time? And to what extent the delegation of full tendering and contracts powers by this government to the General Manager based on recommendations of the Dr E Sreedharan Committee report (of which yours truly was a co-opted member) helped you in your mission of two Vande Bharat trains in a compressed time frame?

OK, I answer the last part of the question first. This government has truly empowered the General Managers (GMs) to a large extent. No tender, whatever be the value, needs to go to the Board, which earlier used to take months if not years before finalisation. It was a game changer. Further, I am not sure if I was given the full freedom, but I seized full control, keeping all other agencies of IR out, after getting the mandate from the Board.

The message was loud and clear, just as the bard said through Pembroke in King John, “And oftentimes excusing a fault doth make the fault the worse by the excuse.” Since everything was our own, the ball firmly in our court, with no intervention from any other IR organisation, we did not have the luxury of excuses and we had to deliver. That the team not only understood it but embraced sincerely and delivered.

You consider the Bullet Train commenced operations in 1964 with 210 kmph speed now upgraded to 330 kmph as God. Germany and France have their above 300 kmph high-speed ICEs and TGVs for decades China upgraded its multiple routes of its existing system to 250 kmph and now has 35,000 km of 350 kmph high speed trains with the plans to increase the high-speed network to 70,000 km by 2035 all built with indigenous technology. Why is India’s journey to high-speed delayed? How can IR fast upgrade its trunk routes to 250 kmph trains and simultaneously roll out an ambitious programme for time-bound high speed train network? What are the challenges and what are the opportunities”?

The delay in moving to some, I repeat some, not extensive high-speed lines in the country is once again a sad saga of procrastination and indecision. We kept debating the pros and cons but meanwhile every country worth its name in respect of developed rail infra, except the US and Australia which have their own lobbying-related issues, have gone for HSR.

Can a large country like India not build a couple of lines and then go for evaluation with proof of a pudding plate instead of the stakeholders pulling in multiple directions? To the credit of the prime minister, he enabled one line immediately, but it became a victim of red tape and politics. Things, I believe are looking up now.

One must debate and plan with caution and execute fast. We, however, debate ad nauseum, plan unduly speedily and then execute excruciatingly slowly.

This must change.

As for the specifics of HSR, I would think that after evaluation of the first two HSR lines that we build, say by 2030, which I do believe is possible, if the direction shown is indeed towards HSR, we must go ahead with more high-speed rail (HSR) travel, including a new disruptive technology like MagLav or Hyperloop depending upon their costs at that stage and connect all the important cities of the country for all distances above 500 km. For example, connection of, inter alia, Delhi-Lucknow-Varanasi-Patna-Kolkata-Bhubneshwar-Vizag-Chennai-Banaglore-Hyderabad-Nagpur-Mumbai-Jaipur-Bhopal-Delhi, etc.

An aside: The time has come for India to assume leadership in some rail sphere; why not Hyperloop which is still nascent anywhere? In any case, HSR is the best from the standpoint of environmental-friendliness and a clientele ready to pay close to air fares would certainly emerge.

Where do you place the journey so far of Vande Bharat in the context of ‘Make in India’ and ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ schemes? How much of Vande Bharat and which parts of it are still dependent on non-Indian vendors and how fast the indigenization is needed, can happen and is happening? What will it take to make Vande Bharat fully ‘Make in India’?

Although aatmanirbhar is something which arose much after the train was conceived and built, in retrospect, it does represent the true spirit, not the reality, of aatmanirbhar; that is a confident India coming out with its own products, designed here, not merely manufactured here.

Certain components are imported but they are procured to our specifications and even if we keep importing them, it is not a big deal as supply chains all over the world today need not be based out of your own country. The important thing is that the product is fully ours. To that extent I do think Train 18 is already fully ‘Make in India’ and even more it is truly aatmanirbhar.

If you have to relive your Train18 experience once again, what are the three things you did that you will again do and what are the three things which you would like to do based on your learnings in hindsight?

I have no hesitation in saying that I will do everything all over again the same way and I speak with a sense of responsibility towards the great team I was fortunate to lead.

Yes, I would try a bit more in persuasion of the naysayers by killing my fruitless vanity and hope that the path from prototype to proliferation would be far better than what it has been. I am, however, conscious that while you can try to educate and convince the simple Doubting Thomases, it would be quite a formidable task to handle the self-serving and jealous lot. Try, I would, in any case.

There were certain technical deficiencies like economy class seats, space of catering and versatility and display of OIS and Infotainment which I would have liked to do better in hindsight. With the luxury of a revisit, I would have loved it if the team managed to improve these aspects.

I had got the design of a sleeper version started which was later abandoned. Had I known that this would happen, I would have been after it more strongly. When will the first Vande Bharat Rajdhani be a reality? The large tender for two hundred Vande Bharat equivalent trains is for sleeper versions but ICF can easily put a sleeper version prototype faster than that, say by mid-2023 and ICF should be challenged to do this design early, say, as Train 23, but that is not happening.

Briefly, I am happy that beyond the hype and the show, something good is happening.

Remembering the poet Faraz,

आज हम दार पे खींचे गए जिन बातों पर

क्या अजब कल वो ज़माने को निसाबों में मिलें *

*It would not be (is) surprising that for all the things, for which I was taken to the gallows, would be found (are) in the curricula of the times.

And these great lines from the bard from Troilus and Cressida,

“Things won are done, joy’s soul lies in the doing”.

I feel blessed that this opportunity to experience the joy’s soul was afforded to me.

Akhileshwar Sahay is a noted infrastructure expert and President, advisory services at BARSYL, a consulting firm. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication or the company he works with.

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