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Learning from Train 18 and ARL: Indian Railways can ill-afford to retard the pace of transforming its passenger services

Raghu Dayal

Comprehend the chasm exemplified by two eminent projects executed by the Indian Railways (IR) over a period of 70 long years. For the first, take the 200-odd-km Assam Rail Link (ARL) constructed at a cost of  Rs 9.3 crore, incredibly in a single working season (January 1948-December 1949). The second may be the recent trailblazer Vande Bharat Express (Train 18) signifying a new genre train-set, faster and safer, with state-of-the-art facilities, manufactured at ICF Chennai.

For a real grasp of ARL's value and importance, we need to imagine the post-1947 partition dilemma that India confronted. Urgent provision of road-rail connectivity for North-east came as a top priority. It is in this context that the crowning glory of the ARL project needs to be grasped, with what dexterity and dedication, courage and competence the IR grappled with the challenges in a period of postwar malaise and shortages, post-partition disruption, and primitive technological tools, amidst rampant hazards of navigating turbulent rivers, tortuous hills, valleys and gorges.

A magnificent example of engineering skill and ingenuity, efficiency and dedication in the completion of the onerous project was lauded by minister of railways & transport N Gopalaswami Ayyangar in his 1950-51 Rail Budget. Home minister Vallabhbhai Patel termed the construction of ARL as "most remarkable railway achievement," Sardar directed the Railway Board to summon all their ingenuity, and cast aside all inhibiting processes, including tendering, if necessary, that could impede the link being constructed "in as short a time as possible." Many an allegation came to be levelled even against the go-getting project engineer-in-chief Karnail Singh. The onerous project having been completed with utmost expedition, the government at the highest levels took no cognisance of the allegations.

Juxtapose this with the pioneering Train 18, hailed as the most visible product of 'Make in India', delivered by IR managers seven decades after ARL. While flagging off the self-propelled new generation train on February 15, PM Narendra Modi said, "I am grateful to designers and engineers of the ICF." Railway minister Piyush Goyal termed it a "major leap in technology wholly developed by our engineers."
Designed to run at up to 180kph, the new train-sets were intended to operate medium-distance intercity routes, progressively replacing the IR's loco-hauled Shatabdi Express trains, and soon Rajdhani Express, too. The concept languished for years in departmental squabbles, reportedly a "turf war" between the mechanical and electrical departments. General manager S Mani, conceptualised the project, and tenaciously follow up for getting the Railway Board to approve for the ICF to build two prototype train-sets.

With just about 18 months left for his superannuation, Mani put together a key team at the ICF with a remit to "design and manufacture the best train ever made in India," matching world standards. It'd inevitably involve some corners to be cut, some routine processes to be ignored: for about 80% of the components sourced from within India, the procurement process would perforce necessitate a judicious selection of vendors to guarantee the delivery of sub-assemblies to the required timescales. Although external assistance was harnessed to improve the design, tooling and processes to manufacture body-shells and bogies, as well as the propulsion and brake systems, given the tight timeline, technology transfer agreements were eschewed.

Combining functionality and aesthetics, speed with safety, and service with style, Mani's team succeeded in turning out the avant-garde train striking a modern look and offering high-end amenities and conveniences. In a prevalent environ of projects in India suffering endemic cost and time overruns, it was gratifying to find the Train 18 meet the target. Estimating the final cost at `97.5 crore, ICF principal chief mechanical engineer Shubhranshu explained that not only was it built in a record time, but "at less than half the global cost."

According to plans approved by the Board, the ICF was assembling a second pre-series train-set, while a series build of 40 was expected to be rolled out over three years. But the manufacture of Train 18 train-sets is reported to have been brought to a grinding halt, plausibly owing to some allegations such as a firm being favoured in the award of tenders, besides deviation of specifications set by the RDSO.

The Vande Bharat Express in commercial service already for seven months, with no failure or unsafe situation, bears testimony to the robustness of its specifications, safety and reliability. Some improvements and alterations in the product would indeed be evolved in tune with empirical needs.

The real importance of Train 18 lies in the lessons it holds for frugal engineering, project management and empowering managers who dare to dream big. The project gave the ICF managers a new vigour, enabling the country set sights high-to build an export version of Train 18 for semi-high-speed (150-200kph) operation as a cost-effective alternative to far expensive high-speed trains (250-350kph). We would have hoped this story of gumption, guts and grit behind the Train 18 would spur the IR management to rise above the circumstance, and break the mould circumscribed by their perceived departmental predilections and risk-aversion.

It is difficult to understand the rationale of the IR retarding its much-delayed strategy for a quick, bold and extensive makeover of its passenger services. Delays in a perceptible change in the IR's on-board and pre-board services, their velocity and frequency will only exacerbate its declining share in business and haemorrhaging its revenues. The IR appears caught in a time warp, clinging to the comfort of its legacy business model and risking the loss of vitality, when the crying call for it is to build resilience and vitality, increase agility, champion new ideas and perspectives. In view of the murky goings-on, a vigilance enquiry in the manufacture of Train 18 would, prima facie, look to be a witch-hunt that generally kills the spirit of risk-taking and out-of-the-box thinking.

The government appears oblivious of a drift often generated by skewed importance given to Vigilance, which, today, as an institution, prevails in all departments and state enterprises, smothering managers and executives. The sprawling and pervasive institution has had little impact on the monster of corruption plaguing the economy. It needs no elucidation how the process of enquiry lasts for years, taking a toll of morale. Not unoften does it end up as a tale like of a blind man groping in a dark room for the black cat which is nowhere there.

The author is Senior fellow, Asian Institute of Transport Development, Delhi