At last, tenders finalised for Train 18, but imponderables remain

Although it is tempting to expect that the freshly minted new train, with a fresh new modern look, is finally ready to emerge from the long dark tunnel, doubts arise from the fact that a new contractor would essentially be producing the same kind of propulsion equipment, barring a few minor changes

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The Train 18 project gave a start to efforts to transform the Indian passenger train system by replacing the conventional locomotive and bogie formation in trains to one that was in line with best practices in the design of modern train systems around the world.

After a prolonged delay, the Indian Railways finalised a tender for the supply of the propulsion system to be used in the production of the prestigious Vande Bharat train sets on January 22. The tender, which was reissued in September following the decision to exclude Chinese companies, was awarded to the Hyderabad-based Medha Servo Drives Pvt. Ltd.

Although it is tempting to expect that the freshly minted new train, with a fresh new modern look, is finally ready to emerge from the long dark tunnel, there remain many imponderables. Most of these arise from the fact that a new contractor would essentially be producing the same kind of propulsion equipment, barring a few minor changes, according to a former senior railway official who has significant domain expertise.

The tender for the supply of 44 16-car train sets is worth ₹2,211.65 crores. It requires Medha to also provide a five-year maintenance services. Of the 44 train sets, 24 are to be manufactured at the ICF in Chennai, 10 at the Rail Coach Factory at Kapurthala and 10 at the Modern Coach Factory at Raebareli. Incidentally, as of now, no industrial unit in the country, barring the ICF, has either the experience or the competence to undertake the production of the self-propulsion Train 18 train sets.

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Train 18 was India’s first indigenously developed self-propelled train. The project gave a start to efforts to transform the Indian passenger train system by replacing the conventional locomotive and bogie formation in trains to one that was in line with best practices in the design of modern train systems around the world. Crucially, this meant the design of self-propelled trains, which, apart from providing greater speeds and better riding comfort, also provided better energy efficiency. Train 18 thus marked a significant new chapter in Indian rail history. That a public undertaking achieved this so quickly was also a striking counter to the mythology that the public sector is necessarily inefficient or slothful.

An iconic project’s many travails

The original project was conceived and executed by the Indian Railway’s Integral Coach Factory at Perambur in Chennai. The ICF designed the first prototype of trains, which are still running successfully on two routes. The semi-high speed inter-city express trains were completely designed by the ICF, taking 18 months from start to finish, hence they are being christened as Train 18. The ICF’s prototype was ready by early 2019 and was in fact inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi before the elections later that year. It soon became emblematic icon of Modi’s pet scheme, Make in India. That this iconic project fell by the wayside makes for painful irony, even as the slogan of Aatmanirbhar Bharat is bandied about on an everyday basis.

The most significant issue arising from the tender appears to be the timelines for the execution of the contract. The Railways has now stipulated that Medha would supply the first two prototype equipment of the train sets within 20 months of the signing of the contract. That means that even if the contract is signed by the Railways by the end of February, Medha would be supplying the prototypes by the end of October 2022. The design of the prototypes have then to be approved by Railways’ Research Design & Standards Organisation (RDSO), which will test it on various parameters.

Sudhanshu Mani, former general manager at ICF, under whose leadership the Train 18 precept was executed, thinks since ICF and Medha have done this work earlier, manufacture of two train sets in 20 months would be easy. However, the stipulation of RDSO approvals and testing at various stages, which would not add much value as the train’s performance is largely proven, may only unnecessarily delay the project.

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The tender for the commercial production of the trains went through several iterations since the project commenced. Much time was lost as the tenders went through several revisions since 2019. The delayed award of the tender in January, and its stipulations, imply that even more time would be lost.

Cosmetic changes, costly delays

The design specified in the latest tender does not appear to deviate significantly from those in the original prototype designed by the ICF. “By and large, the changes recommended would not even be noticeable to the traveling public,” Mani told The Federal. He said some changes would improve riding quality, even if by not very much. Improving the ride quality essentially requires reducing the “shaking” that is experienced in a moving train — both vertically as well as horizontally.

The modifications would primarily require changes to the suspension systems used in the train sets. Mani pointed out that the RDSO had ruled that the Train 18 surpassed the norms set for ride quality. “After all, these trains have been running since their inaugural run, and there have been no specific complaints about the ride quality so far,” he observed. “Of course, nobody has any objection to further improvement in ride quality or passenger comfort — there can always be scope for improvement in any design.”

However, Mani who implemented the Train 18 project in record time by setting it in mission mode, opines that the changes in the specifications would set the project back by almost one year. “The delay would arise from the fact that the bogie suspensions have to be redesigned and undergo simulation before being subjected to the mandatory fresh rounds of testing. All of this takes time,” he elaborated. He reckons that design modifications would take at least four to five months; the testing process would also take a similar length of time.

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“To me it is clear that there will be a significant delay, but with very little apparent benefit to passengers,” Mani remarked. Instead, he pointed out, there is the “risk element” that the prototype may not clear the testing, which may prolong the process of its development. “I see risks, but hardly tangible benefits. Delay is not merely a possibility, it is certain,” he added.

The other modification that has been incorporated in the tender specifications arises from the improved acceleration of the trains. This is unlikely to make significant difference for passengers’ travel time. In a situation in which train speeds cannot be exploited to the full because of the congestion on the tracks and other constraints, it makes little sense to increase acceleration.

“In the speed range they run, the improved acceleration would hardly add a few seconds for every hour they run. Over an eight-hour journey, it would, at most, reduce travel time by a few minutes,” Mani observed. Mani, a poetry aficionado — his favourites being Ghalib and Shakespeare —  quotes Ghalib: “This will be neither here nor there.” He also avers that most of the other modifications are largely cosmetic, “nothing concrete.”

Already delayed, to be delayed further

Mani also clarified that in the original prototype for Train 18, which was developed by ICF during his tenure there, Medha, which supplied the electrical equipment including traction motors, was also asked to design the bogie which would be dovetailed to their electrical systems. Medha, Mani said, was asked to design the systems so that the train could travel at 180 km/hr. Since Medha has no experience in bogie design, a consultant was engaged, Mani pointed out.

This time Medha has been asked to deliver the complete assembled bogie, not merely the design, after getting the bogie manufactured. Since Medha has no specific competence in bogies, it is likely that it would engage a consultant to design the bogie, Mani noted.

If the Train 18 could be implemented in 18 months, why has Medha been given 20 months to deliver the first of its prototypes? Mani agrees. “I think it is very liberal,” he remarked. “We executed everything — from concept to delivery — in 18 months. Why should a train that is perhaps just 10 per cent new take longer to make now?” he asks. He reckons a 15-month time frame “would have been more than enough.”

The mirage of indigenisation

Referring to the extent of indigenisation, Mani pointed out that the Intellectual Property Rights arising from the implementation of the Train 18 project belonged entirely to the ICF. He admitted that some components, accounting for about 20 per cent of the value of the train set, were indeed imported. These, he said were mainly for seats in trains and the doors of the bogies.

“What is the point in asking for 75 per cent indigenisation when ICF had already achieved 80 per cent indigenisation three years ago?” asks the senior railway officer quoted earlier.

Ridiculing the role of the media, Mani said: “the same media which had earlier reported and welcomed the 80 per cent indigenisation by the ICF for Train 18 and now applauds the achievement of 75 per cent indigenisation.”

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Mani says that it should have been possible to have increased indigenous capability within the time the Railways has had since the Train 18 project. For example, referring to the doors in the train, Mani says that at least 50 per cent indigenisation ought to have been possible by now, although he is not sure whether seat manufacturing capability is currently available. Overall, this would have ensured a higher — not lower — level of indigenisation than was possible with Train 18.

“But those are matters of detailing. I think 85-90 per cent indigenisation ought to have been targeted,” avers Mani.

Cost calculus

Are the new trains more expensive than Train 18? The propulsion systems in the new trains are to cost the Indian Railways an average of about ₹50 crore.

How does that compare with Train 18? According to reliable sources in the Railways, the propulsion systems for the Train 18 train set cost about ₹44 crores, which, considering for inflation, does not appear to have been significantly lower than the ₹50 crores that Medha is to be paid for the 44 train sets. The overall cost of a Train 18 train set was just a little under ₹100 crores — inclusive of the propulsion system and the cost of the bogies.

Although there appears to be no significant difference between costs then and now, there is a catch in such a comparison of costs. When ICF designed its prototype, it did not have the luxury of scales of production that Medha now has. After all, the marginal cost of an additional train set is much lower when a company is manufacturing 44 train sets instead of just one or two. And, costs spread over a larger order will normally be lower. In any case, it is obvious that the new trains will cost more, although by how much may be open to question now.

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The decision to spread the order across three production units appears to be motivated by extraneous concerns. But railway officials do not think this by itself would delay the project, because the initial production would be at ICF, which already has the expertise and capability to produce the train sets.

Mani reckons the first train sets would be ready, if all goes well, by the middle of 2022, after which testing would take another five to six months. According to his “best case scenario” the dispatch of the first trains, from ICF, could start by the end of 2022.

Mani thinks that the commencement to delivery schedule at the two other production centres (Kapurthala and Raebareli) could take much longer because the centres have no previously-demonstrated capability in making such trains.

In fact, a retired railway official familiar with the technical practices, says that there was no point in awarding 20 out of the 44 train sets to the MCF and the RCF. He pointed out that both RCF and MCF have no experience with self-propelling train systems. Moreover, while RCF only has the capability with DC (direct current) electrical technologies, MCF has never made coaches with self-propulsion systems.

“By the time they start production, ICF may well be finishing its quota. What is the point in giving the order to these two units if these 20 train sets are not going to come sooner?” the official asked.

“Maybe it was just meant to be politically nice,” he quipped. He explained that the three production centres cannot start preparing now because they would be unable to place orders for equipment without the clearance of the prototype.

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It is evident that the new trains will come significantly late, while not delivering any tangible cost savings arising from better production scales. Nor will it further in any significant way the objectives of Aatmanirbhar Bharat.

Ironically, Train 18, which, instead of serving as an icon for Make in India, was left in the cold. And, this was long before Aatmanirbhar Bharat was even coined as a slogan. Even more ironically, the prototype that has enjoyed a blemishless run is sought to be replaced by a train that would arrive almost five years after Train 18 made its debut. If that is progress, India could do with a little more speed!