Millennium Post

Nexus of Good: At a novel pace

Through the efforts of a fabulous team, led by a railway engineer, India got its first domestically manufactured modern train, cheaper than imports

Nexus of Good: At a novel pace

Indian Railways has a long history and a legacy of close to 170 years, and it is a subject of a great deal of romance apart from being the lifeline of the nation. However, anyone associated with the Indian Railways (IR) has always wondered why all its thousands of trains hardly looked different from one another. Why aren't there trains with better aesthetics and higher speeds? The worldwide trend for the last 25/30 years has been to switch over to trains that have higher speed, improved maintainability, better energy-efficiency and that save travel time. It makes a great sense in India to introduce such modern trains, as ours is the heaviest passenger railway in the world. It would also make trains more punctual and increase their numbers.

So, why is it that we do not have such trains at all? It is perhaps on account of departmental turf wars. There is one wing which maintains coaches and another which maintains locomotives. A solution had to be found amidst this quibbling to give the country a modern train.

In August 2016, Sudhanshu Mani, a railway engineer, was due to become a general manager. He requested for and was posted as the head of the Integral Coach Factory (ICF) in Chennai. This factory was set up in the 1950s as a part of the then Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru's vision to make India self-reliant in manufacturing of coaches but was nowhere near being a great vision of being a world-class manufacturer of trains as matching action lacked. When Sudhanshu landed at ICF, he found a great team of officers and staff, a fertile ground to innovate. The design and manufacturing staff had a certain technical audacity, a chutzpah to try something new. Boredom of doing more of the same was writ large on their faces. Adopting some simple leadership principles, like openness, discarding feudal protocol, welcoming ideation and recognizing those who worked and coming hard on those who did not was the need of the hour.

A number of measures were initiated but the main thrust was on harnessing the potential and exciting the team. Soon, ICF became the biggest factory in the world through some exponential growth in production. With large-scale installation of solar power, it became the only carbon-negative factory of IR, generating more renewable energy than it actually consumed. Creativity was encouraged and, with murals and sculptures from metal scrap, the factory looked like an art gallery. And for the first time, ICF broke free from the shackles of more of the same to make coaches with a new look and identity.

For Sudhanshu, it was an opportunity to fulfil his dream to make a world-class train. There were indeed huge challenges. The project required the sanction of the ministry. The ministry, steeped in red tape, greed, and inaction thought that Sudhanshu was just spinning a yarn and it would hamper the attempts to import. But the chairman who had worked with him was inclined. He was, however, held back by other members of the board. Sudhanshu didn't give up. He met the chairman and pleaded with him to approve the project for just two trains at one-third the cost of import and let the board import what they wanted. His persuasive skills worked and he got the sanction the same day.

Next day, on reaching Chennai, he called all key team members and shared the good news. The team was now tasked to design and manufacture a train set for 180 km/h capability with modern features, the very first and best in India. They were enthused but some of them weren't very sure because they had not done anything at this scale ever. They were also a trifle apprehensive that if they failed, they would be made the scapegoat. They were motivated to take up the venture as Sudhanshu, like a true leader, volunteered to shoulder the entire responsibility if the project failed. The team was now fully on board.

The next doubt was about the mode to develop this train. Hitherto, all the rolling stock, be it locomotives or coaches, had come to India through the transfer of technology (ToT) route. A big international company was usually engaged at huge cost and other conditions. There were IPR issues as well. Hence, a decision was taken to develop in-house technology. A matrix of the requirements of a modern train was worked out. It was found that a lot of work could be done in-house. However, there were some areas where some handholding was required. A few European consultants, who had no stake in future supplies, were engaged. However, they were only to deliver a good design. The in-house team was to work with them for bogies, external finish and interiors. At the end of the day, the entire IPR, full ownership of the product was to be with ICF without any dependence on an "outsider". And, Indian manufacturers were encouraged to join in this effort to keep the cost down.

What followed was a history in the making, hard work and travails, a hitch here and a roadblock there. Problems galore but solutions came soon, with great synergy. The team worked like men possessed, not only the ICF team but all the partner companies as well. These companies saw in this project the pride of nation building, not business alone. Daily meetings were held with European consultants — even at odd hours to suit the convenience of the consultants. Shop floor related discussions were not held in an air conditioned conference room but on the shop floor itself.

On October 29, 2018, the train was unveiled in an electric atmosphere ceremony never seen before in any railway factory. Train 18 had lived up to its name twice over, not only was it turned out in 2018 itself but the project took exactly 18 months from drawing board to prototype turnout. The proudest moment ever for ICF.

After the turnout, the train was taken for extensive on-line testing for roadworthiness and safety. The approval came in November. The train had breached the 180 km/h speed work in test with all parameters well within the safe limits. The Vande Bharat express was flagged off by the PM himself. Two rakes of the train have been running successfully ever since, a feat not paralleled by even any imported rolling stock so far. ICF had delivered the first modern train entirely of Indian origin from concept to manufacture at much less than half the cost of import.

The good news is that the successful experiment of Vande Bharat Express is now being replicated and scaled through public-private partnership in the true spirit of Nexus of Good. It has all been possible on account of the initiative taken by this fabulous team led by Sudhanshu.

Views expressed are personal

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