"From Designing to Manufacturing, Vande Bharat Express is an entirely Bharateeya Product"
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In a record-breaking span of just 18 months, the Integral Coach Factory in Chennai has rolled out the country’s fastest train. The country’s first ‘engine-less’ Train-18, it has even crossed the speed of 180 kmph in a trial run. The man behind this indigenous engineering wonder is the former ICF General Manager Sudhanshu Mani who presented the story of Train-18 which is known as Vande Bharat Express now in the recently held India Ideas Conclave at Narmada, Gujarat near the world famous Statue of Unity. In an e-mail interview to Nishant Azad, Senior Correspondent Organiser, Sudhanshu Mani shared his ideas, struggles, success and challenges to the makeover of the railways in Bharat. Excerpts:

How did the idea of Train-18 come about?

The idea of Train-18 I had was not about the product. The product is already well known around the world for decades. The idea lay in getting it built. To under stand the idea, let us see what is a modern train set. A train set is a conventional train which is made up of coaches and an engine at one end or either end, which requires to be attached or detached as per requirement, say, at stations for reversal or maintenance. It has many advantages. Affords higher speed and acceleration and better maintenance as the train is maintained as one unit, which more energy-efficient. It’s aesthetically better, and it requires no reversal at the destination and saves precious time. The trend world over for the last 25 to 30 years has been to switch over to such trains and discard the conventional trains. It makes great sense to introduce such modern trains in Bharat as ours is the heaviest passenger railways in the world. It would make trains more punctual, or you can run more trains. Now the question is why can’t we have more such trains? Well, when I joined the Integral Coach Factory (ICF) in 2016, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I had to lead a competent team, a team comprising of professional designers, engineers, supervisors, technicians and so on. And more than their capability, “Our doubts are our own traitors that make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt” or as Iqbal said, “Girte hain shahsawar hi maidaan-e-jung mein, wo tifl kya girega jo ghutno ke bal chale”. I told them that the days of their doubts are over. We are going to design and manufacture the best trains ever made in Bharat, matching world standards. I was aware that Bharateeya Railways had been dilly-dallying in respect of train sets for decades and it was now or never. Bharat could not afford to be a laggard any more.

After rolling out Bharat’s first superfast train, what are ICF’s future plans? What makes Train-18 different?

Future plans were very ambitious. It was planned to make forty such trains in three years from 2019-2022. It was also proposed that once we make a good number of rakes, we would market these trains abroad and ensure a place for Bharat in the rolling stock export scene. A clear direction envisaged that the Train 18 type train set concepts to be applied on EMUs and MEMUs to provide much better trains to suburban and intercity travellers; although prototypes were made for all these variations, things have not taken off further. I do not know the official position, but we need to correct that. Plans were also made to manufacture a Train 18 version with sleeper coaches for travelling at speeds @160 km/h which will eventually replace the Rajdhani trains, christening it Train 19, but this also does not seem to be taking off.
Primarily because it was a product which was entirely Bharateeya, our own, from concept to design to engineering to manufacture. Besides, it is the only authentic world-class product on Bharateeya tracks today.

The Train-18 is a Make in Bharat product, with 80 per cent of equipment designed and manufactured by Bharateeya firms. What kind of components and materials were imported?

About 20% of the cost went towards imported equipment such as braking systems, seating, plug doors and a few other components that were not available in the Bharateeya market. We had planned that ICF would take steps to develop in-country resources for such items also and with successive rakes the indigenous component would continue to increase. I am not current with the situation, but I believe that progress is not very good.
What were the different challenges be it technical or financial faced by the ICF in manufacturing Train-18?
There were obviously a lot of challenges. ICF team did a quick appraisal and realised that the imponderables they faced were:
  • How to go ahead with the project without a sanction from Board?
  • High level of synergies was required for a project of this magnitude, and this meant that key members of all departments, viz., Mechanical, Electrical, Stores & Finance forget which hat they wore and work as a team with the single-minded objective
  • There were gaps between what ICF wanted to do and what they were capable of!
The leadership led from the front, and departmental biases were abandoned. The leadership was able to, mostly through personal example and inspirational behaviour, instil in the team a high level of a sense of purpose and pride in what they were about to do, and petty departmentalism had no place in the project. ICF, in any case, was lucky to have a team with sensible members; They were made ready to harness the technical chutzpah of the team to design and manufacture the best train ever made in Bharat, matching world standards. They were told that only those who try might fail, but at the same time, there was no way to success without trying and attempting. If the project succeeded, the entire team would get the credit; if the project failed, all the blame and discredit would be on the leadership.
This was a whole new ball game, We were the developer of the technology and had to be in the lead all the time, with our own technical teams as well the vendors who were developing the sub-assemblies. The world-over, such a project takes approx. 36 to 42 months from receipt of LoA to delivery of prototype but we had to do it before I retired on December 18. The leadership presented it as a challenge, and the key members of the team unanimously resolved to burn their midnight oil, literally, to complete the project well before the GM retired. Everyone was on Board that the prototype train must be out of ICF in 2018 itself and so, therefore, the team christened their dream train as Train 18. The core team initially and the entire Train 18 team rose to the occasion, completing the project in 18 months flat.
The team conducted intensive reviews to finalise the concept; a design suited to Bharat conditions and realities, a modern train capable of 160 km/h operation but without any fancy red herrings like 200 km/h speed, tilting, super aero-nose etc.. They made a matrix of the main features of the proposed design. They broke it down in three categories: 1) where ICF was almost there 2) where ICF could be there with some handholding by superior experience intelligence and 3) where ICF could be there with judicious selection of vendors, including import, but strictly as per ICF’s own specs and drawings. For the second, i.e., areas which required some guidance, the recent empowerment of GMs of IR was exploited to the hilt and consultancy contracts for a new bogie design with fully suspended traction motors, improvements in design, tooling and processes for shell and interior styling concepts were awarded. Design consultants, unlike companies which are engaged for ToT, are invested in providing a good design and have no vested inter.
Judicious selection of vendors for all bought-outs is always a major factor in the successful development of rolling stock. The key team decided the list of such vendors and whether through open, limited or single tendering, no scope was allowed for dilly-dallying. ICF had to order only those firms which the team considered capable enough for this project and they did precisely that and in record time. Quick finalisation of procurement process helped in faster development of sub-assemblies by the vendors; unlike the regular way of our working, in this project, all the key vendors were an important part of the design process.
There is one important aspect I must bring out and that is handling and exploiting your human resources. What is it that you need to do anything anywhere? I believe t: love what you do. And love your colleagues and empathy follows; the human resource you have is the primary resource and irrespective all the machines and other money you can achieve much unless your team is with you.. Is lafz-e-mohabbat ka adna sa fasana hai, simte to dil-e-aashiq, phaile to zamana hai. Shikwa-e-zulamt-shab se kahin behtar tha, apne hisse ki ek shama jalate jaate.
The rest is history. After millions of trials and tribulation the prototype train was finally turned out in October 18, with tremendous response from all stakeholders as well the public at large. With the active support of Board and RDSO, the tests and trials were completed in record time, and the train was inducted in service as Vande Bharat express between Delhi and Varanasi on February 15, with the PM himself flagging off the train.
Suffice it to say that it has been a remarkable journey, and I salute the team ICF and the associated industry partners for making this possible. There was tension, there was bitterness, there were temporary disappointments all the way, and at the end of the day, we have been able to deliver.

How difficult was it for you to make such a world-class train at such a low budget?

Once you decide to do things in the country, the costs are certainly going to be lower. One important component for such a complicated project is to have a strong vendor base who would be undertaking this pioneering work for the pride and not for money and profit alone. We were able to harness that energy of Bharateeya railroad industry and enthuse them to participate in this project of nation-building, and I must say that they played a major part in keeping the cost down.

Do you think making trains in Bharat is better rather than giving tenders to foreign companies?

This goes without saying. Unless we make our own, we would be nowhere. Enough talent and expertise exist in the country; all you need is leadership with commitment, empathy and a sense of purpose to channelise this for delivering true Make in Bharat products. And I feel, this is true for all field, not just railways. We need that energy. Otherwise, we would continue to import.

Which strength of Bharateeya youths can be utilised for Make in Bharat?

As our Prime Minister has said on many occasions, the Bharateeya youth today are very aspirational. They have energy, they have the talent, and they have the courage. We must provide them with the leadership to break new grounds and transform the country from an importer of technology to a creator of technology.