New Vande Bharat trains may not meet deadline: Sudhanshu Mani- The New Indian Express

By Express News Service

Former General Manager of Integral Coach factory, Chennai and now a freelance consultant on rail design and development, Sudhanshu Mani, is the man who is credited with leading the team of engineers that conceptualized and developed India’s first indigenous semi-high-speed train Vande Bharat. In an interview with Rajesh Kumar Thakur, Mani says that running 75 Vande Bharat trains by August 15, 2023, and 400 in the next three years, as announced in the Union Budget, is a “long shot.”

Will the railways be able to meet the deadline of running 75 VB trains by August 15, 2023?
A team of engineers from Integral Coach Factory (ICF) and allied industry came together and conceptualized it. After long and hard work, they delivered a super-fast train, Train-18, which is now called ‘Vande Bharat.’ This ‘made in India’ train came up in just 18 months. It is a record in itself, both in terms of time and cost, on its designing and development.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced on August 15 in 2021 that 75 such trains would run across the country in 75 weeks. In the Union budget, the finance minister also announced that 400 Vande Bharat trains would be running in India in the next three years. Our team is fully dedicated to meeting these deadlines.

The common refrain in railway and industrial circles has been that the government had overreached. I view it a bit differently. It may not be possible to deliver these many Vande Bharat trains within the announced deadline. But it is doable in the next six years. So, while 75 trains by August 15, 2023 or 400 in the next three years is a long shot, what is important is there is good movement and energy devoted towards more and more Vande Bharat trains.

How did the idea to design and develop Vande Bharat emerge?
India needed an indigenously developed modern train for decades. The bureaucracy had repeatedly let the country down. It remained immersed in internecine battles and import obsession. I asked for, and got the posting as General Manager of Integral Coach Factory (ICF) in 2016, unlike others who opt for a bigger zonal railway posting. I had a vision to build a modern and fast train, with pleasing interiors and exteriors, designed and manufactured in India.

I soon realized that the officers and staff of ICF had the right capability and the flair to take up such a project. I had completed 35 years as a railway officer, including a stint in Germany in the Embassy of India as the Minister (Railways). So, I had the dream, the vision, the opportunity and the good fortune of having a great team, raring to go.

Do you think running 400 Vande Bharats will add a good quantum of revenue in railway’s overall earnings?
That is a tough one to predict. Vande Bharat trains have so far been successful commercially, with full occupation, as the travelling public is willing to pay higher fares for the shorter travel time and superior amenities. However, is there a market for 400 such trains? There is certainly a good scope of replacement of Shatabdi, Rajdhani and some more premium trains by Vande Bharat, say, in the range of 100-150 trains. Proliferation beyond that would depend a lot on choice of routes and timing. Travellers will have to weaned away from road and air. To me it appears difficult at this stage but not impossible. It would need great planning and strategy.

Since you led the team to develop this train, what do you think the Railways should have done to facilitate introduction of high-speed trains?
Three very important things, which should have been taken up with the proliferation of Vande Bharat trains: The first is the upgrade of tracks to handle 160 kmph speed. But the work on even the Delhi-Mumbai and Delhi-Howrah sections, which were sanctioned in 2017, proceeded rather slowly. The second is that I had started work on sleeper version of Vande Bharat in 2018. The prototype should have been here by now, but the work was abandoned. Even if they restart the work now, a sleeper version is possible only by mid-2023.

Third, the Railways has finalized a plan to set up depots for maintenance at 15 stations on the possible 28 routes of Shatabadi and other intercity trains. We need a robust plan to run these trains in large numbers with proper maintenance facilities and training of staff. A tender for testing Vande Bharat for running at 220 kmph has been floated. The Railways has no such tracks for testing, let alone operation. This would unnecessarily result in a design which would not be utilised at the intended speed and the Railways would end up paying more for something which may not come in use for at least a decade.

Even after trial tests, some technical snags were recently reported in the operation of Vande Bharat trains. Why is it happening?
This is not correct. The only technical snag occurred on the first rake of the train due to failure in traction motor bearing recently, nearly four years after the rake was inducted. That is an excellent reliability record. This is in spite of the train having been pushed into commercial service without the mandatory field trial in an inferior service. Otherwise, there have been cases of cattle being run over for which the train cannot be blamed. The train has been designed for 160kmph operation on fenced tracks and it is not a fault of the design, if the infrastructure has not kept pace with developments of trains. 

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