Why do our trains look the same year after year? The same metallic box with unseemly windows and doors? Sudhanshu Mani, creator of India’s first semi-high speed train set Train-18 Vande Bharat Express and retired general manager of Indian Railways’ biggest coach factory Integral Coach Factory (ICF) breaks his silence on this most-common question in Indian commuters’ minds in his newly released book on the story of Train 18.
Going in detail in his book peppered with lines by renowned Urdu poets and quotes by William Shakespeare, Mani details how he tried to break that barrier of babudom to successfully design and commission India’s first-ever semi-high speed train set. Mani said the heavy layers of bureaucracy tried to scuttle it at every point since Day 1, but it was only due to the determination of his team at the ICF that he could do it successfully, with the support of Chairman Railway Board and railway minister.
In 2018, a 16-coach train set, designed for operation speed of 160 kmph and test speed of 180 km/h, was conceived, designed and developed by the ICF under the leadership of Mani. The project was completed in a record time of about 18 months as against the industry standard of about 3 to 4 years. The train cost, from the drawing board to its final physical form running on a track, Rs 97 crores, which was nearly one third the estimated price of importing such a train. The train, designated as Train 18 and subsequently launched as the Vande Bharat Express, became an instant success which came to represent the inherent innovative spirit of a new India, flagged off for an inaugural run by Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi, on 15 February 2019.
“Over the years in Indian Railway trains, the only thing which has changed has been the colour from gulf red to blue. Introduction of air-conditioned coaches was a minor mutation but that happened forty years ago, and these AC coaches have absolutely the same recall. “So why does a large 170-year-old organisation with thousands of lookalike trains keeps begetting thousands more similar ones?”
“IR has a long history and legacy of close to 170 years. My book is not about this history and legacy. It is about my despair and anguish. I have for you in this book, the story of the making of Train 18. This was the first time that our country got a fully home-grown modern rolling stock, i.e., a railway vehicle for which the concept to design engineering to manufacture to validation & testing was done entirely in India at ICF Chennai. This is not a story of one man alone, it is the story of a dedicated team of Indians telling you that we in India can also do it,” he said.
Mani narrates how he had to break the ice and get permission from the then railway board chairman late AK Mittal for the manufacture of just two such trains at the factory when other board members suggested that we could import it. “I pleaded, sir, you are the Chairman so no one can hold you back. You say ICF can do it. Let the Board import what they want, give me the sanction for just two trains and I will make it at a cost one third of the imported price. And sir, I am going to grab your feet now and not release them till you give me this sanction.”
So much of convincing only because the bureaucracy in Indian Railways is traditionally set in a particular way. In Indian Railway bureaucracy, there is one wing which maintains coaches and another which maintains locomotives. Now, a train set is neither a coach nor a locomotive so who would do it, who would own the train?
“But after hard work and determination, we could turn out the best possible product and today everyone is proud about it. We faced troubles and vigilance inquiries and are still facing problems, but we showed the world that India could manufacture the best,” he said.
After initially almost disowning it, leading to delays and a host of technical studies, Indian Railways has now planned to order 44 train sets of Train 18 by 2022 but indications are that the project will be delayed well into 2024