Celebrated as India’s fastest train and one of the most successful products of the ‘Make in India’ initiative, future production of the indigenously-built Train 18 — helmed by the Integral Coach Factory (ICF) in Chennai — has come under a cloud, thanks to an unresolved turf battle.
While the first train set, christened the Vande Bharat Express and flagged off by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has been running successfully for over 16 hours a day between New Delhi and Varanasi since February 2019, a spat over protocol among officers of the Mechanical and Electrical departments in the Railways, has hit production of the semi high-speed train.
The ICF, the world’s largest rail coach manufacturing unit, rolled out the Train 18 with a maximum operating speed of 160 kmph in a record time of just 18 months in 2018.
The self-propelled train set, comprising 16 air-conditioned coaches, was built at a cost of ₹100 crore, about half the cost of importing such a rake, with about 80% indigenous components in alignment with the Prime Minister’s call for ‘Make in India’.
The indigenous design and development was done by an in-house team of the ICF led by then General Manager Sudanshu Mani, Principal Chief Mechanical Engineers L.C. Trivedi and Shubranshu and Chief Design Engineer S. Srinivas.
However, it would seem Train 18 has become a victim of its own success. According to ICF sources, the Vigilance Directorate is contemplating an inquiry into allegations that the development team compromised on the safety of the train by not obtaining technical approval for the electrical systems from a particular officer of the Research Designs and Standards Organisation (RDSO), Lucknow. (The RDSO is a standardisation organisation of the Indian Railways.)
However, enquiries by The Hindu revealed that approvals were obtained from the Train Set Directorate of the RDSO, a multi-departmental entity created to provide single window clearances for faster production.
Railway officials have argued that the train was built in record time only because Team ICF developed the prototype in anticipation of approval from Train Set Directorate of the RDSO. This was expeditious compared to the conventional practice of first obtaining the approval and then building the prototype.
No time was lost in waiting for sanctions and approvals in building the prototype.
“The net result is that the train is running successfully with not even a single issue so far. Had there not been functional autonomy in deciding the design and equipment, without any compromise on safety and quality, Train 18 would not have come out on time and in the shape in which it is running today. The protocol issues and the fight to stake claim or ownership of the flagship train has only hit the morale of Team ICF,” a senior engineer involved in making of the Train 18 said on Tuesday.
The official, who preferred not to be quoted, said key members of the Team ICF faced the threat of an inquiry or investigation by various agencies for no fault of theirs.
“After all a world class product has been made at Indian prices…since the project was a huge success, the Indian Railways ordered that 10 more train sets (160 coaches) be made operational by March 2020.”
Even after the train was ready for rollout and had been inspected by the then Chairman, Railway Board, in October 2018, some vested interests within the Railways had sought to stall the launch of the Train 18, sources claimed.
“There was a two-month delay in introducing the Vande Bharat Express to the people due to inter-departmental wrangling. The tremendous success of the train has further accentuated the bitter feud between the mechanical and electrical departments. A high-level committee is now tasked to resolve these issues, including the design, manufacture and maintenance of Train 18.”
Given the threat of departmental action, even as the Railway Board fixed a target of 10 train sets this fiscal, tenders are yet to be finalised and senior officials at the ICF said the work was unlikely to commence in the next few months.
When contacted by The Hindu, ICF General Manager chose not to comment on the issue.
Meanwhile the Ministry of Railways has constituted a committee of Additional Members of the Railway Board to sort out the differences between the two departments and bring about a working synergy to take the mission forward.
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