Boosting passenger safety through LHB rail coaches
Srinath rangarajan talks about the history of the Indian Railways and the steps taken to tide over the obstacles in its growth and maintenance
The Indian Railways (IR) serves the vital function of providing travel access to millions of people. In this pursuit, safety of the passengers automatically becomes its foremost concern. It is pertinent to analyse certain aspects of rail infrastructure and the status of implementation. Much of the IR lines have been laid in the British period. India has laid less than 20 per cent of its lines in the post-1947 period, while the corresponding increase in freight and passenger volumes in the same period remain 1,300 per cent and 1,600 per cent respectively. The burgeoning population of the country has led to a huge mismatch with respect to the passenger demand and supply of infrastructure. Today, many routes are operating beyond their threshold limits and it is said that the IR is carrying 15 times more people than its capacity.
Another aspect in the context of rail safety remains the nature of rolling stock being used. Quite often, we observe the coaches sliding over the other when train accidents occur. This sliding nature of coaches and subsequently turning turtle has caused a lot of casualties. The reason for such behaviour of coaches has a lot to do with the nature of a bulk of the presently existing coaches being used. These are the coaches manufactured at the Integral Coach Factory in Perambur near Chennai, or popularly called the ICF coaches.
To know more about it, we need to dwell a little into the history of coach manufacturing in our country. The first ICF coach was rolled out in 1955 with the help of Swiss Car and Elevator Manufacturing Company, Switzerland. These were designed with an all steel integrated frame which was the most advanced technology of those times.
In 1993-94, after a gap of nearly four decades, IR decided to look for a new passenger coach design which would be lighter and capable of travelling smoothly at higher speeds. After a global selection process in 1995, IR finalised the design developed by Linke Hofmann Busch (LHB) (presently Alstom LHB) of Germany. The coaches were subsequently called LHB coaches and they have been in use on the broad gauge lines since 2000. The coaches were initially manufactured in the Rail Coach Factory (RCF) in Kapurthala after the technology transfer in 1998 and are now also being manufactured in ICF and in the recently started Modern Coach Factory in Raebareli.
Among the many positive features that these coaches provide, the one which stands out is its ‘anti-telescopic’ nature. It means they do not turn over or flip in case of a collision. LHB coaches use a centre buffer coupling technique of tight locking type to join the coaches unlike the screw coupling technique used by the ICF coaches. The overall geometrical shape has also been designed in such a way that the centre of gravity comes out to be at a lower level than what is presently in ICF coaches. All these factors result in enhanced passenger safety in case of derailment.
The results are there for all to see as in the case of Nagpur-Mumbai Duronto Express when nine coaches derailed in August 2017 and there were no casualties. Similarly, none of the Dibrugarh Rajdhani Express coaches turned turtle despite a derailment in 2014. The Kakodkar Committee on Rail Safety as well as the Sam Pitroda Committee on Modernization of IR have also recommended complete migration from ICF to LHB coaches.
Apart from enhanced safety measures, LHB coaches also provide an advanced pneumatic disc braking system, modular interiors that integrate lighting into ceiling, improved suspension system, higher capacity of air conditioning and increased length. The coach exterior made with stainless steel and interior with aluminium make it a light-weight structure. All these features enhance passenger comfort in multiple ways.
Such multi-pronged advantages of these coaches made the Ministry of Railways and senior members of the Railway Board announce in 2016 and also reiterate the same in 2017 that ICF coach production would be phased out and all coaches would only be of LHB type. Attempts in this direction have resonated down the order, as many zonal railways are also seeking to shift coaches at the earliest, as the South Central Railway is presently attempting to. The existing workshops are also gearing up towards modernisation to accommodate periodic overhauls and other maintenance works for LHB coaches as visible in the recent inauguration of LHB Airbrake Workshop at Perambur. Presently, LHB coaches are restricted to Shatabdi, Rajdhani, Duronto premium trains, but are slowly being extended to other trains. A target of producing 5,000 railway coaches for the present year has been set, which is a double in annual capacity if it happens. In fact, ICF Perambur has recently produced a 100 per cent made in India LHB coach which helps in strengthening the Make in India initiative. To take this process further, RCF Kapurthala will supposedly be manufacturing only LHB coaches from April 1, 2018, onwards. This decision to ramp up production will also have a positive spillover effect in boosting production capacities of the domestic steel manufacturing industry.
However, the ground reality remains that LHB coaches can be overhauled at only a few select workshops, which in turn may create delays due to a long waiting time. Other workshops like Golden Rock Workshop in Tiruchirapalli are seeking sanctions from Railway Board to modernise their machinery and plant equipment to cater to the services of overhauling LHB coaches and more such workshops are expected to join this list. All these are activities which involve one to two years of gestation period and are not going to start immediately. Similarly, the production capacity of LHB coaches, notwithstanding the ambitious targets set, will still have to go a long way as well over 80 per cent of the existing number of coaches are still of ICF variety. The existing coach manufacturing units may not be enough and as a solution, outsourcing coach manufacturing to specialised private players like Alstom or Bombardier can be considered. While the Ministry, on the one hand, is reiterating the ambitious plans for replacement, there are brand new trains being introduced with ICF coaches. And this advanced coach with multiple benefits come with additional costs to the exchequer. But considering the benefits and longer shelf life of 35 years (compared to 25 years’ shelf life of ICF coaches), we can be assured that the costs will be outweighed.
Then comes the issue of a phased replacement and the use of ICF coaches when they get gradually phased out or when their shelf life of 25 years ends. A solution in this regard can be to use them as places in railway yards for providing retail space to small merchants (as is being done in a few Central Asian countries) or provide space for the direct sale markets or cooperative markets like Rythu Bazars in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana where vegetables and small groceries are sold by farmers themselves. It will help in creating additional livelihood.
It needs to be remembered that complete conversion to LHB coaches, though necessary, will only act as a curative by drastically reducing casualties but not as a preventive for train accidents. Measures like incorporating technology by maintenance of track infrastructure, replacing all direct discharge toilets to bio toilets, implementing a Dedicated Freight Corridor to reduce existing track utilisation, and putting in place an empowered rail safety regulatory body can be considered to achieve a rail accident-free India.
The author has previously worked for L&T Construction in Modernizing Railway Workshops in Jhansi and Gwalior and is presently a Senior Engineer in Vijay Nirman Company. Views expressed are personal
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