Although India’s Train 18 project is yet to realise its full potential, it still undeniably deserves applause for the rapid pace of manufacture of its first prototype, says Srinath rangarajan
There have been some pleasant developments with regards to Indian Railways (IR) in the recent times. While mammoth projects like the bullet train, Dedicated Freight Corridor (DFC) and first train to Andaman Islands have caught the attention of many; India’s first engineless train, named the ‘Train 18’ deserves special attention. An ideal infrastructure project is one with a short gestation period, reasonable cost, uncompromised quality and that which can be easily made operational. All these aspects in perfect placement, will have the effect of creating a positive impact on the lifestyle of the people. Train 18 (T18) looks very promising in this context at least at the outset. Still, in the best interests of the future of IR, it is pertinent to analyse this project on these aspects.
T18 has been designed and built by the Integral Coach Factory (ICF) Chennai over a span of 18 months. It has acquired its name because of this feat. It was in 2016 that the ICF approached the ministry with the idea and the approval came in April 2017. From then on till today, ICF has attempted something that the Indian Railways has never done before and it has been a remarkable achievement.
Each coach costs Rs 6 crore, which is about 40 per cent cheaper than a European coach of similar design. T18 is driven by a self propulsion module without a locomotive and is capable of running at a speed of up to 160 kmph. It has technical features for enhanced and quick acceleration and is expected to significantly cut travel time compared to Shatabdi trains.
It boasts of aerodynamically designed driver cabins at both ends for quicker turnaround at destinations and has an advanced regenerative braking system that saves power. There would be a saving of 20 per cent in terms of life cycle cost when compared to Shatabdi Express as T18 would require less maintenance due to its three phase propulsion system and new generation bogies.
The project also had to overcome many obstacles as IR did not have the readymade technology for 160 kmph motorised bogies. There was a lot of planning and coordination to be done with third party equipment providers. ICF did not have the required expertise in Interior Design and consultants had to be arranged from Poland and France. In spite of all these, ICF ensured that the ownership of technology is well with them. Roughly 80 per cent of the manufacturing is indigenous with only 20 per cent relying on imports. This project has also paved the way for ICF to enter into the export market in a big way considering the state of the art design features and facilities that it has developed.
The IR is taking this initiative further and is now looking forward to manufacture its first aluminum shell coaches that will possibly attain speeds of 250 kmph through a project called Train 20 which is stated to come up by 2020. A proposal to make 500 aluminum coaches at Modern Coach Factory in Rae Bareli is awaiting approval. Thus IR is now gradually planning to shift to aluminum which is used as a standard material for coaches worldwide from its present use of stainless steel LHB coaches; reducing risk of corrosion and maintenance costs.
India is also aspiring for Bullet Trains with the first such train between Mumbai and Ahmedabad coming up in a few years time. While in no way denying the entry of bullet train, it also needs to be noted that bullet trains are projects that take a lot of time to realise besides huge costs. There are also other allied issues of land acquisition and viability entangled with it. Hence, projects like T18 can act as a transition before taking the giant leap towards bullet trains.
The real issue with T18 is the nationwide operational aspect. An internal report of the IR claims that only 0.3 per cent of the existing track length is fit for trains to be operated at speeds of 130-160 kmph and only 5 per cent of existing track length is fit to carry trains at speeds of 130 kmph. It also needs to be understood that Indian tracks are overused and is one of the main reasons for train derailment. This has been stressed adequately in the safety reports of Anil Kakodkar and Sam Pitroda led committees. In this backdrop India has to be careful in operating T18 trains at such high speeds. We cannot afford to compromise safety for the sake of speed. The Chief Commissioner of Railway Safety (CCRS) has given clearance with the caveat that there needs to be a sturdy fencing all along the track for speeds operating beyond 130 kmph up to 160 kmph. So, to start with T18 will only be running at a maximum speed of 130kmph wherever possible and for speeds up to 160kmph, we need to wait.
To solve this issue, the IR has prioritised six corridors which carry 58 per cent of freight and 52 per cent of passengers, but that constitutes only 18 per cent of rail network. This itself is a time taking exercise but a modest beginning. The T18 Project definitely deserves applause as far as the rapid pace of manufacture of its first prototype is considered. The ICF has done a commendable job considering its limitations with respect to design. But to realise the full potential of T18, it is definitely going to take some time. But nevertheless, it is an achievement that we all need to be proud of.
The writer is a Senior Engineer in Vijay Nirman Company and views expressed are personal