Rail Analysis: Firstly congratulations to you for launching the Book on the Train 18. Please inform us more about the story behind the launch of this book? Any interesting anecdotes you would like to share with us whilst you were compiling this book?
Shri Sudhanshu Mani: Thanks you. I started writing this book after my retirement not only to recount those amazing days as my ICF colleagues designed and built Train 18. As I was in the process, I got some what disillusioned as negative vibes and vanity from the powers that be surrounded the project and apart from me, the key team members, who were still in service, seemed to be the targets of envious and vicious propaganda. I later realized that it was my duty to convey to my countrymen that a thousand such projects could bloom in the country; all it needed was courage, passion, sense of purpose and resolve in the leadership. Negativity may come and go but the story must be told. The heroes of this novel endeavour should not go unknown and unsung and so I revived the effort and a year later here it is, released to good reception I hope that, through this story, I can get across the message that the time for India to realize and exploit its potential has come, it’s now or never.
Anecdotes, there are many but I prefer to relate one from my initial days at ICF. We had been receiving many complaints from Mumbai area about jamming of sliding doors in EMUs. I went to the Furnishing shop to check this out first hand. There I was, with some officers, trying our hands at moving the sliding door. The problem basically lay in poor quality of doors from trade but our exercise to get to the bottom of this problem was almost comic; all we did was to keep moving one door after the other and watching it move as if it was some great engineering experiment. I noticed one elderly shop floor worker watching us bemused. As I grandly wrapped it up and proclaimed that this or that supplier needed to be banished, and prepared to go away, this man approached me. He said, matter-of-factly, “Morning. Good to see you visit the shop floor, GM sir. But moving sliding doors is not your work. If you do this, all these officers will keep you engaged in doing something like this and tomorrow you will be moving window shutters up and down.” Thrusting a paper in my hand, he continued,“This is your job”. And then he left us with me holding this paper. Drawn in an amateurish manner was sketch of a speeding train; a train with aerodynamically-profiled nose attached to a streamlined contour of coaches, obviously moving at a great speed. This indeed was a wake-up call.
Rail Analysis: What are the qualities that make the ‘Train 18’ worldclass? According to you, in which areas Indian Railways should work more to make ‘Train 18’ more comfortable and passenger friendly?
Shri Sudhanshu Mani: World-class is an ill-defined term which is abused and misused. In any case, I would call Train 18 a near world-class train in respect of its unique features like underslung equipment leaving all the floor space for passengers, much faster acceleration as compared to loco-hauled trains, very modern computer-controlled brake system, aspacious functionally-effective cab with aerodynamically-profiled nose, pleasing interiors and amenities, safety features with good communication facilities, infotainment and so on.
The areas which need improvements are Economy class seats which should preferably be reclining type instead of slide-back type but with a steady sleek snack table, more space for catering services and devising means to repair the cab nose quickly because the cattle menace is going to stay what with fencing work still a pipedream. In addition, there may be some minor technical or amenities-related features which have been learnt during the service and those must be addressed.
Rail Analysis: India is going to launch new 75 Vande Bharat Express trains in the coming years. How do you see this step of the government to connect every corner of the Country with high-speed trains?
Shri Sudhanshu Mani: This move by the government is certainly laudable and of course I welcome it. At the same time, to exploit the potential of Train 18, all Shatabdis should be converted to Vande Bharat type but even then many rakes would still be left to be deployed and introduction in Rajdhani service is definitely called for. I had made a plan to design the sleeper version of Train 18 and turn it out in 2019 as Train19. This project was shelved. Unless we immediately take this up and turn the prototype out in 2022, call it Train 22,the vision of deploying 75 Vande Bharat trains would remain incomplete and even inconsequential. This should be taken up immediately.
Rail Analysis: Indian Railways is now increasing production of Vande Bharat, Tejas, LHB, Vistadome etc types of coaches in trains. How can introducing such types of trains & coaches change the whole scenario of the Indian Railways?
Shri Sudhanshu Mani: All these developments are good for the country. What we have to keep in mind, without any demur that while Indian railways must improve its finances and revenue to serve the travellers well in future, in all the hype of modernization, our social obligation cannot be ignored.
Manufacture of non-AC coaches should be stopped because even if the useful life of such coaches is curtailed to 24 years instead of the specified 36, we would see the last of a non-AC coach on our trains in 2045. We must picture our India much before that, say, 2040 with everyone,including the poorest men, afforded long-distance train travel in AC trains.
It is quite conceivable that India must reach an in come level to provide all its citizens this comfort without stressing the operating performance of railways. How? While sleeper coaches are priced less. Two type of AC coaches today, the AC III and AC Chair car, are already profitable. With AC Economy coaches which have 15%more accommodation, the fare should be reduced by 20 %and not 8% and they would still break even. A Chair car without such luxuries like reclining chairs etc. should also be introduced to cater to 20% more passengers and 25% reduction in fare, which would not tax IR’s finances.
Higher AC classes are losing propositions so why not charge the passengers more and If this causes loss of clientele to flights, so be it. In any case, for a privileged clientele which has to choose between air and train travel, Bharat trains are the answer and, let’s say Vistadome coaches, for the privileged classes for their leisure travel.
We cannot have the common man which travels in the ordinary sleeper or the general compartment continuing to travel in pitiable conditions. With Vande Bharat and AC Economy coaches being profitable, this is where a true subsidy must figure and the AC Economy fares should be gradually reduced. IR already subsidizes passenger segment by nearly 45% from its freight earnings and it should be possible to move to only AC travel in the course of next 10 to 15 years by simply continuing with this subsidy.
Rail Analysis: How can the MSME manufacturing sector of India further contribute to the modernisation of the Railway sector of India?
Shri Sudhanshu Mani: Train 18 would not have been made without pro-active support of Indian industry. MSMEs formed a good part of these companies. While pursuing the Train 18 project, It was necessary to earmark competent companies from Industry for development and manufacture of all allied out-sourced items. We had to encourage a large field of Indian manufacturers to join ICF as partners as that would be the key to ensuring that the cost estimate of the train was kept below Rs 100 crores. For the indigenous bought-outs as well, judicious selection of vendors is a major factor in successful development of a rolling stock.
Having said this, a clear impression had to go down the hierarchy of ICF that our existing or would be vendors were our partners.
There were many grievances of vendors which we might not be able to address to their satisfaction, like our rigid provisions for imposing Liquidated Damages, but they must get a feeling that we tried. We were successful to some extent and we started getting a sense that things had indeed improved during one-to-one discussions with our vendors. I was sure this would show results; a team of committed vendors was as important as the significance of earnestness of our work force. Many companies saw in this project the pride of nation-building, not businessalone. This spirt must be kept alive and MSMEs invited todevelop new products or improve existing products. Withthis win-win situation only can Indian railways hope to modernize.
Rail Analysis: Any additional insights you would like to share with us?
Shri Sudhanshu Mani: My take is simple and I speak from my overall experience of observing my superiors, colleagues and others, not merely from the standpoint of success of Train 18. A thousand Train 18 type projects are burgeoning in theminds of a youthful India and given the right leadership with empathy, resolve and a sense of purpose, many ofthese projects can bloom. Leadership is of essence,nothing else, and this must happen if India has to get itsrightful place among the comity of nations.
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