It is unclear how much revenue the Railways will earn from the plan to expand Vande Bharat to freight services as it would require a large amount of capex, said  Sudhanshu Mani, former GM, Indian Railways and leader of the initial Vande Bharat team. An alternative option would be to use old ICF parcel vans and attach one or two locos to them. In an interview with  businessline, Mani talks about the various issues around the country’s indigenously developed semi-high-speed trains. Edited excerpts:


What is your view on expanding Vande Bharat trains to freight and parcel services, especially as production capacity is still very limited?

The production capacity is not immediately relevant. The objective appears to be fast carriage and delivery of goods. Freight trains need regularity and reliability of transit much more than sheer operating speed. It does not matter, even for time-sensitive and perishable commodities, whether the cargo reaches its destination in 18 or 24 hours. Railways could alternatively consider using some old ICF parcel vans and attaching one or two locos depending on the required speed. This would cut down the Capex to a fraction of the ₹60 crore to ₹80 crore estimated for Vande Bharat freight EMUs.

Second, the infrastructure required would be a challenge. If the trains are loaded and unloaded on a station platform, the platform will be unusable for a long time. Goods sheds are designed to handle 40 BCN wagons, or at least 20 BCNs in two spurs, and a 16-coach rake would be a waste of space. It is unclear how much revenue Railways will earn after spending so much on capex and how far customers would be willing to pay if the tariff is based on the capex. I don’t know the exact details, but the clientele would have to be like Amazon, an FMCG company or a company dealing in perishables. Railways may also have to tie up with a logistics company for last-mile connectivity.


Will there be a significant difference in design between Vande Bharat freight trains and passenger trains?

The interiors would be totally different. The freight EMUs won’t have toilets, seats and passenger amenities. The entire upper deck would be compartmentalised for goods carriage. In Train 18, 50 per cent of coaches are powered coaches. I learned that this would remain.


Do you think meeting the target of 75 Vande Bharat passenger trains by next year is feasible?

It doesn’t look easy by August 15, 2023. But in these 10 months, if the Railways work intensely, I think it can manufacture at least 30-35 rakes by then. This itself will be a very good achievement.


What is your view on the recent cattle runovers faced by Vande Bharat trains?

There are at least 15 to 20 such incidents daily on Indian railways. The locomotives have a sturdy cow catcher in front, which throws away the cattle, or at times it goes under the loco and usually dies. There may be minor damage to the loco, and the train can start again after removing the carcass. Vande Bharat has been designed at 160 kmph operation, and for this speed, it is mandatory to have a fenced track. However, as a second line of defence, the safeguard of an aerodynamically-validated and aesthetically-designed FRP nose on a strong framework ensures that in the contingency of a cattle hitting the train, the damage can be restored in the depot quickly. The issue is that infrastructure development has not kept pace with train development. So the trains are being run on tracks which are unfenced. Delhi-Mumbai and Delhi-Howrah sections are sanctioned for 160 kmph operations, including fencing, as part of the project. Work is going on slowly, and it should be expedited. Future Vande Bharat trains should be deployed on these routes as the work progresses.


There was also a technical defect on another Vande Bharat train near Khurja recently…

Apart from the technical snag train had on the non-commercial inaugural run on 15th Feb, 2019, there has not been a single failure till now. It has had an impeccable record of reliability. This was a one-off case and didn’t show any deficiency. The failure happened and needs to be looked into for any systemic or design improvement is required. The impact was alarming as all passengers had to be transferred to another rake, butpanic was not needed.