The making of a train

Richa Mishra | Updated on September 12, 2021

A racy tale of beating babudom to roll out Train 18

Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan. This may sound clichéd today but still holds true. In fact, this comes out well in Sudhanshu Mani’s My Train 18 Story, India’s first indigenous modern train. A team of railway men from Integral Coach Factory (ICF), Chennai, manufactured Train 18 in 2018.

With over 36 years of experience, Mani, who is also known as the ‘Train Man of India’, belongs to the 1979 batch of Indian Railways Service of Mechanical Engineers. Through this semi-autobiographical book, Mani, who was one of the key players in creating this history as General Manager, ICF, now retired, relives the moments — its success and the aftermath, hitches and glitches, and dealing with the babus.

The book shows not only Mani but the country itself romancing with the subject, the Train 18. It also brings out the undercurrent which flows in the Indian bureaucracy and how it defines success or failure. “Congress, the press, and the bureaucracy too often focus on how much money or effort is spent, rather than whether the money or effort actually achieves the announced goal,” late Donald Rumsfeld, former US Secretary of Defense, has been quoted as saying. And Mani’s experience seems to be something similar.

Mani led the project to design and manufacture the first ever semi-high speed modern train of India, the Train 18 — now in service as Vande Bharat express within the Indian Railways network system.

The book, though dealing with a technical subject, the making of India’s first semi-high-speed train set, is racy, simple and well garnished with quotes of Shakespeare. In the book, Mani also deals with issues like public procurement systems, design of rolling stock, manufacturing techniques and train simulations.

“What makes the project really valuable is that it was executed without any transfer of technology from a global train manufacturer. The IPR of the product, the technology and the processes are proudly owned entirely by ICF…” Mani states in the prologue.

An ambitious project, a symbol of aspirational India, how it became a dream which Indians were living, how the government of the day used media to create the right hype behind the project, how Mani and team found critics within their own set-up, are all catalogued in the book.

“It has been nearly two years since I retired and I hardly keep in touch with what is going on in ICF or Railway Board. I have just skimmed the surface of all this negativity as the lobbies continue to brew plots. I am privy to so many gory details but it serves no purpose to bring all that out. I can see delays, and even machinations to thwart its proliferation, for sure, but haven’t we waited for more than two decades for train sets? We may have to wait some more but I do remain sanguine. With no ill will towards these detractors, as their venal minds can hardly heed any good sense…,” he says in the book.

The book describes the journey of a man, and above all his team, which committed itself to creating something which was considered unachievable. The book is about the leadership of an individual to bring transformational changes in an organisation. It is about the creative power of Indian engineers, which if channelled properly, can work wonders.

In fact, as one reads the book one can clearly make out the frustration that the author and his team experience thanks to bureaucracy.

“Then came the supreme manifestation of the conspiracy. For the first time, a canard was floated that the train required clearances of Chief Electrical Inspector in addition to the Commissioner of Railway Safety. Such clearance had never been stipulated in the past for any self-propelled train. Things were really becoming a prisoner of all this intrigue with the CEI asking all kinds of irrelevant questions…”

The last few chapters of the book actually spice up what could otherwise have been a very technical subject. Though the protagonist is an inanimate subject, the characters towards the end are very human and for real, and that real world what one wants to know more about.

In fact, Mani sums it up well: “A famous Persian poet has said, listen to silence, it has much to say. But, dear readers, if things do not improve, I will temper my silence and speak to you through another book.” A veiled threat, but one which will be enjoyed by readers.

Published on September 12, 2021

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