There have been myriad announcements by Indian Railways’ (IRs’) officials about exporting Vande Bharat trains right after the first such train was launched. Never mind that some of the target countries cited in 2019, like Peru, did not have a commensurate electrified railway system to deploy these trains. In any case, at that time there was only one Vande Bharat train in operation and it was clear that no country would accept these trains unless they complete a proven record in India first. Last year, an absurd announcement was made by an executive of RITES about export to Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal, which neither have electrified tracks nor the money.
There was a lull following the launch of the train, and the announcements for exports also receded. Now that the project is back on the rails following a strong thrust by the Prime Minister, and 25 such trains are in operation, announcements of IR planning to export these trains have surfaced again. This included a recent declaration of the ministry to make India a major exporter of Vande Bharat trains by 2025-26 to markets in Europe, South America and East Asia; this would be aided by the proposed Productivity Linked Incentive (PLI) scheme to boost local manufacturing.
Vande Bharat has matured and setting one’s sights high is all very well, but is the goal over-ambitious? IR has a track record of exporting trains, coaches and locomotives since the 1970s, with the Philippines, Tanzania, Taiwan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Angola, Mozambique, Myanmar, Malaysia, Vietnam, Nepal, Uganda, etc., being the recipient countries. Most of these exports were predicated on Indian Line of Credit through G2G agreements. Barring a couple, none of the countries exported to is in the middle/high-level income brackets.
The exports have been limited to only diesel locomotives, diesel-electric multiple units and coaches, on metre, cape or broad gauges, as these countries have no electrified tracks. An attempt to export electric locomotives to South Africa in the 1990s did not take off.
We must craft persuasive proposals to export to wealthier countries. Yet we must also keep in mind some caveats, approaches and possible strategies:
Eschew grandiose announcements sans an action plan. For example, exporting Vande Bharats to wealthy countries which do not buy even from more advanced China, makes this ambition a remote prospect. Developing countries do not have electrified tracks and they cannot be a target.
Target middle-income countries: These have money but not the expertise to design and manufacture modern rolling stock. These countries would usually have metre, cape or standard gauge systems and we should be ready to design and manufacture protos at our expense for trials; the scope to export would be tremendous once we establish our credentials in these gauges. With the Mumbai-Ahmedabad HSR coming up, we can test and validate even SG stock in the country.
Plan to develop a diesel version of Train 18/Vande Bharat.
Empower IR production units to quote directly and not necessarily through other railway PSUs. My experience tells me that this freedom would cut down babudom involved and help greatly.
We should continue to export locomotives, coaches and DEMUs to less wealthy countries as we do today, but since the Chinese offer big competition, more stress on quality is necessary. The DEMUs exported by ICF from 2018 onwards were declared by Sri Lankans as superior to similar Chinese stock.
This brings us to the role of the PLI scheme. Let us examine the import content of Vande Bharat and LHB coaches at the level of equipment or components. Except for wheels, most of the items imported by IR for the initial lot of Vande Bharats have been indigenised — for example, automatic doors, seats, vacuum evacuation system, couplers, etc.
Even for wheels the story of import is over with two new forged wheel plants, adding to IRs’ two plants as well as the DSP/SAIL; one is already under production after long delays (RINL/Lalganj) and Ramakrishna Forge-TRSL consortium will produce wheels as well.
So what would be the prime target for the PLI scheme? This is an intriguing question. Raw materials for finished items that IR buys? Perhaps chips and ICs, especially given their global shortage that has affected numerous industries? Vande Bharat may have a thousand chips as compared to tens in an automobile but the volumes would be rather low. Such a scheme for the auto sector could make sense because of huge volumes but not for the small requirement for trains, particularly because of huge capex in making chips. The same holds true for other imports like discreet electronic components, sealed relays, switches and breakers, air spring bellows, small and fractional HP motors, electrical couplers, honeycombs, etc.
The implementation of PLI poses another problem. The consumer of railway components is the government, which is disbursing the incentive as well. PLI does not seem central to realisation of export potential.
Nevertheless, the aspiration that IR would undertake export of rolling stock to make India a global player is laudable.
The writer is Retd. General Manager/Indian Railways, Leader of Train 18/Vande Bharat project and Independent Rail Consultant