A newly designed Vande Bharat train rolled out of Integral Coach Factory Chennai on Friday, for extensive testing by Research, Designs and Standards Organisation (RDSO) of the Indian Railways. This is nearly four years after the first rake was unveiled by ICF in October 2018, which received a great deal of kudos by the public at large as a unique development of indigenous technology, encompassing design and manufacture.

The Railways has committed to investing heavily in, among other things, rolling stock despite its poor financial health. The is presumably because of the government’s belief that improved rail infrastructure is vital for the country’s economy as a whole and and that the Railways’ financial health shouldn’t be viewed in isolation, at least in the short term.

Moreover, there is an underlying premise that these investments shall help revitalise crucial sectors such as steel, cement, aluminium, electronics, etc., and generate employment. Looking at trains alone, the Railways has made a seminal shift in policy by calling bids for more than ₹50,000 crore for private or public parties to manufacture 200 Vande Bharat equivalent trains, 100 aluminium train-sets and another 100 aluminium push-pull trains in the Railways’ factories and workshops.

The track record of the government in finalising huge rolling stock tenders has been good; for example, the Railways recently ordered its biggest ever contract for acquiring nearly 75,000 wagons in three years for approximately ₹27,000 crore. It expects to finalise these tenders in the current fiscal itself. And add to this another 100-odd Train 18s, ordered on Railways’ factories, mainly ICF.

But there are questions. Are we merely going to have some 500 swanky trains criss-crossing the country in four/five years or are there other benefits of such a huge investment? The work on track upgrade to 160 kmph is moving at a snail’s pace and, therefore, these trains would be utilised far below their capability.

It is baffling that the later lot of 200 aluminium trains would have speed capability of 200 kmph. The Railways does not even have the tracks to test these trains, let alone operationalise them, at 200 kmph. Design of trains, like any engineered product, is optimised for a range of operations, and this would unnecessarily optimise the product for a speed range it would not see at least for a decade, while pushing up its cost unnecessarily.

An even bigger question is about true self-reliance. The bidders are not required to commit their design work in India, whether through meaningful transfer of technology (ToT) or, more importantly, through genuine partnership with Indian manufactures like ICF.

In all the hype about Atmanirbhar Bharat, have we forgotten that its broader vision necessarily included design in India as well? Japan, and later China, became global forces in engineering not by merely manufacturing someone else’s designs but by gradually generating their own designs.

China’s progress

China started out with similar investments in rolling stock in the early 2000s in partnership with all the global rolling stock majors. Within a decade, however, CRRC, their state-owned, publicly-traded rolling stock manufacturer, has become the world’s largest, leaving major competitors like Alstom and Siemens far behind.

India need not copy the Chinese, but the example is there for us to learn from. Such massive investment must aim to make our country a global powerhouse in design and manufacture of trains, with an ambition to have a footprint in developed and middle-income countries.

This would take India into the next league, far beyond the ambit of our present exports, which are limited to poorer countries and that too against Indian line of credit. A thinking in this direction, rising beyond the words of the present Atmanirbhar policy but focussing on its spirit, must start now. A case in point is Metro trains, in which the country has invested lakhs of crores of rupees since 2000 but is nowhere near having a Metro train product of its own.

While this failure can generally be explained away by citing separate and segmented purchases without a central plan, in the case of the Railways this excuse does not hold water. This is because of its centralised purchase machinery and a long term, large volume plan.

Resurgent India has a vast pool of capable engineers and policymakers have to make sure that their inherent energy is channelled to give us trains we can be truly proud of.

The writer is a Retd. General Manager, Indian Railways. He was part of the initial team which rolled out the first Vande Bharat train