It’s late afternoon at a manufacturing facility of the Integral Coach Factory (ICF) at Perambur in Chennai. Inside the cavernous hall, the heat is intense but work is on full swing.

The clang of clashing metal reverberates around the hall while supervisors are yelling out orders; workers are welding parts together, huge overhead cranes on rails are transporting large under frames to their assembly points.

Further inside, workers are huddled under the chassis, tightening bolts, installing lengthy wiring or putting panels in place. A team is working in the driver’s cabin, installing propulsion systems. This is where the Vande Bharat (VB) trains, which have fired the imagination of railway travellers round the country, are being made.

There has been palpable excitement over the VB trains, with 17 such trains now running in different parts of the country, and more to come. All the trains have been flagged off by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Passengers flock to take selfies with the aerodynamic train at the railway stations and share with family and friends.

These semi-high speed trains has speeded up rail travel on shorter routes such as Chennai to Bengaluru, where you can travel to each city centre in a shade under four-and-a-half hours, which beats air travel by a couple of hours.

With a capability of travelling at 160 kph, (though max speeds are around 130 kph because of current limitations with the tracks, now being progressively upgraded) these trains are faster than the Shatabdi express, which so far had the pride of place for fast rail travel in the country.

Plane fares between Chennai and Bengaluru have crashed as many take to the VB trains. Businessman Ravi Ayyangar, a regular traveller, was pleasantly surprised to experience the ‘VB effect’ on air fares. He could get a ticket to Bengaluru for as low as ₹1,400 (far lower than the executive coach VB fare of ₹1,885).

“It’s definitely due to better connectivity by trains and the hassle of reaching anywhere from Kempegowda airport,” he says. And, cab fare from the Bengaluru airport is a minimum ₹1,000. Next time he may be tempted to take the VB to travel.

Different as chalk and cheese

So, compared to conventional trains where locomotives haul bogies, how different are Vande Bharat trains, which began life as Train 18 when first unveiled in 2018? Radically so, apart from the styling, says BG Mallya, General Manager, ICF.

As he explains, each VB train is called a train set — either of eight coaches or 16 coaches and they are not decoupled and shunted around like in existing trains. VB trains don’t require locomotives because of its distributed power; four units act as four independent locomotives.

“Even if one unit fails, the train continues to run without any compromise on performance; in a conventional train, if the loco fails, the train comes to a standstill,” says Mallya.

BG​ ​Mallya, General Manager, ​​Integral Coach Factory ​(​​ICF​), Chennai​​

BG​ ​Mallya, General Manager, ​​Integral Coach Factory ​(​​ICF​), Chennai​​ | Photo Credit: Bijoy Ghosh

In addition, VB trains have motors in every second coach. So, every second coach is powered because of which the acceleration of these trains is very high. At 0.72 metres per second in a second, it is comparable to the city metro coaches, while on the Shatabdi it would be about 40 per cent of that.

“So, in a 16 coach Vande Bharat, we have eight motor coaches and each is powered to the extent of 840 KW. For an eight coach train set, we have close to 7,000 KW of available power. Even though you don’t see a locomotive, the power of VB is equal to 1.8 or 2 locomotives,” says Mallya with a grin. Moreover, there’s nothing like a rear or front locomotive as the VB trains are through-wired.

There are other fundamental differences. VB trains take lesser time to come back to the maximum speed. That’s why on a train journey from Chennai to Bengaluru, VB trains are faster by 25-30 minutes compared to the Shatabdi because of the single feature of higher acceleration, and correspondingly the braking is also faster.

“In a Shatabdi you have to start braking earlier. To stop at a station, you have start braking a km in advance. In VB, you can afford to brake later,” he adds.

While all electric locomotives have regenerative braking systems, it is better in VB trains because of the distributed power system. As Mallya explains, the efficiency of regeneration is better when compared to a loco haul train. In regenerative braking, a motor starts working like a generator.

“When you brake, you are feeding back power in to the supply system. So, another train in the same ‘feed’ zone that is accelerating can use that power. Because of this, there is an energy saving of nearly 35 per cent. In the good old days when we did not have coaches with regenerative braking, you would consume 100 units of power when starting or accelerating; now consumption is only 65 units. This is a huge saving for the Railways,” he elaborates.

Passenger comfort

As far as passenger comfort is concerned, if one compares Shatabdis, which is the next in terms of value given to passengers, VB trains are a lot better because the riding comfort is superior. In every coach, there’s an infotainment system as well as WiFi. Every seat has a socket to charge mobiles.

The trains have a fire detection system and in areas where fires can go unnoticed, there is a self-activated fire mitigation system as well in electrical panels and in the toilets. Doors close automatically and the train cannot move if all doors are not shut.

“There is CCTV surveillance so that the guard and the loco pilot can look in to each coach. These types of things are not there in a Shatabdi,” explains the GM. There are four cameras fitted outside too, at either end, and, in fact, stone pelters at a VB train were identified and arrested in one instance through this camera footage, an unintended result of having cameras on the outside.

Moreover, to make travel safe, each of the trains have been fitted with Kavach anti-collision devices. If you have two approaching trains on the same track the brakes on both the trains will be activated to avoid collision.

This was established by the Union Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw personally during trials in South Central Railway where he was sitting in one train and another speeding train was approaching from the opposite side on the same track and the trains stopped well in time.

Whoever has crossed the vestibule connecting two coaches in a train would definitely have been scared due to the noise and the swaying and it’s partially open. However, in VB trains the gangway is much wider and completely air and water tight. The movement from one coach to another is seamless, akin to a Metro train.

Simplifying manufacturing

ICF had to think out of the box to speed up the manufacturing process, by looking at semi-high speed trains on the global circuit. It also roped in an overseas consultant to help with the designs. A separate facility was created for manufacturing VB trains and in the same plant the coach body, wiring, and interiors are finished.

One could see at one end, the under frames being brought in and farther on, the body frame is erected, ACs are being installed on the roof, installations of transformers, batteries and other panels done under the chassis, and then seats put in, while a team from Medha, one of ICF’s main vendors, is working on the propulsion system in the loco.

“We simplified certain things. For instance, certain things that you normally do on the coach, we found that if you do that in one of the feeder shops, pre-fabricate it and bring it to the coach, you save on time to the extent of almost a week. Similarly, on wiring if you do it on the coach, you bring the cable in, cut it to size and do the termination. This takes a long time. But, if you pre-cut the cable in the feeder shops, prepare the cable and bring it to the coach directly, you end up saving almost a week, which is a huge saving. A lot of fundamental manufacturing changes have been done. This is ICF’s value addition,” explains Mallya.

The indigenisation level of the VB trains are at 85-90 per cent. Forged wheels and axles are imported. Rest of the parts are indigenous. ICF has gone in for supply and installation contracts for the panels, air-conditioning ducting, toilets and luggage racks so that the employees from the company which manufactures them, fits them in.

“Because of this, we are able to improve our productivity without adding to our work force and helps us speed up the process. There are multiple vendors for each of the major items. For seats, we have got four vendors; for panels we have four to six; for propulsion everything comes from Medha; for brakes there are two global vendors - Knorr-Bremse Group and Faiveley,” says Mallya. For major items, ICF has 60-70 vendors. But, if you segregate it into smaller items, it could be 150-200 vendors.

Technology for forged wheels is complex. Any train that runs over 130 kph needs forged wheels and the main suppliers are Ukraine and China. Supply from Ukraine has been hit due to the ongoing war. Durgapur Steel plant makes forged wheels but it is not able to meet the total requirement.

“The requirement is huge and the local industry needs to develop. Orders have been placed on the local industry to enable Railways to overcome this constraint”, he adds.

More VB trains and variants

ICF makes three 16 car VB train sets per month. This month, on it has started making eight car trains and will continue to make only eight car trains now. This is for more states to get the benefit of VB trains. “This will be put on routes where the occupancy is moderate.”

A Vande Bharat train costs ₹108 crore to make without GST. A conventional train cannot be compared as speed, acceleration and safety is better in the VB. A German-designed Linke Hofmann Busch (LHB) coach costs ₹2.5 crore per coach while a locomotive would cost ₹12-15 crore.

Sudhanshu Mani, a former GM of ICF, and the architect of VB trains, says that today there are 17 trains running “and once you have 100 and more the very image of Indian Railways in terms of expanding their services will definitely change for the better. So that’s the good part. Second part is that the upgrade of track has not kept pace. It’s an expensive train compared to regular trains. So if you make so many of them, it would have been much better if they were exploited to full speed and gave the passengers not only a good travelling experience, but also good travel time.”

Meanwhile, tracks are being upgraded. More VB variants are to follow: A VB sleeper train, a VB Metro, a VB freight train et al. And, ICF will continue to innovate on its manufacturing process. A few VB trains had their nose-shaped front panels damaged when they rammed cows.

Mallya says they are working on a solution for that too now – instead of one full nose panel, it will be made of smaller panels, so whatever panel gets damaged, only that will be changed, instead of the whole nose! Or, the cows need to be kept off the tracks of a speeding Vande Bharat.