54,000 coaches later, an Indian train factory is hitting reset for the high-speed age

Shifting tracks.
Shifting tracks.
Image: AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh
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Upon entering the premises of the Integral Coach Factory (ICF) in the southern Indian city of Chennai, what meets the eye first is not train coaches being built. Instead, it is frenzied construction activity with large land-moving and drilling equipment that blocks the view of the manufacturing lines, which roll out nearly 2,300 coaches a year.

This overhaul is indicative of where the ICF stands today: on the cusp of a transition.

From being a builder of railway coaches using foreign technology, the ICF is turning itself into the builder of India’s first indigenous, high-speed, self-propelled trainsets.

This is a considerable leap, given the state of the country’s railways.

While India has one of the world’s largest rail networks, it is mostly creaky and outdated in terms of speed, technology, safety, and passenger comfort. The trains are mostly filthy and overcrowded. Accidents, caused by both human and technical factors, are frequent. Past attempts to overhaul the system and modernise have been piecemeal and mostly non-starters.

So will this renaissance of sorts finally make the ICF, an organisation that has built over 54,100 coaches over the last six decades—the most by any such facility in the world—world class?

The projects

Since its inception in 1955, the ICF has been running on technology from Switzerland’s Swiss Cars and Elevators Manufacturing and Germany’s Linke-Hofmann-Busch (LHB).

Now, with some handholding by experts, the ICF is setting out to make indigenously-designed coaches using components procured in India.

The first of this kind, Train-2018 or Train-18, is expected to roll out in June this year. These 16-coach, semi-high speed trainsets—a trainset is a group of coupled coaches individually powered by a propulsion system without a separate locomotive—will boast quicker acceleration and world-class passenger amenities, including better seating and improved toilets.

“The entire design and manufacture is in the hands of ICF, except (for) some areas where we felt we needed some help for it to be capable of 160km per hour operation,” Sudhanshu Mani, the ICF’s general manager, told Quartz. Interestingly, the 160km per hour speed Mani refers to is also that of India’s fastest train, the Gatiman Express.

The ICF has also employed a consultant to work on the interiors.

Train-18 is said to be a part of the Indian government’s Rs10 lakh crore (approximately $1.5 trillion) plan to construct 10,000km of high-speed railway corridors between major Indian cities.

Its production officially began on Feb. 09 and the ICF currently has around 30 design experts devoted to this project. It will gradually deploy more workers on this project, Mani said. The trainset should be ready for use by October.

However, what could be key is its next project: Train-2020 or Train-20.

This project, according to the ICF chief, is aimed at achieving what Train-18 could not: primarily a body made of aluminium which is much lighter and more energy-efficient than stainless steel. “Train-18 would be near world standard, Train-20 would be world standard,” Mani said.

The ICF intends to procure the first couple of the Train-20 trainsets from an international firm and then gradually begin manufacturing them in Chennai.

Yet, to make its railways truly world-class, India needs to go beyond just manufacturing, say experts.

“Design activity also needs to be undertaken within the country. As far as the state of R&D (is concerned) we do have the know-how. It just needs to be synergised,” said Nalinaksh S Vyas, a mechanical engineering professor at the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur and chairman of the government’s Technology Mission for Indian Railways.

Indeed, for the ICF to get it right, there are several variables it needs to synergise.

Hit refresh

“We are the world’s biggest manufacturer of coaches. I say it with pride. But to really get counted…we have to improve our quality (in terms of aesthetics and longevity of products),” Mani said.

Today, the ICF’s 473-acre Chennai township has two main manufacturing divisions: the shell division, where the bogies and coach shells are made, and a furnishing division, where the seats, fans, and other fixtures are attached. Their capacities are now being expanded from 2,500 coaches a year to 3,000.

The Train-18 and Train-20 projects are making way for modern equipment and robotics, reducing manual work to a large extent. The ICF’s training arm is working with experts to train and skill employees so that they are prepared for the new designs.

Then there is the overall work culture.

The ICF employs over 11,000 people, and many of them come with the usual drawbacks of a government job. “There are certain baggages and rules which at times pull (the organisation) down,” Mani said without expanding. The workers, he said, are capable of good work, but require motivation and a good work environment.

For instance, with no scrap-disposal system earlier, the factory was badly littered and there were few safety measures in place. All that has now been done up. The organisation has also introduced employee-engagement activities, improving employee loyalty. As a result, it now sees fewer protests. More employees show up for work on time and stay back longer than earlier. So much so that the existing workforce itself is expected to meet the ICF’s raised target of 3,000 coaches a year, Mani said.

Speed breakers

Yet, given the many-armed behemoth that Indian Railways is, several pieces must fit in for such a transformation to succeed.

The support system for the new-age coaches is one such. “You take a new system and introduce it into an existing one, then the rest of the ecosystem must be upgraded. The signalling system needs to get upgraded, the tracks will need to be ready to handle higher speeds,” Manish Agarwal, a partner at consulting firm PwC India, pointed out.

Logistics will have to be looked at in more detail and the connectivity between conventional trains and the high-speed trains remains a factor, Vyas pointed out.

Besides, the fact that Indian Railways will be the sole buyer could lead to complacency. “That becomes a constraint in development, innovation, R&D, and so on,” Agarwal said.

All in all, the ICF’s is undoubtedly a daunting task. But the good bit is that it has set forth nonetheless.