In practice since 1990s, the advantages of the train set technology include no detention at terminals, faster acceleration, lower travel time, energy efficiency and operating flexibility.
Mani requested for a posting at ICF, where he joined in August 2016 as general manager, even though he could have headed a railway zone with more powers. It turned out to be the right place as there was ä “certain chutzpah to think out of the box” at ICF, Mani says. With a supportive team, “it was now or never, at least for me.”
When the proposal was taken to the Railway Board, the apex decision making body of the Indian Railways, there were some naysayers. “In spite of opposition from some key players in the Board, I was able to convince the chairman (A K Mittal) at that point to give us the go ahead, which we received in the first week of April 2017,” Mani narrates.
The volley of questions—will this train run on Indian tracks, can’t we import it, and many more — that he had faced so far, eventually faded away. But the time was short.
The team’s internal deadline was to complete the task before Mani’s retirement in December 2018. ICF had less than 20 months, and it was a challenge as global railway players take at least 35 months to build a prototype. “Our key roadblock was to convince people, including contractors, that we can do this in a short span,” says Shubhranshu, principal chief mechanical engineer at ICF. He was one of the key persons who worked behind the scenes. The train set was designed to have a better average speed through higher acceleration/ deceleration and braking system, along with its stainless steel construction.
ICF had certain unique concepts in mind including a bogie design with fully-suspended traction motors, sound and wind-insulated interiors to avoid noise-caused fatigue. It wanted to give a world-class look to the coaches. This is where technicians, like S Srinivas and D P Dash, came in with their expertise. Srinivas and his team worked on the mechanical design and Dash on the electrical design.
Train 18 thus became a 16 air-conditioned coach train with a seating capacity for 1,128 passengers. In sync with the deadline of 2018, the train set was named Train 18. Developing motorised bogies or train sets with 180 km per hour test speed was the biggest challenge. The Indian Railways did not have a ready technology for that. Looking back, developing such a bogie design, getting its components manufactured and then assembling with fully suspended traction motors and under-slung propulsion system were an achievement for ICF.
It was a whole new ball game. “We were the developer of the technology and had to be in the lead all the time, with our own technical teams as well as the vendors who were developing the sub-assemblies,” points out Mani.
The ICF had to import seats from Spain and window glasses from China, for the prototype, since there was no question of compromising on quality and the volumes were small for local manufacturing. “We had no offs on Saturday or Sunday for about 18 months, till the train was delivered in October 2018, ahead of the deadline,” Shubhranshu says.
Now, the team had to decide whether it would go for transfer of technology. Since under such an arrangement, a foreign company usually does not give an entire technology, ICF decided to hire a consultant from Europe and do detailed designing on its own. The train can run at 160 km per hour, a speed which the current fastest train Gatimaan already clocks.
“What we were targeting was a higher average speed and a new travel experience. Train 18 is designed to reach the maximum permissible speed of 130 kmph in about 45 seconds, while Gatimaan does the same in more than five minutes,” Shubhranshu explains. The ICF team is now working on Mani's dream of having a sleeper class in Train 18 by 2021. In 2019-20, ICF is planning to come up with 10 more train sets, followed by 15 each in 2020-21 and 2021-22.
“There was tension, there was bitterness, there were temporary disappointments all the way. At the end of the day, we have been able to deliver,” says Mani, who plans to write a book on the journey of Train 18. He’s already in the writer’s zone. When asked about his achievements, his reply is, ‘’Things won are done; joy's soul lies in the doing.”
Feb 15, 2019: Train 18, also known as Vande Bharat Express, flagged off by the PM
Top speed: 160 kmph
8 hours: Average journey time between New Delhi and Varanasi
Makers: Integral Coach Factory, Chennai
Cost of first rake: Rs 100 crore