The engine-less Train 18, formally called the Vande Bharat Express, which was flagged off by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on February 15 is a salutary achievement of the Indian Railways. Built at an estimated cost of Rs 100 crore, Train 18 (so named to highlight the year of its manufacture — 2018) is a self-propelled, semi-high speed train that has been manufactured at the Integral Coach Factory in Chennai under the Make in India scheme. What is remarkable is that it was built in just 18 months, and 80 per cent of the components for the production of the train have been procured indigenously. Train 18 has quite a few stellar features that make it the most advanced train, not to mention the fastest (with speeds up to 180 kmph) on Indian tracks. For instance, the train is equipped with rotating seats (that can be aligned in the direction of travel), zero discharge vacuum-based toilets, modular luggage racks with a glass bottom, emergency talk-back unit, CCTVs and digitised sliding coach doors. In terms of conveniences, too, the train blazes a trail with the availability of Wi-Fi, GPS-based information screens, LCD TV (in the executive class) and intelligent air conditioning.
The induction of Train 18 should bolster the Railways’ confidence as it aims to overhaul how train travel happens in the country in the future. Railways Minister Piyush Goyal has already set a target of 130 more such trains. The second train of this kind is expected to be rolled out in March and 10 more will be inducted in the next fiscal year. While the Vande Bharat Express is supposed to replace the ageing Shatabdi Express for inter-city travel, plans are also in motion to unveil a sleeper-class version of Train 18 for long-distance travel. This version, which is expected to be ready by the end of 2019, will replace the Rajdhani Express over time.
While these are promising developments and the Indian Railways deserves credit for them, it should not detract policymakers from redressing some of the structural weaknesses of the railways. Even the Vande Bharat Express’ performance has suffered because of them. For instance, in the initial commercial runs, the train has already met with a few accidents — such as hitting a stray cattle and an errant biker — and has been running much slower than expected. The problem is track congestion. Thanks to the tardy progress in track renewal, some rail routes run up to 150 per cent of their capacity. It has been reported that for the current year itself, the target for laying new lines has only been met up to 21 per cent. The targets for doubling and gauge conversion were met only up to 46 and 21 per cent, respectively, by November. What makes these slippages worse is the delay in the completion of the dedicated freight corridor. Unless cargo trains are kept out of passenger train tracks, Train 18-type fast trains will not be able to run fast. Another area that needs greater attention is the development of suburban railways.