Sudhanshu Mani, former general manager of Integral Coach Factory (ICF), and his team, who made the concept of the Vande Bharat (VB) train a reality, were once hounded by probe agencies on trumped-up corruption charges. They rubbed many powerful people the wrong way when they visualised and then built a train, then called Train 18, for the masses in India.
With the team facing corruption allegations, the project was in limbo for three years. But after years of uncertainty, the team was cleared of all charges and the project was back on full steam. So far 16 semi-high-speed trains have come out of ICF.
In a freewheeling chat, Sudhanshu Mani spoke to Onmanorama about the changes the new train would bring to the country and how many Vande Bharat trains can Kerala have.
Q: You end your book 'My Train 18 Story' by saying that ‘they may delay the growth of this project but many more of these trains will be made'. Two years after the book came out, we can see around 16 Vande Bharat trains running across the country and a few lined up for Inauguration. What are your thoughts now?
A: My thoughts are one of great satisfaction. But first, let me reproduce from the part of the book you refer to. “I can see delays, and even machinations to thwart its proliferations, for sure, but haven’t we waited for more than two decades for train sets? I do remain sanguine. With no ill will towards these detractors, as their venal minds can hardly heed any good sense...
"Then I quote an Urdu couplet that said “Thanks for guiding me to my grave, thanks a lot. From this point, I will chart my own course alone.”
So there are two things... I refuse to talk about these venal and corrupt detractors as they have to live with their guilt and stew in their own juice. My team and I were fearless as we had done nothing wrong. We went about our lives normally except that the pain of being hounded just because we tried to do something for the country lingered. At the end of the day, we were vindicated officially by the CVC clearance, and the Railway Board had to go in for a complete overhaul.
"Then Board gave all its orders for equipment to the very companies it accused of corruption. That is one aspect. The other aspect is that the success of the train is also our vindication, it happened because of the public's patronage and thrust given by the PM himself. One obviously feels happy and relieved.
"Do note that the public's response, not only of travellers, has been rather overwhelming. We just designed and built a train, not a Chandrayan or Managalyan. But as I said, perhaps the discerning Indian people looked at the train as our own baby, conceived and made by Indians for Indians. In any case, I am thankful to the travelling and non-travelling public for recognising the passion and hard work of the ICF team.
As Shakespeare said in Troilus and Cressida, “Things won are done, joy’s soul lies in the doing”. It was really joyful doing it but good people like you afford me a chance to relive the experience by interviewing me.
Q: The Prime Minister has flagged off almost all Vande Bharat trains launched. How do you view the opposition parties' allegation that it is a show-off?
A: The PM has called the train repeatedly as a symbol of an aspirational and resurgent India, showing to the world its innovative and technological prowess. But the PM is not forcing or pushing people to shower such love on the train and the team that built it. They are doing it themselves, thronging the origin, destination and even wayside stations to get a glimpse of the train. Opposition crying foul is meaningless as the people of India like the train immensely and the PM, as the leader of the same people, takes the opportunity to dedicate it to them. It is unusual but what is wrong with it? Yes, no other train, or rather no other project, of Indian Railways ever got this attention. But do remember, despite many caveats, we can talk about the Train 18/Vande Bharat project being unique in terms of its impact in changing the face of passenger rail travel in India.
Critics say the VB trains in Kerala will be slow due to shortcomings in the track network. How much time it will take to improve the speed on existing tracks?
Easing out curves is not an easy project and, considering the topography of the state, straightening the curves in a large part of sections is not feasible. But Kerala will benefit from the fact that VB trains can reduce travel time as they are capable of sudden reduction and increase in speed. These trains have the power to reach high speeds within seconds.
I do feel that VB should be able to reduce the travel time by 10 to 15% vis-a-vis the current fastest trains. It may be slower than other Vande Bharats but remember, it depends on choosing an optimum path and running strategy. The first Vande Bharat, the Varanasi-New Delhi remains the fastest one with an average speed of 96 kmph. The secret is in committed timetabling.
Q: In a first in India, Kerala VB has 7 stops, and demands for more stops are popping up. How will stoppage at regular intervals hamper Vande Bharat’s run?
A: Largely, allocating a stop should be a commercial decision but the politics of the region does play a part. I can only say that this scramble to get stoppages should not kill the potential of the train to cut down travel time between the two or four largest cities on the route.
Q: There are suggestions that 8-car variants of Vande Bharat trains are needed for places like Kerala, where they will have more acceleration than the 16-car rake. Your opinion?
A: First of all this logic is faulty that an eight-car VB will only have the acceleration advantage. You see, the train is modular, designed to have a four-coach basic unit that has the same characteristics as the train as a whole. It's rumoured that they are building trains with eight coaches to meet the PM’s target of 75 VBs by August 2023. I don’t know if it’s true. But if it is, then it is senseless. The PM has indeed given a very challenging target, especially after the three-year limbo the project faced. So whether we make 40 or 50, it does not matter. The direction given by the PM should be followed strongly, but this numbers game can be self-defeating.
On the other hand, if this is being done to ensure full occupancy, it can be a good solution only in sections with spare section capacity, for example, it may perhaps be worth running 8-car VBs between Bilaspur and Nagpur. In case the section is a saturated one, running an 8-coach is a waste of the path which is an expensive commodity. To that extent, the Coimbatore-Chennai 8-coach VB does not make sense to me.
Q: You dream of making AC travel affordable to all citizens, but the ticket rates for VB trains are placed above the Shatabdi class. Is not that a deterrent? All can’t afford AC travel. How can this be addressed?
It is not merely my dream; it has to be a vision for a developed India. In this euphoria of higher-end trains, can we forget the common man? Can we in a developed India say that poor people pay less so let them travel like cattle, which is not such an unfamiliar sight on Indian Railways? We must become a country where AC travel is possible for them too. Railways should start work for this now by maintaining one or two mail express trains on each route. Railways should stop manufacturing non-AC coaches. Instead, cheaper versions of the VB with more seats should be launched on the lines of the Garibrath. This loss can be offset by profits from revenue-generating trains. As India becomes a $20 trillion economy, the common man will have enough money in his pockets for convenient travel. Common people travel in AC coaches in metros. They spend more money on the metro than on suburban trains. Steps should be taken now to ensure that every Indian has convenient travel within the next 10 to 15 years.
Q: Will VB sleeper trains be costlier than VB chair car trains?
The difference may be marginal. VB sleeper trains may weigh heavier than chair car trains and the seat furnishing cost could be marginally higher.
Q: With many consortiums winning the tender to manufacture sleeper class VB trains, how can Railways ensure quality standards?
Two consortiums have won the tenders. They are governed by common specifications. At the outset let me repeat: a team of engineers from ICF and the allied rail rolling stock industry of the country came together with great synergy to conceptualise, design, engineer and deliver Train 18/Vande Bharat Express in 2018.
At that time, Vande Bharat was described as a train that comes close to world-class standards. The train, which would have taken other countries a lot of time and money, was completed in just 18 months at ICF. A great effort is behind it. We should not be led by the illusion that India has built a world-class train. If we don't improve the quality and speed in the coming years, the love and recognition people are giving us now will slowly start to diminish. The new trains should be of better quality than the first trains. I hope ICF will pay more attention to these matters.
Q: Many complain about the food in Vande Bharat. Why can't the Railway give good food after charging a huge sum as catering charges?
We have provided excellent catering equipment in VB, much better than what other trains have. So I expect IRCTC to take note and improve this situation as the passengers pay a higher fare. IRCTC is capable of improving things.
Q: Given the current track condition, how many VB trains can ply in places like Kerala?
High-speed trains travelling at a speed above 250 km will require separate lines. Yes, the existing tracks will have to be upgraded so that VB attain the speed of 160 kmph. In some places where it is not possible, new lines should be laid. Unfortunately, the tracks have not improved commensurately with the arrival of faster trains. Trains are not being utilised to their full capacity. There is good potential for high-speed rail and semi-high-speed rail in the country.
If high-speed rail reduces air travel, semi-high speed will compete with it. It should be understood that railways are six to eight times more environmentally friendly than road and air transport.
Within the next 2 years, I think Kerala can have five or six more Vande Bharat trains.
Q: In Kerala, people compare VB with SilverLine. Can a standard gauge train between Thiruvananthapuram and Kasaragod be compared with Vande Bharat?
Vande Bharat is a very cost-effective product. You cannot import a train like this with small orders... You will have to procure at least 15 to 20 trains in one order. Apart from the cost of the train, a huge amount has to be paid as technology fee. The construction cost of Vande Bharat train is Rs 98 crore. We have manufactured them locally at half the cost of imported trains. At the same time huge sum is paid on Delhi Rapid Rail Transit Services (RRTs). The Union Ministry of Urban Affairs did not allow ICF to participate in the tender, which led to the importing of expensive trains in RRTS. The railway ministry also did not try for this. Sadly, India's semi-high-speed train has no place in RRTS even though we talk about Atmanirbhar Bharat.
Q: In your book, you say the VB is not a novel train but it is an idea that will change train travel in India. What will be the future of trains in India?
I think we will have a high-speed rail network connecting major cities and a semi-high-speed Vande Bharat network connecting cities. The latter will be on the existing tracks. Vande Bharat trains, with aluminum coaches capable of clocking a speed of 200 kmph, will be released in the future.