What the tale of Train 18 tells us about India | Opinion
The year 2020 is bound to be marked by government efforts to boost economic growth and dispel the cloud of gloom hanging over the economy. One of the main thrusts will be the Prime Minister’s Make in India campaign. In his Independence Day Speech last year the Prime Minister singled out Train 18 or the Vande Bharat semi-high-speed intercity express as an example of India’s manufacturing capability. What has happened to the train since questions the government’s willingness to abandon bad habits which impede manufacturing in the government sector.
For 25 or more years now, railways around the world have been switching from trains pulled by separate locomotives to trains which have their engines built into them and drivers’ cabins at both ends. Complete trains are faster, easier to maintain, consume less energy, and can be operated more efficiently. While the world has been moving on the Railway Board has been dithering over whether to manufacture the new trains in India or import them and departments have been feuding over who should be responsible for them if they are to be manufactured. Some in the higher echelons of the railways argued that India didn’t need this type of train ignoring the evidence of their success elsewhere in the world.
Eventually a team of engineers at the Integral Coach Factory in Chennai persuaded the Railway Board to allow them to manufacture a modern train. They designed and manufactured it within 18 months in contrast to the usual long-drawn out process involved in designing any new rolling stock. It was an Indian product designed and manufactured at a price no foreign manufacturer could compete with.
Plans were made to manufacture 40 Vande Bharats in the next three years. But then although two trains were running without any problems, one from Delhi to Varanasi, and the other from Delhi to Katra, the Railway Board ordered manufacturing to stop and the specifications were redrawn in the Railways Research, Designs, and Standards Board . The standard practice of suggesting there is something wrong with a project was adopted by instituting vigilance enquiries against all the top members of the Vande Bharat team.
Now the Ministry of Railways has announced that it is inviting global tenders for Vande Bharat trains which take care of improvements suggested by the Chief Commissioner for Railway Safety. The Chief Commissioner had cleared the original trains but now he has apparently found they need additional fire and safety protection. The other improvements promised are faster acceleration, more passenger comfort, and greater operational flexibility.
Of course, safety is important but could not improvements, if called for, be incorporated in the original trains? As for the rest of the improvements, do they justify derailing the original Vande Bharat train and starting all over again with the delay and the cost involved? Is not this yet another example of ignoring the adage “the best is the enemy of the good.” The Defence Ministry has a particularly bad record of failing to procure equipment because of this bad habit.
Train 18 is the story of a team which overcame the complex bureaucracy, the archaic procedures, the inter-departmental rivalries that have led to the railways’ failure to realise their potential. The lack of respect for the team’s achievement and their personal humiliation will inevitably encourage another bad habit of government organisations, the habit of doing nothing and agreeing to nothing in order to avoid any risk of getting into trouble. With the intervention of the vigilance authorities in mind, who will want to sign any contract for the new trains especially now that global bids have been invited. This brings me to a third bad habit highlighted by the Vande Bharat story – the common misuse of vigilance and other regulatory bodies to give a person or a project a bad name. Indian Railways have given a bad name to people and a project India was rightly proud of.
The views expressed are personal