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Long distance Vande Bharat Express trains soon as Indian Railways shifts gears

PM Modi virtually flagged off the Delhi-Dehradun VB express today

Today the 17th Vande Bharat (VB) express was inaugurated from Dehradun to Delhi. In the next few days, the country shall witness the 18th VB in the Northeast. Why is this train so special, and why is it being keenly watched and analysed?

The reason is obvious. These trains showcase the dream and aspirations of Rising India. They are also a break from the past.

Over the last twenty years there was a virtual drought of new designs of passenger coaches in the Indian Railways (IR). Unlike the auto sector, which was witnessing new offerings almost every year, the railways were concentrating in increasing the numbers of LHB coaches only. When VB was rolled out, it was a quantum jump in technology and design. It was not just the introduction of sleek train with an aerodynamic front profile.

It all happened on PM Modi watch, backed by hands-on monitoring by Minister of Railways Ashwini Vaishnaw. Marshalled by the new leadership, IR gave up the traditional piecemeal approach to changeover. Instead, the Integral Coach Factory (ICF), the premier manufacturing unit at Chennai came up with the first version of Vande Bharat genre of trains. The Make in India dynamics made the path simpler and not formidable as one would imagine. IR was aware that setting up a new factory becomes a non-starter because of land acquisition issues.

So, IR reworked the manufacturing model and provided its own infra-rich facilities of production units as base for manufacture, opening the door for private players to come in. This was the icing on the cake as the private sector investments could now be focussed on the product exclusively. The look and feel were the first to catch on and it did wonders for IR.

Quite close was the pickup in speed characteristics of VB. In just 52 seconds it notched up speeds from zero to100 mph for a 16-coach engineless train. The capabilities were same while braking as well. In contrast, Shatabdi Express from Delhi to Dehradun takes 6 hours 10 minutes whereas VB completes the journey in 4 hours 45 minutes, a whopping reduction in travel time by 1 hour 25 minutes in such a short distance of 315 kilometres. The story of time reduction is same in all the 16 other routes.

The public has responded enthusiastically to the introduction of these game-changing trains. The occupancy of VB on the Delhi Varanasi route is over 99%. At the same time, the riding has been super smooth with no jerks, as was so common in Shatabdi LHB coaches. Added to this, the improved ambience of coach interiors, bio toilets, infotainment, automatic plug doors, the passenger had nothing more to ask except that VB should be launched on the routes they desire. That is the craze now and explains why VB symbolises progress for IR.

IR is not resting on its laurels after this initial success. More versions of VB are in the offing. We are soon to be treated with the Sleeper berths design of VB making the overnight journey from Delhi to Mumbai, Chennai or Kolkata possible and in much less time. Thereafter, there is entry of Aluminium alloys in passenger coach shell construction by replacing steel. And the recent tender of 120 rakes awarded to JV of IR PSU and a Russian company also brings out that the cost shall be coming down even with better lightweight Aluminium coaches. There were eight international bidders for this contract.

The recent experience of running VB also showed up a phenomenon of damage to couplers of VB when cattle stray on the track. Such incidences on IR are not rare but have assumed a renewed urgency because of higher speeds of VB. The newer versions will have cattle guards which will absorb more of collision energy and avoid dragging of animals on the track.

The export market is next to be taken up. The primary constraint is the different rail gauge abroad. IR has a distance of 1676 mm distance between the rails whereas most of the developing countries have 1435 mm gauge. Obviously, a newer version shall be the call for ICF, MCF, RCF and RDSO which are IR’s flagship organisations. Very soon this, too, shall be donning the rails abroad.

Also Read: PM Modi to flag off Delhi-Dehradun Vande Bharat Express today

(Arunendra Kumar is former chairman of Indian Railway Board)