New Delhi: The 160 kmph Vande Bharat trains have unmistakably emerged as an abiding theme of the Indian Railways. While orders have already been placed on the supply of propulsion systems for 102 Chair Car variants, the Indian Railways Wednesday opened technical bids for the manufacture and supply of 200 sleeper class trains that will build through private sector participation at the two state-owned facilities of the Indian Railways: The Chennai-based Integral Coach Factory (ICF) and the Marathwada Rail Coach Factory (MRCF) at Latur. Two tenders for the manufacture of 200 additional Vande Bharat trains are scheduled to open in December.
After the technical bids are scrutinised for the Sleeper Variants - expected in 45 days - IR will place orders on all or any of the five shortlisted firms/consortia: France-based Alstom and the Russian Metrowagonmash apart from the three JVs: Siemens-BEML, Stadler-Medha and the BHEL-Titagarh Wagons. This contract alone is estimated to be worth Rs. 62,000 crores - Rs 26,000 as the cost of the trains and Rs. 36,000 crores as maintenance charges, the payment of which will be spread out over 35 years.
One might have other issues, but not with the scale and size of the Narendra Modi government's transformational plan for the Indian Railways. Big ticket tenders floated in recent times have included the following: Bids for the acquisition of 90,000 wagons in the next three years at an estimated cost of Rs. 30,000 crores; the plans to build 12,000 locomotives of 9000 hp at the railway facility at Dahod, apart from the scheme on the manufacture of 800 locos of 12,000 hp at the Banaras Locomotive Works under the Public Private Partnership (PPP) mode.
In her upcoming budget speech in January, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman is likely to unveil other big schemes including the plan to manufacture 100 Vande Bharat trains equipped with the "tilting technology". Tenders on setting up a second factory to manufacture forged wheels have already been floated. The Finance Minister, official sources said, will also announce plans to construct testing tracks to run trains at speeds of 220 kmph.
Private sector engagement in rail manufacturing
In line with the recommendations of various expert groups including the Bibek Debroy committee report of 2015, the Indian Railways are clearly moving in the direction to exit functions as a rolling stock manufacturer, while focusing on operational responsibilities. In respect of the manufacture of the Vande Bharat sleeper variants, the Indian Railways - in a first - will be opening up its production units, workshops and depots to private players.
The tender documents state that IR will reimburse the cost incurred by private parties on the upgrade and creation of additional facilities at state-owned production units and workshops. IR will also be contract-bound to provide for the basic civil structure including electrical fittings, cranes, testing tracks and free water and electricity in addition to manpower comprising 0.5 percent of the total number of personnel engaged in the project. These technicians will work under the supervision and control of the private players - to be called technology partners.
With IR being contract-bound to buy the Vande Bharat trains in a phased manner, the financial risks of private players have apparently been minimised. But the technological challenge of building semi-high speeds for Indian Broad Gauge tracks remains. Outside India, such EMUs are built for the smaller Standard Gauge tracks. Private players also face the risk of abrupt possible cancellation of the contract because of a change in government or other factors. "The long period of a 35-year maintenance contract can also turn problematic", a private operator said.
Assembly Lines Buzzing
In any case, this has certainly been achieved by the Union Government's Vande Bharat push: Assembly lines at rail factories are once again humming with activity. The tender documents require the technology partner to roll out 18 sleeper trains of 16 coaches in the first year, 24 in the second and 30 trains from the third year onwards. Meanwhile, a minimum of 30 Chair Car variants are planned to be built annually. "Targets are stiff and would be difficult to achieve. But the process that has been set in is encouraging", said former ICF General Manager Sudhanshu Mani - known as the Vande Bharat creator.