Playing with Sudhanshu Mani, the factory’s former boss, was always difficult even though he was 10 years older, Pradhan recalls. In the court, as they alternately tackled the ball, Mani would ask Pradhan about the progress made during the day in the Train 18 project, the semi-high speed world-class train set being designed by a team of 300 people.
Then the matches stopped. Mani retired on December 31 last year, packed his luggage and left for Lucknow — his hometown — the very next day.
Rebuilding Brand ICF
Integral Coach Factory, spread over 473 acres in the seaside city, was set up eight years after Independence and has rolled out more than 60,000 rail coaches. But of late, the coaches were not considered modern enough for the elite Rajdhani or Shatabdi trains. So from last year, ICF stopped producing those “outdated” coaches — also known as ICF coaches — and started manufacturing only the state-of-the-art Linke Hofmann Busch (LHB) coaches that are part of Rajdhani and Shatabdi.
But Mani wanted ICF to do more. Soon after taking over as ICF’s general manager in August 2016, he started to look at ways to rebuild the factory’s tattered image.
He found the answer in Train 18.
From concept stage in November 2016 and getting the go-ahead in April 2017, the train set was designed and manufactured in 18 months flat.
Today, it is undergoing trial runs, and waiting for its maiden journey from Delhi to Varanasi — the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency.
Political observers say the PM flagging off the train during Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj will drive home the point of the government’s developmental agenda.
The train set has no separate engine; motors are placed under eight of the 16 coaches and during trial, it ran at 180 km per hour.
The ICF, however, fixed the maximum operational speed of the trainset at 160 km/h. But covering the 780-km Delhi to Varanasi stretch with one train set will be a stretch, says an official in the railway ministry on the condition of anonymity. “Ideally, we should have two train sets for covering such a distance,” he said.
But the second set is still being built at ICF workshop. The same train set will have to travel to and fro (a return journey of 16 hours) every day and any technical snag can disrupt the service.
Built at a cost of only Rs 97 crore per piece, Train 18 resembles any aesthetically designed European transporter — tap lights, reading lights, app-based audio-visual entertainment, aircraft-like vacuum toilets and revolving chairs in business class.
For Indian Railways, Train 18 has become a signature product and usually exceeds the expectations of anyone who climbs onboard, which makes one wonder: how could the same engineers, who made the now-discarded ICF coaches, create this marvel?
To find the answer, this writer first reviewed the Train 18 prototype at New Delhi Railway Station earlier this month and then visited ICF in Chennai where the next two rakes are being built.
“We could do it because we were empowered to take decisions,” says Pradhan.
Some of the daily decisions with no financial implications were taken on the spot by using a WhatsApp group rather than resorting to red-taped files, he says.
There were instances of allowing one vendor tenders for specialised components. And where a file was seen as indispensable, a small yellow paper was pasted on it to indicate it was a Train 18 file, implying no official should delay it.
“All Train 18 files were treated as highspeed ones!” says KN Babu, who served as Mani’s secretary.
From the time the project was conceived, a sense of urgency was embedded into it. As the name of the train suggests, it had to be rolled out by 2018.
“There was some resistance in the Railway Board in granting us the approval. But then chairman AK Mittal ruled it in our favour in April 2017. Usually, a project of this magnitude would have taken three and half years, but we did it in 18 months,” Mani told ET Magazine on phone from Lucknow.
Mani’s team members say his management mantra was simple: Get the right people and empower them.
One of them is Shubhranshu. “I was posted in Mumbai when I received a call from Mani explaining how he was planning to build a world-class train set. We knew each other well and even thought alike,” he says.
Soon, Shubhranshu (he uses only one name) joined ICF as principal chief mechanical engineer, the number two in the coveted train project.
Like Mani, who skipped a metallurgical engineering course at IIT Kanpur to do mechanical engineering at Indian Railways Institute of Mechanical and Electrical Engineering, Shubhranshu too dropped out of IIT Kharagpur after three semesters and joined the same institute. He is now in charge of rolling out two more Train 18 sets by March 31 and eight in the next financial year.
Once more sets are ready, Train 18 may be deployed on several other key routes such as Delhi-Jaipur, Delhi-Chandigarh and Delhi-Bhopal, officials in the know say.
Besides Mani and Shubhranshu, two other officers, who played critical roles in the Train 18 project, are Debi Prasad Dash (55) and S Srinivas (54).
As chief design engineer-electrical, Dash spearheaded a small team of nine designers to ensure Train 18’s several electrical feats, including the much talked-about high pickup — covering six km in just 182 seconds.
Srinivas, the chief design engineer-mechanical, on the other hand, led a team of 50 engineers who designed separate components simultaneously. And the last but not the least is Pradhan, in-charge of the train’s interior — an aspect considered critical for brand Train 18.
But Mani’s men aren’t so happy. First, they miss Mani. At a tearful farewell, one employee presented Mani a caricature of him, his journalist wife Anupama and son Sarang, who is studying computer engineering in the US. Second, their dream of Train 20, a train set with aluminium body that Mani had conceived and wanted to roll out in 2020, seems impractical now, since the Railway Board has not yet given it a green signal. “If not Train 20, we’ll go for a Train 21 or Train 22.
Minds behind the Machine
Sudhanshu Mani, 60, former general manager, ICF
Role: Conceived the idea of the train set, secured Railway Board’s approval and built it in a record 18 months
Passionate about: Art collection
Son of a railway officer, Mani was selected for metallurgical engineering at IIT Kanpur. But the Lucknow boy chose to do a mechanical engineering from the Indian Railways Institute of Mechanical and Electrical Engineering in Jamalpur, Bihar. His nine years at Railways’ Research Design and Standard Organisation (RDSO) helped him conceive a state-of-the-art transporter like Train 18. Mani retired as a general manager on December 31, 2018.
Shubhranshu, 55, principal chief mechanical engineer, ICF
Role: Execution of the project and timely delivery
Passionate about: Reading and billiards
A cadre of the Indian Railway Service of Mechanical Engineers (IRSME), he joined the railways in 1985. Hailing from Patna, Shubhranshu travelled extensively in Europe and the United States for training and technical collaboration. Besides supervising the rollout of Train 18, he looks after Integral Coach Factory’s export venture — shipping trains and coaches to Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and some African countries.
Debi Prasad Dash, 55, chief design engineer-electrical
Role: Execution of the project and timely delivery
Passionate about: Yoga and teaching in schools
Dash is a 1987-batch officer of the Indian Railway Service of Electrical Engineers (IRSEE). The native of Odisha’s Jaspur district can speak fluent Tamil given his 23-year stint in Tamil Nadu. He and his team of nine electrical designers ensured Train 18’s high pickup: touching a speed of 160 km per hour in just 182 seconds.
S Srinivas, 54, chief design engineer mechanical
Role: Led a team of 50 engineers to design the train’s various parts
Passionate about: Playing golf
A 1986-batch IRSME officer, Srinivas, who is from Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh, was first posted in Assam. A masters in mechanical engineering from IIT Kharagpur, his seven-year innings at RDSO gave him enough exposure on high-end train technology. His team is presently working on a design of a Train 18 variant for the Rajdhani Express.
Manish Pradhan, 50, chief workshop engineer-furnishing
Role: Workshop management and train’s internal furnishing
Passionate about: Playing squash
A cadre of the IRSME’s 1991 batch, Pradhan is from Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh. Before joining the railways, he did short stints in two state-run companies — NTPC and ONGC. Pradhan is currently handholding workshop supervisors for manufacturing the second and third sets of Train 18.