New Delhi: The Narendra Modi government’s big plan to indigenously manufacture and operate semi high-speed trains — the Vande Bharat Express — is set to be delayed by at least two years.
The Indian Railways cancelled its earlier tender for the procurement of propulsion systems and other electricals required to manufacture 44 train sets (a set of railway carriages fitted to a locomotive) and floated a revised bid on 22 December.
While the move aims to bring transparency while creating a level-playing field to bring down prices, it is likely to delay the launch of the trains.
According to an official note, these trains — having a top speed of 160 km/h — were to be pressed into commercial service in 2021-22. On 17 January, Railways Minister Piyush Goyal spoke about his plans to end the era of slow-moving trains by pursuing the Public Private Partnership (PPP) mode.
Official documents accessed by ThePrint, however, show that building the new model’s first prototype itself will take 28 months. It is estimated that the series production of the model will not begin earlier than 2024.
A senior official in the railway ministry has, meanwhile, claimed that specifications in the new tenders had been tweaked to ensure that the project failed on delivery.
The new tenders are scheduled to be opened only this March while the manufacturing contract is scheduled to be awarded in June. This means the first prototype will be inducted into service in December 2022 (28 months from the date of the award of contract) and one train will be inducted every two months from December 2023. From June 2024, one train will be inducted every month. In any case, the 2021-22 rollout target will be missed by quite a distance.
The original version of Vande Bharat rakes — also called the T-18 trains — had taken just 18 months to cover the stages of conceptualisation, design, manufacture and rollout. Two of these rakes — built at a cost of approximately Rs 100 crore — have been providing trouble-free service on two routes: Delhi-Varanasi and Delhi-Katra.
Tenders caught in controversy
The new tenders are, however, being opposed even within the ministry.
A senior official in the railway ministry, associated with the older T-18 version, has claimed that the revised specifications, eligibility criteria and tender conditions of Vande Bharat Express are “designed to either fail or badly delay the project”, opening the doors for future procurement of such trains from trade or through imports.
In a letter addressed to Railway Board chairman Vinod Kumar Yadav on 13 January, the official has alleged “sabotage”, pointing out a number of alleged anomalies in the bid documents, and said, “It is surprising how a small clique of officers can hold the country to ransom…”
The letter, accessed by ThePrint, states that the Research Design and Standards Organisation (RDSO) specifications are for procurement of propulsion systems alone, while the new tenders have allegedly exceeded the brief by including the bogeys (purely a mechanical item).
This, the letter states, is in contravention of a joint note of RDSO and the ICF dated 17 October 2019, which states that electric manufacturers would be supplied the design of the existing T-18 trains so that they could adapt their equipment to it.
“Electrics makers are not designers or manufacturers of bogies… They will all have to look for such suppliers, thus increasing costs and delaying the process,” the letter reads. “Most electrics suppliers have already protested against inclusion of bogies and allied complications in the specifications of propulsion system. Their protests are on record.”
It claims that the tender specifies pantographs (framework conveying current to a train from overhead wires) suited for 200 km/h speed but that, according to the officer, cannot be tested as no train in India runs at that speed.
In a questionnaire sent on 15 January, ThePrint had sought the ministry’s response on the issues flagged. Despite several reminders and phone calls, no response was received from the ministry. This report will be updated when the ministry responds.
Battery type changed: Letter
According to the letter, the tender has changed the battery type from the “proven VRLA to Lithium Iron Phosphate”, which is not used in any train in India and is not even manufactured in the country.
“Traction motor water proofing increased from 203mm to 400mm and up to 650mm,” the letter says. “Such water levels are never experienced, not even in the Mumbai suburban.”
According to the senior official, the time to achieve 160 km/h has been reduced from 190 seconds to 140 seconds, even as computer simulations have established that this does not alter travel time “by more than a few minutes” on the Delhi-Howrah route.
The official has said in the letter a heavier transformer and heavier traction motors will be required to achieve this, while the train will also need to draw more current form the overhead wires, which will mean additional costs.
‘Tender delaying project’
The senior official, who has flagged similar concerns in a series of letters to the Railway Board chairman in the past few months, has also said in his latest missive that half a dozen of such trains would have been manufactured by now had the earlier design been approved.
“There is clearly a deliberate attempt to sabotage the project and create a situation, where imports would be justified,” the official said in his letter.
Another official associated with the manufacturing of the original Vande Bharat trains said the manufacturing costs are likely to rise by a minimum of 20 per cent after the specifications listed in the new bid documents. “The tender is unlikely to go through. I can’t tell why the Railways has floated such a tender in any case,” he said.
“At a time when officers are being hounded by vigilance cases after having delivered a successful product at low costs (first version of the T-18 trains), the rail bureaucracy will find it extremely difficult to award the contract at 20 per cent higher costs for manufacturing the same train, with some decorative changes,” the officer added.
Given the uncertainties introduced in the process, he said, manufacturers are also unlikely to risk putting their money in the project.