Experts are of the view that multiple objectives, including the need to improve railway finances and operational efficiency are a factor too. The ambitious number of 400, if achieved, will help railways earn better passenger revenues and provide a thrust to the ‘Make in India’ component manufacturers, they say.
From a passenger perspective, these trains definitely mean a better travel experience. In that sense railways will be able to charge premium fares in line with airlines, say experts. But this track too has some implementation hurdles experts pointed out to us.
What are Vande Bharat trains?
These train sets first revealed in 2018 captured the imagination of train travellers even when in the prototype stage. For those still not familiar, these Vande Bharat trains (also called Train 18 after year of manufacturing) are 180 kmph capable air-conditioned chair car services. Similar to bullet trains in terms of looks, the railways currently run two such trains on the Delhi-Varanasi and Delhi-Katra routes.
Known for faster acceleration and deceleration, the Vande Bharat trains cut travel time drastically, while also being energy efficient. The Vande Bharat self-propelled train set does not need any locomotive to pull it, hence also reducing the turnaround time- something that is important for railways.
From passengers’ perspective, Vande Bharat trains are a definite step up from Shatabdi trains. The trains have fully sealed gangways for dust-free environment, modular bio-vacuum toilets, rotating seats in Executive Class, personalised reading lights, automatic entry/exit doors with sliding footsteps, diffused LED lighting, mini pantry, sensor-based interconnecting doors in each coach.
Vande Bharat trains: Future of rail travel in India
Last year, Indian Railways awarded a contract for self-propulsion systems and equipment for 44 Vande Bharats. Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his Independence Day address last year said that 75 Vande Bharat trains will connect different parts of the country by late 2023. After that railways floated another tender for 58 new trains, but that is yet to be awarded.
The first two Vande Bharats were manufactured at ICF, Chennai and the upgraded rakes will also be rolled out from there to begin with. But with the ambitious target over the next three years, railways is also upgrading its other coach factories – RCF and MCF – to build capabilities to manufacture Vande Bharat-style train sets.
According to Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, the first upgraded Vande Bharat will hit the tracks for testing in April this year. Some of the improvements will be; centralised coach monitoring system, push back reclining arrangement for seats, emergency windows, disaster lights, flood protection for underslung equipment, more emergency push buttons etc.
Addressing reporters, Vaishnaw said, “The first version of the 180 kmph capable Vande Bharat is already running on the network. A second version has been designed and is currently being manufactured. It will be ready for testing by April this year, and the serial production of these trains is likely to start by August-September this year.”
Vaishnaw added that a third version of Vande Bharat will now be designed and developed based on the Budget announcement.
The business case for 400 Vande Bharat trains:
According to the National Rail Plan 2030, passenger data from 2010-11 to 2017-18 shows that railway passengers have grown at a CAGR of 2% per annum. The maximum growth has been witnessed in the AC category; 3rd AC at 10.33%, 2nd AC at 6%, 1st AC at 6.74% and AC Chair Car and Executive class at 9% & 12% per annum respectively.
Data from the CAG report on railway finances tabled in 2020 suggests that AC chair car and AC3 are the only to operationally profitable classes of passenger travel.
Occupancy and earnings trends of Vande Bharat trains in the pre-pandemic years suggest good revenue potential. Data for the pandemic years has not been analysed since it doesn’t accurately depict the average demand picture.
The latest report on railways by India Brand Equity Foundation, an initiative of the Ministry of Commerce, states that Indian Railways is looking at new revenue generation prospects. One of these is to change the composition of coaches so that it can push the “more profitable AC coach” travel. Incidentally, railways recently introduced an economy class of AC3-tier coaches that will progressively replace sleeper coaches to encourage AC travel.
Indian Railways is also hoping to fully upgrade the Delhi-Mumbai and Delhi-Kolkata high traffic routes to 160 kmph speed potential in the coming years. This would allow for faster trains like Vande Bharat to attain revenue potential.
According to Jagannarayan Padmanabhan – Practice leader and Director, CRISIL, from a railway finances perspective, the new Vande Bharat trains will mean better revenue generation, hence helping in marginally improving the operating ratio. “My guess is that with 400 trains, about 60-70% of the railway network will be covered. The new semi-high speed trains with greater comforts will help get back passengers lost to roadways and low cost airlines,” Padmanabhan told TOI.
Manish Agarwal, Infrastructure specialist believes that more Vande Bharat trains is a step in the right direction, but may not have too much impact on railway’s financial health. “Vande Bharat trains should definitely be able to recover their operating cost, but the point is that air-conditioned class of travel carries a very small percentage of the total passenger volume of railways,” Agarwal told TOI. “Even if it were to double, Vande Bharat trains would make a small dent in the positive direction for railways’ operating ratio.” he added.
Rajdhani-style Vande Bharat
Sources told TOI that Indian Railways is looking to now design a Rajdhani-style version of the Vande Bharat. “The third version will be for Rajdhani-style premium air-conditioned sleeper coaches,” sources said. Experts are also of the view that only chair car trains will not cater to the variety of rail travel demand in India. Additionally, as shown above, AC3 tier coaches, a key component of Rajdhani-style trains are profitable.
Sudhanshu Mani, former GM of ICF & the main behind Train 18 says railways should begin work on a sleeper Rajdhani-style version immediately. “The new Train 18/Vande Bharats will replace Shatabdi trains, including some other Shatabdi-type day trains and another 50 should look to replace Rajdhani Express, including some faster overnight trains, in a sleeper version,” he tells TOI. “All these trains will save big on time and also be huge revenue grossers for railways. The sleeper version, if designed in time, will take around 6 months to get into manufacturing stage and so the prototype can be out and tests completed by early 2023,” he adds.
G Raghuram, Principal Academic Advisor at NRTI says that Vande Bharat trains make financial and economic sense if they are introduced in both in chair car and Rajdhani-style versions. “Vande Bharat trains in the chair car configuration may not work if we are looking to manufacture as many as 400. There may not be enough demand for them,” he tells TOI. “However, if railways changes the interior design to accommodate sleeper berths, the new trains could be gamechangers as overnight trains for distances above 700 kms and upto say 1500 km, especially where average speeds of 100 kmph would be feasible,” he says.
For the chair car version, Raghuram said that from both passengers’ and railways’ perspective it would make more sense to run these trains on shorter routes for less than 700 km (at an average speed of 90 plus kmph) inter-city travel. “In routes less than 400 km, this will allow for multiple runs in a single day, which should be leveraged. This could even be with a reduced price during the midday off peak runs,” he adds.
Key to success of Vande Bharat project
Sudhanshu Mani feels that beyond 100 trains, railways should start focusing on Aluminium trains, with the project fashioned similar to the 2017 Train 20 concept of ICF. “With a meaningful hands-on assimilation of technology from a foreign OEM, railways can acquire some trains from abroad and eventually, fully learn to manufacture the trains of the future,” he suggests.
According to Mani, for the success of these new trains, you need to give time to various zones to adapt to the new technology. “The Vande Bharats should initially be housed at only 2-3 places so that the maintenance learnings of the Northern Railway can be gradually transferred; any hurried basing of trains in new depots would be counter-productive and may lead to cancellation of services,” he says.
Manish Agarwal is of the view that the key to success is enhanced network capacity and lesser bottlenecks. “Semi-high speed trains need to run at an average speed of over 100 kmph and the network should be free of bottlenecks to ensure punctuality,” Agarwal said. Padmanabhan of CRISIL also stresses on the need for network upgradation and punctuality.
The Train 18 man concludes that other versions of Vande Bharat should be planned within the number of 400, such as a slower one that runs at 110 kmph. “These next-generation AC trains can then replace remaining important Mail/Express trains and also help earn more revenue by way of better ticket prices and faster travel and turnaround time,” he said.
Indian Railways is moving towards a new era of travel experience with upgraded next-generation trains. At a time when low cost airlines and smooth road network is offering stiff competition, the new trains can help railways retain traffic and even grow it. Timely execution of the ambitious project and keeping in mind the demand for various classes of travel will go a long way in ensuring the success of the Vande Bharat project.