Here’s how a indigenous train technology could become a game-changer for rapid mobility

Already approved for fast trains, the home-grown technology has got a new lease of life, more than four years after it was first successfully introduced. The “push-pull” train, in which two engines instead of one pull a set of coaches, is in the final stages of roll-out.

The two engines, hard-wired to function as one, not only provide additional power to the train but also significantly reduce the train’s acceleration and deceleration times, making higher average speeds possible.

But while Vande Bharat brand trains are offered as premium products, these trains will be made up of only general and sleeper class non-air-conditioned coaches. Two 5500 horse power locomotives manufactured at Chittaranjan Locomotive Works, West Bengal and 22 non-AC coaches manufactured by Integral Coach Factory, Chennai form a train. Officials said testing of one rake has already started in the Western Railway zone, while the other is in the final stages at the Chennai factory.

While the Vande Bharat coaches are built from scratch, they are existing Linke Hofmann Busch coaches with some upgrades for push-pull trains. New-age Shaku couplers have been used to prevent shock in braking, and vestibules (passage between two coaches) have been sealed, like in metro trains. Plus, the seats are more comfortable. The color scheme is also different to give a new user experience, officials said.

However, being non-AC coaches, these trains can run at a maximum speed of 130 kmph. Officials said the advantage compared to normal loco-hauled trains is that they will have less stopping time at stations, allowing faster replacement of each rake. TGV (France), Amtrak’s Acela (US), KTX (South Korea) and Talgo (Spain) are some of the railways running long-distance rapid services with this technology abroad. India has opted to try this technology for non-reserved category passengers.

The engine alone costs around Rs 13 crore, and taking into account the cost of coaches, integration and upgrades, the total expense of a push-pull rake is estimated to be around Rs 50 crore.

A total of 10 such trains are expected to be launched from Indian Railways. Sources said that for the future, Banaras Locomotive Works is preparing to buy more push-pull locos, of which 500 will be used for freight operations while 50 will be used for passenger operations. However, it took four years for the Railways to adopt this technology, even after it had demonstrated its efficacy.

In 2019, soon after the introduction of Vande Bharat for the first time, Mumbai Rajdhani was successfully run with push-pull technology, even though there was no upgrade in the coaches. This saved one hour in travel time. Indian Railways has always taken its time in adopting new traction technology. The distributed-power trainset technology, which is at the heart of Vande Bharat trains, was proposed internally at least five years before the project went ahead.

Traditionally, the reason for hesitation has been the cost of the operation. Trainsets and new technologies such as push-pull generally cost much more than conventional trains. And the only way for transporters to recover that cost is through tariffs or fares, which political masters have always been reluctant to increase. With Vande Bharat, the Modi government has broken that hesitation to some extent by charging for a clearly upgraded and faster ride compared to regular trains. But this does not change the overall subsidy component in the passenger segment, which is still around 55 per cent.

Last year, the Railways spent about Rs 60,000 crore on subsidizing its passenger business. Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnav has also said publicly several times that if the cost of train operation is Rs 100, then only Rs 45 is charged from the passenger. Discussions are underway to set fares for push-pull trains, which promise a better, upgraded experience. Compared to normal non-AC rides, about 10-15 per cent more than comparable non-AC trains. It remains to be seen whether the political masters capitalize on that challenge in the election year or not. “The fares are still being finalised,” said an official.