Railways Infighting Over Vande Bharat Express After Decision To Review 2016 Reforms

The turf war, reignited over a decision to review how responsibilities are distributed between the electrical and mechanical departments, has resulted in delays in producing Train 18's second rake.

New Delhi: Departmental infighting within the Indian Railways, over control of the newly-launched superfast Vande Bharat express, has intensified in the last week after the railways ministry decided to review an earlier order that clearly divided responsibilities between the organisation’s electrical and mechanical wings.

The tussle between the two departments earlier this year resulted in the Vande Bharat Express’s launch date being postponed three times.

After the launch in February 2019, the infighting has once again reared its head, with the electrical wing wanting the Train-18 maintenance operations to be shifted from a facility in Shakurpur to an EMU shed at Ghaziabad. The Shakurpur shed  is controlled by the mechanical wing, while the Ghaziabad unit is managed by the electrical department.

However, the mechanical department doesn’t want to give in.  

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“The Ghaziabad EMU shed does not have maintenance facility for AC, toilet and modern brake system, passenger amenities, painting equipment among others. Besides, the EMU service are 9-coach trains while Train-18 has 16 coaches,” one source told The Wire.

The roll-out of the second rake at the Integral Coach Factory in Chennai has also been delayed due to the ongoing turf war.

The broader context to this infighting is the railways’ decision to revisit a September 2016 order that clearly demarcated the duties and responsibilities of the mechanical and electrical wings.

Based on the Bibek Debroy committee recommendations, the railways had nearly three years ago taken steps – with due approval of the appointments committee of the cabinet on September 3, 2016 – to redistribute work between the two departments. The decision effectively allowed the electrical department to take control of all locomotives (electrical and diesel), while the mechanical department  was entrusted with the responsibility of the whole fleet of coaches and wagons.

The order, No. 58 of 2016, also re-designated two members of the railways board: member (mechanical) became member (rolling stock), while member (electrical) was given the title of member (traction).

Redistribution of work paid dividends

The redistribution of work has over the last two years paid off in terms of progress made on route electrification projects, conversion of diesel to electric locomotives, production of locos and innovation in rolling stock. Senior officials also point out how new train features like vacuum toilets, automatic doors, solar panels on rooftop and onboard information system were a result of the redistribution of responsibilities between the two departments.

However, now a fresh attempt has been made to reverse the 2016 decision, a source in the know told The Wire.

Describing the latest development as a “retrograde step”, the source added that the move only shows that the railways is going back on its own reforms by trying to transfer the production responsibilities associated with the Vande Bharat Express to the electrical department.  

This problem started when the manufacturing responsibility of Train-18 was given to the Integral Coach Factory at Chennai and the mechanical wing took the lead in the government’s endeavour to produce it indigenously.

While the mechanical wing has the entire body, bogie, suspension and braking system, couplers, interior, furnishing as components in manufacturing, 38% of the train’s components are electrical in nature (electric motor, traction converted, transformer, AC, LED lighting).

Though railways had maintained the delay in launching Train 18 was due to “procedural evaluations”, as The Wire reported, it was due to the interdepartmental squabbling that led to a late roll-out.

No final decision taken yet

A.K. Mital, who was chairman of the railway board when the 2016 reform measure was undertaken, said, “It was considered the best that time to streamline the functioning. I don’t know what is happening now so I have nothing to say on the latest development.”

A senior official in the electrical department said that “no final decision has been taken yet” as a “new committee has been constituted to look into it”. Defending the decision, the official added that the aim is to make course correction and “suggest rationalisation to fine-tune the integration process.”

Rajesh Aggarwal, member (rolling stock) believes that the 2016 reform translated into good results.

“It was redistributed so that the responsibility of passenger vehicles on one side and all locomotives whether diesel or electric on other side, keeping the Debroy committee suggestion in mind. The decision taken in September 2016 has brought very good results so this should not be put under review again,” Aggarwal said.

It is unclear whether the Centre can alter a policy decision approved by the ACC when the Election Commission’s model code of conduct is in force.

The ICF has been sanctioned to manufacture a total of 40 Vande Bharat trains over the next three years: 10 in 2019-2020 and 15 each in the two years after that.

Arun Kumar Das is a senior journalist and can be contacted at akdas2005@gmail.com.