The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) has come out with a stinging report on what ails Indian Railways (IR) today. Out of the 696 newly commissioned diesel locos, nearly a third failed within 50 days of commissioning, and another 14 percent failed within 100 days of commissioning, the report pointed out.
The CAG, in its report published a few days back, said that defective material used in loco manufacturing and bad workmanship were two of the main causes for this state of affairs. The Railway Board, in its reply, said that a number of vendors had been black-listed over the quality of materials supplied.
The report also spoke about the mismatch between the number of diesel and electric locos needed versus their production and frequent breakdown of locos.
Nearly two decades have gone by since the government decided to induct the technologically superior and safer LHB coaches into the Indian Railways (IR) network. The CAG report also spoke about the delay in switching over to LHB coaches.
LHB (Linke Hofmann Busch) coaches are passenger coaches developed by Linke-Hofmann-Busch of Germany.
But even today, a significant portion of the IR network continues to operate with older, ICF coaches.
Estimates by people in the know show that reaching the 100 percent LHB-coach-mark could take yet another decade.
IR paying scant attention to coaches
The CAG report made it clear that the IR had been paying scant attention to matters related to coaches -- till at least 2018.
Way back in 2002, the IR had signed a tech transfer contract with German major ALSTOM for the production of LHB-designed stainless steel coaches.
The CAG noted in its latest report that LHB coaches are far superior in passenger comfort, safety, speed, corrosion, maintenance and aesthetics when compared to ICF-designed coaches (conventional coaches).
These coaches are also longer as compared to ICF designs and have more carrying capacity. Further, LHB coaches have vertically interlocked Centre Buffer Couplers with anti-climbing features. This prevents the coaches from capsizing in case of a derailment.
In short, LHB is the future.
Switchover to LHB coaches slow
India had acknowledged the superiority of LHB coaches way back. The CAG has noted that while a High-Level Safety Review Committee had recommended complete switching over to the manufacture of LHB design coaches in 2012, the decision to make this switch took another six years and came into effect only from April 1, 2018. Since then, all of the IR’s coach manufacturing facilities have switched over to LHB coaches.
So why was there such an inordinate delay in embracing LHB? The initial push for replacing the older ICF coaches was obviously missing during the UPA term (which ended in 2014). It appears to be missing even during the initial years of the Modi regime.
Till March 2018, less than 13 percent of the total coach fleet of IR consisted of LHB coaches. Things appeared to have fallen back on track only since 2018; between 2018 and 2019, up to 6,000 LHB coaches were manufactured. This means LHB production in these two years surpassed the number in the previous 18 years.
Rajesh Agrawal, former Member (Rolling Stock), told Moneycontrol: “In 2018 and 2019, we made as many LHB coaches as in the previous 18 years. The way was shown by the Modern Coach Factory, Rae Bareli, and, by itself, MCF doubled production in 2018-19, and tripled it in 2019-20, with a documented plan to scale up to 5,000 coaches per year by 2022.”
Before the lockdown, the IR was operating around 17,000 passenger trains (not pairs) daily. These included EMUs and suburban trains, apart from mail/express trains. LHB coaches are only meant for mail/express trains and the total number of trains does not give the correct picture about the percentage of trains fitted with these coaches.
But despite the leg-up, only 531 pairs
of trains across the IR network currently run on LHB coaches.
The CAG has said that nearly 14 percent or 6,868 coaches need to be replaced over the next five years because they have either crossed their codal age (25 years) or will cross it during this period.
“In addition, Indian Railways would also need to manufacture additional coaches to cater to the anticipated increase in passenger traffic. The present programme is not able to meet the requirement of coach production. As a result, coaches which are very old and about to complete their codal life are being run in the railway system. This leads to an uncomfortable and aesthetically poor travelling experience for the passengers. Further, running 609 over-aged coaches also has implications on passenger safety,” it said.
Not only has production of LHB coaches been way below par, even the necessary infrastructure to maintain the coaches is lacking. The CAG said in 2018 that there was a “lack of adequate infrastructure in 19 depots, while in 12 depots, stock of spare items was not being properly maintained. The audit also examined the availability of infrastructure and facilities required in workshops for Periodical Overhauling (POH)/ Intermediate Overhauling (IOH) of LHB coaches. The audit noted that creation of adequate facilities in the workshops for POH/IOH of LHB coaches in a number of Zonal Railways is a work-in-progress. There were also inadequate maintenance facilities in some workshops. As a result, LHB coaches were to be sent to other workshops. This resulted in extra time as well as empty haulage of coaches.”
Excess production of diesel locos
Not just coaches, there have been deficiencies even in the production and maintenance of locos. The CAG noted that despite keeping a 100 percent electrification target by 2022, excess diesel locos continued to be produced because the Railway Board failed to assess how many electric locos were actually needed between 2012 and 2018.
This not only meant overproduction of diesel locos but also adverse impact on the quality of overall loco maintenance. The Board went by the previous year’s production numbers instead of assessing the requirement of the present year for diesel and electric loco production. “Diesel loco holdings in Indian Railways increased by 20 percent during 2012-18,” the CAG said.
Poor quality of locos
The CAG has pointed out that nearly every second loco (46 percent) failed within just 100 days of being commissioned due to defective material in manufacturing.
“Lack of quality control, use of inferior material, poor supervision and inadequate internal control occurred during the scheduled maintenance of locos in sheds. Audit noticed unscheduled repairs of 17,530 diesel and 22,078 electric locos during 2012-17,” it said.
Sindhu Bhattacharya is a journalist based in Delhi who writes on a range of topics in business and economy.