The evolution of the coach

Print edition : April 25, 2003

Rail travel no longer means discomfort, thanks to the development of coaches that are designed and built better.

THE rail coach has travelled a long way. If coaches sans spring buffers, lights, proper seats or even brakes once made rail travel a harrowing experience, ultra-modern air-conditioned carriages today ferry passengers in comfort and speed.

Inside a finished commuter coach. With better technology and choice of materials, the focus on safety and passenger comfort has grown.-

Rail carriages have been around for long in varied forms. There were mainly12 railway systems across India, run by the princely states. While the common man travelled by ordinary coaches, the Kings had luxury carriages. The Maharaja of Mysore travelled in a saloon made of teakwood and adorned with intricate bronze railings all around. It had wall-to-wall carpeting, a large bed with an eight-inch mattress, velvet-upholstered chairs and a foldable table. The saloon could just be lifted and fitted onto a rail track of any width. In contrast, the Nizam of Hyderabad's saloon had Spartan interiors, with only a small carpet to offer namaaz. Unfortunately, no photographs, drawings or authentic written accounts of the coaches remain.

In India, the laying of the rail network started in the early 1850s. The design of the coaches was pretty basic. For instance, between 1857 and 1885, a third-class broad gauge coach imported from Europe had timber for the underframe and super-structure. Its doors opened out. The longitudinally placed seats had limited hip depth and knee-room. The length of the coach varied from 6 to 7 metres and the tare (coach weight) ranged from 8 to 15 tonnes. Each coach could carry 40 to 60 passengers. There was no toilet.

By 1875, Calcutta (Kolkata) was linked to Delhi, Lahore and Multan by passenger trains and from Bombay (Mumbai) lines radiated to Allahabad, Nagpur and Madras (Chennai). In 1863, double-decker third-class carriages were introduced. These had no seating on the upper deck and passengers had to squat on the floor.

By 1880, coach manufacturing had become a more specialised activity and by 1885, steel had replaced wood for the underframe. The first three decades of the 19th century witnessed intense manufacturing activity in railway workshops and local units. Backward and forward linkages developed. Thousands of carriages were put on track throughout the country. By 1880 the railways owned 6,600 carriages and by 1951, the number had risen to 20,767 (excluding Pakistan). Passenger traffic increased sharply during the same period from 103 million to 1,290 million a year.

A third-class coach with a timber body cost Rs.1.25 lakhs in 1950. It would last barely 25 years as by then the wood would decay in the tropical climate; the maintenance costs also rose sharply. Using steel for the underframe doubled the life of the coach.

The next stage in the evolution of the passenger coach was the adoption of composite carriage bodies made of timber and steel. This created a stronger coach, but the joints were still susceptible to rot and there was no significant advantage in terms of coach life.

At the beginning of the 20th century, rail coaches underwent major changes. As the coaches were heavy and slow, bogie carriages were introduced. While the outward opening doors were replaced with those that opened inwards, the longitudinal seating arrangement was retained. A toilet was attached to each compartment.

Still, not all carriages had brakes. The system of providing a hand brake in the first and last carriages continued for many years. The head guard sat on the roof of the last carriage while the under-guard sat on the roof of the first carriage and indicated to the engine crew to apply the hand brake when warranted. The stops were jerky, trains often overshot platforms and even derailed, causing injury to passengers. A broken nose or some lost teeth were common at the end of a train journey.

The vacuum brake, which used atmospheric pressure as a source of power, was introduced around the year 1900. This made a big difference to safety as the vaccum brake was flexible during application and release, and the action was automatic in the event of the train parting from the track.

Till 1902, passengers brought candles for night travel or simply sat in the dark. The Jodhpur Railway was the first to introduce gas lighting. In the next five years, several trains were provided with lighting. Gas lighting continued till about 1920, though electric lighting had been introduced some years earlier on some routes. In 1894, an axle-driven dynamo was developed, which enabled the charging of batteries as the train moved.

The next stage was the development of an all-steel carriage of integral construction in which the underframe, the sides and the roof shared the load. In 1925, the railways got 250 all-steel carriages built in England on an experimental basis.

During the Second World War, railway workshops were used to produce war-related materials and coach building was virtually halted. Around this time, several thousand carriages had completed their life span of 25 to 30 years, and the railways faced a shortage of coaches. Hindustan Aircraft Limited (now Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd.), then a nascent unit, was entrusted with the task of building coaches. HAL produced 150 coaches a year.

Around 1935, the railways introduced air-conditioned coaches on some main routes. But the annual fuel bill was Rs.30 crores.

Soon after the Second World War, the railways adopted all-metal lightweight carriages. In 1952, the construction of the Integral Coach Factory complex started in Perambur, near Chennai, and the basic Swiss shell design was provided to the ICF for reproduction. In one year, the ICF came out with over 1,000 drawings required to guide manufacturers of ancillaries and parts.

The all-metal body was made up of six main units - the roof, two body sides, two body ends and the underframe - joined together rigidly to form an integral structure. Here, all the parts bore the stress. The new design reduced the coach weight by seven tonnes and the tare by 35 tonnes. In a train with 10 bogies, a weight reduction of 70 tonnes meant that two additional coaches could be hauled at no extra fuel cost.

With better technologies and further developments in the matter of materials used, the focus on safety and passenger comfort has grown. In the last four decades, the number of rail accidents fell by one-fifth, from 2,131 in 1960-61 to 473 in 2000-01. But there have been a few major accidents. The introduction of stainless steel coaches which could absorb the shocks of collisions and derailments, and prevent injury to passengers came in this context. Stainless steel can absorb energy released during a collision better than any other material. Also, it can withstand considerable impact without fracturing. Tests have shown that austenitic stainless steel (S30103 and S30153) is not only stronger than carbon and aluminium, but also absorbs 2.5 times more energy during deformation. Hence, it is used to make stronger and safer coaches which have ends that absorb considerable amounts of energy during a collision.

The long journey of the rail coach can be seen at the ICF's Regional Rail Museum in Perambur. Started last year, it exhibits more than 30 coaches produced at the ICF. An art gallery depicting the history of coaches is a part of this.

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