Print edition : April 25, 2003

Integral Coach Factory, Chennai, passenger rail coach makers to the nation for 48 years now, is seeking to move on to a more diversified design and production portfolio, in order to meet the evolving needs of the Indian Railways and also to meet the challenges of the overseas market.

ASHA KRISHNAKUMAR Photographs: K. Gajendran

The headquarters of the ICF in Perambur, Chennai.-

SOME 15 million people on an average travel each day on the Indian Railways along a network that extends to 1.1 lakh track kilometres - one of the largest in the world. The credit for making this possible should go in substantial measure to the Integral Coach Factory (ICF), at Perambur in Chennai, one of the largest producers in the world of passenger rail coaches. Coaches made by the ICF account for a vast majority of those used in the Indian railway system.

In 1955, the year the ICF was established, working in a single shift, workers built 175 coaches, all of the same design. Today, ICF has transformed itself into a modern, integrated unit producing each year over 1,000 coaches in 235 different designs, catering to the specific needs of diverse buyers.

In 1952, when the Indian Railways decided to establish a facility to build its own coaches rather than import them, Perambur was chosen as the site primarily for three reasons: There was already a large railway workshop in Perambur, where the Railways owned a large parcel of land, and it was a well-connected area in terms of movement of raw materials. Today, the 190-acre (about 76 hectares) ICF complex, with its covered shop floor area spread over 47 acres (18.8 ha), a track length of 47 km and a road length of 30 km, is an independent production unit. There are over 13,500 employees, most of whom are artisans and supervisors. They work in 75 "shops''.

The ICF's main line of work involves designing, manufacturing, testing and supplying various types of coaches to the Indian Railways, as also to railway networks abroad. Primarily, two types of work are involved. Making coach bodies or shells is one of them, and furnishing the coaches with electrical fittings, seats, toilets and so on is another. In the 1950s, the ICF made just the shells of broad gauge coaches and sent them to workshops elsewhere in the country for the furnishing work. In 1962, a furnishing division was set up here.

The production sequence starts at the shell division, where body shells and bogies are assembled and then fitted on to one another to form a shell. The main assembly shop welds together the underframe, the endwalls and roof, all parts that are built separately, to form a tube-like shell. In the final assembly shop at the shell division, the shell is painted and air brakes are fitted. In yet another assembly shop, bogies are manufactured by assembling the bogie bolster, the wheel sets, the axle box and the springs. Finally, the body shells, fitted on to the bogies, are rolled to the furnishing division.

The furnishing division is concerned with aesthetics, comfort and safety, and its work involves ten stages. These stages are flooring, wiring, panelling on sidewalls, window fixing, partition panelling, plumbing, floor moulding, light, fan, seat, and rack fixing and, finally, adjusting the height.

The ICF's basic coach design, as provided by its technical collaborator, the Swiss Car and Elevator Manufacturing Corporation, is of 1950s vintage. The emphasis here is on safety. The body is a tubular structure with collapsible ends, where the toilets are situated, so that during any collision the passenger area is impacted only minimally.

The ICF has a design and development wing that seeks to upgrade and improve design from the point of view of passenger safety and comfort. Moving from the draughtsman's board to the tools of computer-aided design, it has come a long way. The division has produced over 300,000 drawings relating to coach layout and components.

A Metro coach, in the final stage of completion.-

The Design and Development Office, working on the basis of research and development (R&D) inputs, continually looks for newer, environmentally friendly, low-cost and durable materials, making the choices without compromising on safety and comfort. Compressed plywood, PVC sheets, latex cushions, vinyl clothing, fibre reinforced plastic (FRP) inlays and stainless steel have thus been brought in over the years. In the year 2000, the ICF designed its first stainless steel coach.

In order to enhance safety, the following design changes or modifications have been made in recent times:

* To improve crashworthiness, especially in the doorway area, the side-doors are being made of FRP material.

* To facilitate quick evacuation during any accidents, emergency exits through the roof are being provided.

* The size of the emergency exit windows in air-conditioned coaches has been increased from 2 square feet to 4 sq ft.

* Several "anti-injury" features are incorporated in the design, and "anti-climbing" features included in order to prevent miscreants from clambering on to the roof.

* To reduce the incidence of one coach mounting another during an accident, the ICF has, with the Research Designs and Standards Organisation (RDSO, that functions under the Ministry of Railways in Lucknow), developed a centre buffer coupler to replace screw couplers.

The following measures have been introduced to enhance passenger comfort:

* Seats in certain classes are being provided ergonomic contours, with a pneumatic reclining mechanism to tilt them.

* Sturdier snack trays have been developed using light alloy casting to replace FRP material.

* The length of the side berths has been increased by redesigning the layout.

* To improve lighting, four-feet-long light fittings, each with four two-feet fluorescent tube lights, are being provided.

* Oscillating ceiling fans are being provided.

* Toilet fittings are being made of modular type FRP material, replacing LP sheet panelling and PVC flooring that is more difficult to maintain and less pleasing in aesthetic terms.

* For easier maintenance, LP sheet panelling inside is being replaced with steel panelling. FRP panelling is also being tried.

* Health faucets are to be introduced in second-class coaches. Exhaust fans and steel panelling are to be provided in toilets.

* The coach painting system is being changed with the aid of five major paint manufacturers.

OVER the years, the ICF has developed and mastered the expertise and the technology to make a range of coaches. Until its modernisation programme came through in 1991, it produced two types of electrical multiple units (EMUs) - the direct current (DC) multiple unit (for use in Mumbai) and the alternating current (AC) multiple unit (for the other regions). An EMU consists of three coaches, with an electrically powered motor coach pulling two other coaches. The last bogie is the driving-trailer coach and it is also fitted with a driving arrangement so as to save time, energy and the hassles of turning around.

EMUs have been a proven success in the metropolitan areas and demand for them has grown. The Railways have preferred EMUs to locomotive-powered trains for areas with high traffic density. Diesel multiple units were developed for use in non-electrified stretches.

With the development of self-propelled vehicles that do not need a separate motive power, the ICF started making specialised coaches. These include:

The diesel electric tower car for repair works, maintenance and replacement of overhead installations in the electrified sections. These have diesel electric transmission systems with a power pack. Among its other features are hydraulically operated lifting-cum-swivelling platforms, cable drums carrying one tension length each of contact and catenary wires, a workshop and a portable generator.

The accident relief medical van consists of two coaches each, one with rescue and repair equipment, and an air-conditioned coach with medical facilities including an operation theatre and 12 beds. It is a self-propelled twin car comprising a driving motor coach and a driving trailer coach. The driving motor coach is powered by a diesel hydraulic transmission system with an underslung power pack. Thus the entire coach space is available for doctors and paramedics, and for use as a mini-kitchen, tool-cum-equipment room and a diesel generator set. The air-conditioned driving trailer coach consists of an operation theatre, a recovery room, a doctors' room, a store room with a medical chest, and toilets. The medical van has bi-directional movement.

The air-conditioned military ward car with 34 beds each is built to the specific requirements of the Indian Army to carry wounded soldiers from the battlefront to base hospitals. To facilitate easy movement of stretchers, wide double-leaf doors have been provided. They are also equipped with a refrigerator, a medicine chest and a water purifier. The military ward car has multiple power supply schemes to ensure uninterrupted supply.

Crane car vehicles are also produced to meet defence needs.

The ICF, which has so far produced some 35,000 coaches including for export, has designed special coaches for the Palace on Wheels luxury train, pantry cars, milk vans, inspection vans, saloon cars and those for other specific needs.

According to M.V. Ramani, General Manager, the greatest assets of the ICF are the skill of the workers and the strong design set-up. Unfortunately, he says, many of the workers are not conscious of their own skills. There is also a "small problem" of lack of discipline and commitment among the workers. But he is confident that the situation will improve.

It is to the ICF's credit that from a single design of an ordinary day coach, which it took 50 years ago from Switzerland, it has evolved 235 designs, without any external assistance but with some help from the RDSO.

According to Ramani, there is no country that runs machines of such vintage for such purposes; many of the machines at the ICF are 40 years old. But a modernisation plan involving an investment of Rs.50 crores to upgrade technology is on the anvil, and this is expected to enable the ICF to make coaches of international standards.

To produce a thousand coaches, the ICF purchases nearly 5,000 different items worth Rs.320 crores. Until the 1980s, steel and a substantial measure of wheel and axle units were purchased from abroad and imports constituted nearly 25 per cent of the total purchases. But today, most of the materials are sourced indigenously, and imports account for only 0.25 per cent of the total.

There is a sustained effort to rationalise and improve the quality of raw materials and other inputs. To ensure the use of quality inputs and to avoid any tendency towards the formation of cartels, the ICF has put in place a system of evaluating its suppliers for some critical items. Over the years it has developed indigenous units for its ancillary requirements. The ICF prefers to produce by itself some crucial items. Thus, for instance, it has a coil spring unit of its own. The ICF uses 45 types of springs, and some of them are needed only in small quantities. As it is difficult to find suppliers for small quantities, the ICF set up its own unit, Rail Spring Karkhana, a specialised unit situated at Sithouli in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh. This, the only coil spring manufacturing unit under the Indian Railways, was set up in 1989.

Apart from the ICF, the Rail Coach Factory in Kapurthala, Punjab; Bharath Earth Movers Limited, Bangalore; and Jessop and Co, Kolkata, also depend on the production programme drawn up by the Ministry of Railways, which apportions work among them.

The ICF and the RDSO complement each other - one has the knowhow and the other, an excellent research and testing facility. Every year the coach maintenance group meeting involving the RDSO, the ICF, the Ministry of Railways and representatives of all railway zones discuss problems relating to passenger safety and comfort. The meeting also plans research foci and production targets for the following year.

Although export is not a major thrust area for it, the ICF has exported some 425 coaches since 1971 to over 10 countries. Significantly, the ICF has bagged repeat orders from the Philippines, Vietnam and Tanzania.

In 1971, it exported one bogie truck to Tanzania. Since then, it has exported two bogie trucks to Thailand, 60 to Myanmar, 45 to South Africa and 100 to Taiwan. A breakthrough in exports came in 1971 when the ICF won a bid to supply 113 passenger coaches to the Taiwan Railway Administration.

Meanwhile at home, the ICF moves people 24 hours, 365 days a year, safely, efficiently, comfortably and speedily.

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