The drive to upgrade, innovate, modernise

Published : Apr 25, 2003 00:00 IST



Interview with M.V. Ramani, General Manager, ICF.

As its General Manager, M.V. Ramani has been heading the Integral Coach Factory for some 15 months now. Having joined the Indian Railways in 1966, he has held positions including that of Officer on Special Duty, South-Western Railway. Known for his skills of planning and execution, he has embarked upon several innovative programmes at the ICF. The General Manager spoke to Asha Krishnakumar on the ICF's focus areas, strengths and weaknesses, design innovations and future plans and prospects. Excerpts:

What are the areas of focus at the Integral Coach Factory currently?

Our focus is on three specific areas: Safety, comfort and maintainability.

With regard to safety, we have taken three steps. First, we have gone in for a specific design improvement to make coaches safer during any collisions. The new design ensures that during a collision the coach collapses only at the doorways. We want to minimise, if not eliminate, the size of casualties. We have frozen the design. Production commences on April 1.

Second, we are working to reduce casualties that occur when coaches climb onto one another during collisions. In fact, casualties are higher due to the cumulative weight caused because of the collision per se. This is because of problems with the coupling that joins coaches. We have been using a screw-coupling device. The world over, centre buffer couplers are used. We have done two prototypes using the centre buffer coupler. Technically it is all right. Now we have to try them on the coaches. We are now making two trains of 22 coaches each with the centre buffer coupler. They should be ready between July and September 2003. They will then undergo running trials for six months to a year. This is a major step. If it succeeds, the consequential effects of an accident will come down by up to 20 per cent of what they are now.

Third, the casualties increase because people get trapped inside. To deal with this, we have made provision for two hatches on the roof. After an accident, whether a coach is lying in a horizontal or top-down position, the hatch can be opened from inside and people can try to escape even before help reaches them. We are providing a third hatch at the bottom of the coach, but this will open from the outside. When rescue teams try to save those trapped inside a coach, they use the flame torch to cut through with no way of knowing if people inside are getting hurt. The hatch will help rescue teams to save people without putting them at more risk. There are already detachable windows in ordinary second class coaches. Now we are providing them in the air-conditioned coaches as well.

We are also introducing anti-injury features. We have identified some 29 items that can cause injury inside a coach when passengers are tossed about during an accident. We have evolved alternative designs for all of them.

In the area of passenger comfort, first we are making sure that everyone who pays the same fare gets the same level of comfort. Towards this, we have made the length and breadth of the side berths in sleeper coaches the same as in the other berths. We have redesigned ergonomically the seating in chair cars. We are improving the furnishings. This is expensive, but we are going ahead as they not only look better but also last longer. Now, for example, the panels of a coach are changed every four to five years as they are laminated. But once I make it in stainless steel it will last 20 to 25 years.

We are also changing the painting system. Now we paint a coach every year, but with the new system we will need to do it only once in four to five years. The initial cost will be double what it is today. Still it will be cost-effective, considering its durability. We are also trying innovative designs that involve the use of FRP (fibre reinforced plastic) panelling and so on that should improve comfort, safety and maintainability. These new designs and materials are more expensive. But when you consider the life cycle of a coach, that is, 30 years, these will turn out to be more cost-effective, in fact cheaper, as they will last longer and reduce the risk of accidents...

What are the systems in place to ensure quality?

There is a set system, nationally and internationally. The ICF was certified under ISO 9000 in 1996 and ISO 14000 last year. We were re-certified last month [February 2003] under ISO 9000. In fact, I do not want to call it re-certification as it was completely a new scheme. In the old scheme the focus was on the systems, but in the new one the thrust is on the customer. This means that now the emphasis is on a continuous improvement process.

This apart, we have our own quality assurance system. We have broken down a coach into its components, which are again broken down into smaller parts. We have defined every process, of which drawings, sketches and descriptive writing are made available to each worker in every shop. There are sets of supervisors and shop floor officers who oversee work. We inspect production at every stage. Only if a product is approved at one stage will it be allowed to go to the next one. We thus have a continuous quality assurance system. While half the quality certification is done by an external agency, it is self-certification that is given importance. But those parts or products that are self-certified are once again checked... This also makes the self-certification process serious and each one more responsible.

We have a quality enforcement department, which ensures that inspections are done at every stage and that quality is assured.

How is the ICF catering to demands other than those of the Indian Railways?

The ICF was started as a captive unit. For the first 30 to 35 years we only did work for the Indian Railways. When small opportunities arose for exports, we took those up. Then, within India we had demand from specialised customers other than the Indian Railways. For example, now we have entered into an agreement with the armed forces to provide three coaches, which are eventually to become rocket-launchers. We are building the base with wheels to take the shock of the rocket launch and also the housing for the equipment. The equipment will be supplied by the armed forces and that will be mounted. Then we will be involved in joint trials to make sure that it can fire while on the move. This is a very prestigious order and work is to begin soon.

The other agreement we have entered into is with the Mumbai Railway Vikas Corporation. It is a Rs.1,500-crore World Bank-assisted project. The rolling stock segment is worth Rs.250 crores. Over a four-year period we are to give them 280 coaches (25 per cent of these will be motor coaches and the rest trailers).

We are also trying to make a bridge-testing unit, which the Research Designs and Standards Organisation (RDSO) is buying through a tender system. There are bidders from outside as well. While most bidders are confident of making the bridge instrument, they are not sure of making the coaches and hence have approached us. We are now on that project.

The Andhra Pradesh government returned the Metro coaches you made for it?

We made Metro coaches (16 rakes of six cars each) for the Andhra Pradesh government, which was a very prestigious project. There were some unsavoury experiences with that. It is well within our technical capability to make them. The Andhra Pradesh government wanted coaches with very high speed, with very good acceleration and deceleration, and above all it wanted the coaches to be very different from those that are running on the Indian Railways. And that is precisely what we made.

But there was probably a communication gap. Their expectation was something close to the standard of coaches abroad. I do not fault them on that. After all they are paying money and ordering a coach, and hence, rightfully, expecting coaches of international standards. Probably people at the ICF did not understand what their expectation was. (At the ICF) they went by the definition of what was better than the best in the Indian Railways. And it was to these standards that they manufactured the coaches and sent them.

But the better-than-the-best coaches of the Indian Railways apparently did not meet their expectations. We have brought the rake back and are re-doing them. We will do the coaches closer to their expectations. We have already made them understand that they should not go by what is running in the Delhi Metro, which is today the benchmark in quality for a rail coach. Each Delhi Metro coach costs Rs.5.5 crores, while our coach costs only Rs.87.5 lakhs. At less then one-sixth of the cost we cannot provide them with coaches of that (Delhi Metro) standard... But we will definitely give something far superior than what went from here earlier. I am confident that the Andhra Pradesh government will feel proud of what it has acquired from us.

What are your plans on the export front, and how is the process of getting international orders working?

The process of getting international orders itself is a major problem. What we are doing now is not the right way of getting orders. A lot of canvassing, lobbying and market exploration is needed to get an order. We cannot sit here and wait for somebody to approach us.

We set up the public sector undertakings, the Rail India Technical and Economic Services [now RITES Limited] and Indian Railway Construction Company Ltd [now IRCON International Ltd.], whose basic strengths are railway technology, track-laying, building and road construction. We expect them to export coaches, for which they are not equipped. Their core strength is something totally different. The focus of international marketing of a consumer durable (tracks are laid only once, but coaches are bought regularly at, say, 10-year intervals, and so they are consumer durables) is something very different from what RITES and IRCON are trained for. No reflection on them. I have made my views known to the Railway Ministry that they are on the wrong track on this.

Why was the task of getting export orders for the ICF given to RITES and IRCON?

Earlier they got contracts for railway construction and railway management from abroad. When there was demand for a coach from a customer, they could swing the deal in favour of the ICF or the Diesel Loco Works (DLW), Varanasi. Today those customers have a totally different outlook. They see coaches in Europe and the U.S. and demand similar ones. If you cannot give them that, they go elsewhere. Their perception as a buyer has changed. Today, with various funding agencies, money is no longer a criterion. Yet, we are hopeful of getting some orders.

We are in touch with a Malaysian firm, which is hopeful of getting itself an order for 11 coaches and it may give us the manufacturing part of the work. We will focus on our core strength - the running car, the steel shell and the structurals. For interior furnishings it may approach some Western country. If this gets through, it will be an export order we will have after a gap of seven years.

I have been approaching people directly also for export orders. I have explained to my Ministry not to curb my enthusiasm. They can put a ceiling on how much I can spend, but not on my initiative. Finally, I want the order. Not RITES. I have put a proposal before the Railway Ministry to set up delegations for marketing and not to take away my discretion to market directly.

Should this proposal be accepted, will exports surge?

This will help in two ways. I get an additional order. But this is only a side advantage. The main gain is that when we make a coach for export the quality has to be better than what it is today. If I can make even one coach that is superior to what is made earlier, we find from experience that the general quality of making coaches goes up.

What are your plans in terms of products and processes?

Products depend on demand. But processes have to be enhanced to make the products. Today we are not ready to make state-of-the-art coaches. This factory is almost 50 years old. Some of the machines are 40 years old. Nobody in the world is running machines of this vintage. We have a mix of machines from one year to 40 years old. The weakest link determines the strength of anything. So the oldest machines will determine what we are capable of making. There is thus a bottleneck. These machines are very good, but technology is changing fast.

What are your plans with regard to upgrading technology?

Two of our investment proposals have been cleared by the Ministry. The first one relates to a modern paint plant of the current generation, which has just been introduced in Europe. This is a semi-automated process. Here, the bare shell is sand-blasted, all dust is removed and it is cleaned and then painted in three stages, including that of surface preparation. Some of the processes will be controlled by robots, because there is the likelihood of workers getting injured, as when high-speed bullets are fired onto the coach. This is a Rs.26-crore plant, which is to handle 10 coaches a day, double the present capacity. It is to be inaugurated by the end of this year.

We are trying to modernise the basic fabrication and the assembly of the bottom of a coach, the bogie, and the top, the super-structure, by going in for a semi-automated process. We also plan to modernise our welding technology, which is good, though not state-of-the-art. This is a Rs.50-crore project and we have begun work on it. It is expected to take 36 months. When these two projects are through, the ICF will be able to make coaches that can easily be exported, even to Europe.

What design innovations are you trying to implement?

Today we are innovating on a particular generation of coaches. We plan to innovate on all coaches so that the general standard goes up and they are safer, more comfortable and easily maintainable.

The Railway Board does not want a fire retardant coach, it wants a fire-proof coach. (The Minister calls it "Godhra-proof" coach.) He has asked the ICF to do it by September this year. Basically this involves materials technology. I have to select every material used in the coach that is fire-proof. Then I will have to test each material separately, in a very stringent manner, before putting them together in a coach. It involves a lot of work and we do not have much time. It is a major challenge but I am confident that we can do it.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment