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'We learn a lot from commuters, maintainers'

Thursday, December 20, 2018

The Integral Coach Factory (ICF) is the birthplace of most Mumbai Local trains that take millions across the city and beyond every day. Jagruti Verma talks to Sudhanshu Mani, General Manager, ICF, to bring you a slice of life at the grand institution

If you are one among the eight million people who board a local train every day, you are sure to have noticed the little details that have changed in their design over time. Do the seats of the new shiny rakes feel more comfortable than the ones in the old, rickety ones? The process to make such improvements is a continuous one, says Mani. “We learn a lot from the feedback we get from commuters as well as the ones who maintain these rakes,” he says adding that the conversations keep flowing between the different railway zone officials and the ones at the factory.

One of the most prominent changes from the commuter perspective has been in the quality of seats. “Earlier, we used polycarbonate seats, which proved unsuitable. Then stainless steel ones were tried where there were issues in terms of the quality of material received from one or two vendors. Eventually, FRP (fibre reinforced plastic) seats were put into use,” he tells us listing the evolution of one of the most essential components of the train. The new seats are better and stronger than the ones that were used before. Non-AC local trains are the ones where experimentation never stops because the needs of the ever-growing number of commuters are diverse and dynamic.

With a system so tricky and diverse, was introducing the AC local in Mumbai, a good call? Mani feels that the sole reason to do so was the fact that the Mumbai suburban system needs it the most. “Unless a train technically meets the demands of such a huge suburban system such as the one in Mumbai, the real demands and challengers may not be noticed,” he tells us, explaining how the decision was perfect. “The commuters of Mumbai need a safe way to commute and for that, the door closing mechanism is important and that can't happen without air-conditioning because otherwise it would be suffocating. Testing it elsewhere wouldn't have helped the cause,” he adds.

Though the time consumed in the system by the door closing mechanism and the issues with the vestibule aspect of the train remain concerns with the first prototype introduced in the city last December, Mani is confident that the one rolling out of the factory by the end of this month is far superior than its predecessor. “Yes, there were technical issues that cropped up due to the equipment procured from the vendors but the new rake is better in every thing that the last one lacked,” says Mani. The power of operations have been brought to 50 per cent from the earlier 33 per cent and the vestibule will be better in the next AC local, expected to arrive in the city in January.

Super seven
1 Do people vandalise trains because they are angry at the Indian Railways?

I don't think it is about causing destruction or due to any ire against the railways. In some cases its pure greed where people could sell these products for profit. Other reasons include poor handling and lack of awareness.

2 Are people ready for 'fancy' trains like Train-18?
You shouldn't call them 'fancy'. These are innovations that fulfil the basic requirements and needs of the people. The transition might be difficult but these are necessary. About 20 years ago, people thought ATMs would cause miscreants to break in and steal but today they are everywhere!

3 Did language ever feel like a barrier during your postings across the country?
Wherever I worked, in my entire career, I have never felt language to be a barrier. Be it anywhere within the country or even during my stint in Germany. When you show interest and inclination in different cultures and customs, language becomes a medium, a bridge in fact and not a barrier.

4 List a few things that matter to you personally and you have brought them to the railways.
I love technical things, greenery and art. I feel art can go hand-in-hand with heavy fabrication works and that railways are a prime example of such co-existence. I tried to push for art galleries and murals at stations. Today, we even have trains getting painted! Green technology is also being taken seriously.

5 You have a strong presence on Twitter. What are your thoughts on the medium?
I feel it's a good medium to interact with people. I get replies from a lot of people who are interested in railways and the progress we are making. When it comes to the language, I try to maintain a balance between the technical jargons and layman terms, without dumbing it down too much.

6 Is it difficult to explain the local needs of people in India to suppliers abroad?
We make specific designs for them to produce equipment. When our drawings and requirements are clear, there is no challenge involved, nothing is lost in translation. Also, we continuously stay in touch via email, WhatsApp and even visits whenever required.

7 So, what's next after retirement?
I haven't thought it all out yet. I would like to contribute in whatever way I can, where my interests lie. It would definitely involve art and greenery. I would love to work with railways as well but surely not as a consultant where its all about choosing your contacts and the likes.

Women in railways
At ICF, we have a no-nonsense policy when it comes to harassment cases. I don't think an enquiry where women are required to come out and speak about the harassment really works. I would rather do an informal enquiry and if I feel convinced that the person has tried something, they are fired. I have the power to do so and I have done this in the past where four people were sacked. It is important to make professional spaces safe for women. Another aspect is empowerment. “At ICF, we have created a few all-women teams called 'Mahila Shakti' as a means to challenge them and make their work interesting. So far, the response has been excellent,” says Mani. When questioned on how are all-women gangs empowering and not a form of segregation, Mani explains that it would have been segregation if all the over-thousand female employees were working separately. “Here, we have only done this for about 130 women employees at ICF. The rest are still working with men,” he explains, adding that it has just created a sense of healthy competition in their work and has proved to be a medium for them to prove their mettle. “It is not just a symbolic gesture towards women empowerment.”

What can almost be termed as ICF's baby, Train-18 is one that changed quite a lot for the Indian Railways. About 20 per cent of the equipment on the train has been imported and efforts are being made to replace these with new resources inside India, for the rakes that will be produced in the future. “Whenever import is unavoidable, ICF engineers study the standard products and select the ones suitable for the project according to set requirements and clear specifications, which are sent out to the firm from where those are to be sourced. Constant interaction between design engineers and the vendors ensures that the correct components are procured,” explains Mani. At 180 kmph, Train-18 is the fastest among the ones currently with the Indian Railways.

Leaving a legacy
With a few days to go for his retirement, Mani has a lot to reflect on as well as look onward to. This December, quite a few interesting innovative products have rolled out of ICF, last under his leadership. This includes the Train-18, upgraded Tejas Express and MEMU trains. “To make Train-18 at ICF was a big challenge. However, the staff always had the capabilities and the enthusiasm. The issue was with the doubts that came in. My job as a leader was to remove these doubts and keep up the motivation,” says Mani. The interesting bit here is that though Mani was involved in the first prototype, he wouldn't be around in the same capacity for the next where mistakes would be fixed. To this he says, “Now that they have realised their capability, which of course they knew, it is for them to use it well. The staff at ICF is well motivated and the next rake will surely be of better quality. I feel very good about the fact that I was able to motivate them. Retirement is a way of life... continuity is important. I am sure I would love to travel in the next rake some day and be happy.”

The personal personnel
Mani has almost four decades of experience with the Indian Railways where he has worked in various capacities, including workshop management, railway operations, project management, planning and research, and development. He belongs to the 1979 batch of Indian Railways Service of Mechanical Engineers (IRSME).

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