Thursday, September 29, 2011

Where Delhi Metro went off track

 Article published in the Business Line OpEd. (Friday, 30 Sep., 2011)
Business Line : Opinion : Where Delhi Metro went off track

We need to take a leaf out of the Japanese experience in achieving technological self-sufficiency.
We need to take a leaf out of the Japanese experience in achieving technological self-sufficiency. 

Delhi Metro preferred to put its faith in foreign consultants, unlike Japan which encouraged its own rail companies.

29 September, 2011

It is now almost a decade since the Delhi Metro commenced its operations in the National Capital Region. A project substantially financed by Japanese soft-loans has grown with time to become a ‘lifeline' for the people of Delhi. Yet, the entire network continues to be heavily reliant on imported equipment and spares.
While there cannot be too many doubts regarding the utility and efficiency of Delhi Metro's services, or even the project execution standards laid by it, the question is: Have we been effective in leveraging this project to create a vibrant domestic manufacturing industry in urban railways? Has it facilitated domestic Research and Development (R&D) and innovations to suit the diverse working conditions across India?
From Delhi Metro Rail Corporation's (DMRC) own annual reports, progress in this field has been peripheral, at best. Manufacturing is limited to coach shells and bogies being built by Bombardier-India and Bharat Earth Movers Limited (BEML). 

Under the head ‘Technology Absorption', the 2009-10 report mentions fire retardant low-smoke zero-halogen, low-voltage cables, fire pumps and 25kV rigid overhead electrical systems and “other items which were imported in Phase-I (and) have since been developed by Indian industries and supplied in Phase-II”. But the core technologies — electrical traction systems, rolling stock and signalling — remain firmly under the control of foreign companies.

All this is reflected in the huge forex outflows towards expenditure for contracts and consultancy fees (Rs 1,316 crore in 2009-10). The strategic and financial implications of this kind of dependency cannot be ignored.


In this context, perhaps we might take a leaf out of the Japanese experience in achieving technological self-sufficiency. Take Japan's famous ‘Bullet Trains' (Shinkansen), which actually emerged from a World Bank-aided programme in the 1960s. For that time, the Shinkansen concept, which was not just new but also revolutionary, introduced innovations that are standard features for all high-speed rail networks.
These innovations came when Japan was still under a US-led occupation through General Douglas MacArthur's Supreme Command of the Allied Powers (SCAP). In the late 1950s, a team of visionary leaders emerged in Japan National Railways (JNR). Foremost among them was Shinji Sogo, a former director of the South Manchuria Railways (Mantetsu), which had, for more than half a century, been funnelling out raw materials from China for imperial Japan's war efforts.

Following Japan's surrender in 1945, the SCAP imposed measures to ensure effective de-militarisation of the country. The aeronautics industry, responsible for creating legendary fighting machines like such as the ‘Zeros' (Mitsubishi fighter planes), was dismantled. Rendered jobless, a large number of aeronautical engineers and designers moved into the railway sector. Next to the military, the railways now had the largest number of engineers.

By the early 1950s, the main Tokaido line, connecting Tokyo to Osaka, was getting congested. Although it represented only three per cent of the railway system by length, it carried 24 per cent of JNR's traffic and 23 per cent of its freight. The highways, too, were congested, while the existing narrow gauge railway was already operating at full capacity.


The stage was then set for building the Shinkansen. Under Sogo's leadership, JNR and the Railway Technical Research Institute (RTRI) prepared a feasibility study. The government was persuaded to fund the project through a WB loan. When ‘experts' from the Bank recorded their reservations on the ambitious project, Sogo stood firmly by his own engineers' side and reiterated his confidence in the technical capabilities of RTRI. 

The Bank ultimately agreed to furnish a loan of $80 million, which was more than a quarter of the project cost.When it was finally unveiled in 1964 — well in time for the Tokyo Olympics — the new railway system symbolised the coming-of-age of Japan's technical prowess and self-reliance. The project's success also boosted the confidence of RTRI as an institution and it went on to be a global leader in rail innovation & technology. Three technology elements were critical to the success of the Shinkansen project, all of which came from RTRI: Dedicated high-quality tracks, minimal curves along the route, and the special rolling stock. The tracks were composed of long-welded rails, each measuring approximately a mile in length, and linked together by expansion joints, with double elastic fastenings on pre-stressed concrete ties. The track curves were designed to be gentle, permitting the maintenance of higher speeds. 

Unlike conventional railways, the Shinkansen did not have dedicated engines — they relied on ‘distributed power' with motors and axles all along the train, rather than having them concentrated at either end. This reduced track wear and tear, improved braking and reliability.

RTRI-JNR also conducted extensive research to create light-weight bogies. Bodies were made of aluminium rather than steel; special welding techniques were used to dispense with heavy fillers in the body shell; and the axles strengthened by metallurgical elements to avoid the need for extra weight. Several prototypes were designed and tested for coming up with the best possible equipment for the local running conditions, which, of course, included measures against earthquakes and high-speed winds. It is worth noting that none of the R&D and testing involved any of the leading Western railroad companies.


In India, the equivalent of Japan's RTRI is the Railway Design and Standards Organisation (RDSO). However, as the title suggests, its emphasis has been more on testing and approval of standards than in any breakthrough innovations. RDSO's limited role in urban transport systems is apparent from the fact that the chaotic construction of Kolkata Metro in the 1970s yielded few lessons. More than two decades later, Delhi Metro preferred to start on a clean slate, putting its faith in foreign consultants rather than RDSO or building local institutional capabilities.

Unlike India, Japan, from the very outset, encouraged its own rail companies. The Shinkansen project involved five of them — Nippon Sharyo, Hitachi, Kawasaki Heavy Industries, Kiki Sharyo and Tokyu Car Corp. A healthy competition within the private sector ensured that innovative ideas emerging from the national labs were quickly adopted, leading to a continuous improvement of Japan's railway infrastructure.
The absence of close collaboration between public R&D and the private sector has been India's Achilles Heel. Unless local manufacturers are encouraged to participate and compete in the railway sector, our dependence on foreign equipment suppliers, their expensive spares and consultancy services will only grow.

Update - 30Mar15 - ToI - Make in India: Most Metro trains are desi --

1 comment:

Sandhya said...

Dear Mr. Dinakar,

I am working with Delhi Metro's public relations department. I read your article today in the Hindu Business Line titled "Where Delhi Metro went off track". Mr. Anuj Dayal, Chief PRO of DMRC would like to speak to your regarding your article. Kindly mail me your contact numbers and e-mail i.d. at Thanks