Scale up of LHB Coaches may up Overhaul problems at Workshops

lhb-coach-on-pfThe accident of the Indore-Patna Express near Kanpur that killed over 151 passengers on board has brought the focus firmly back on the need to have safer Linke Hofmann Busch (LHB)coaches for Indian trains.

Railway minister Suresh Prabhu announced on Monday “strictest possible action” against the guilty, and a thorough probe aided by the latest technical and forensic analysis into Sunday’s train accident near Kanpur, in which over 151 people were killed. Prabhu said that the exercise to replace old coaches lacking crash-worthy features announced in the Railway Budget will also be expedited. And that is where the government could be faced with a huge problem: over 80 per cent of passenger trains in the country use the ‘old’ Integral Coach Factory (ICF) coaches. The Integral Coach Factory, located near Perambur, near Chennai, is one of the railways’ main coach production facilities. The coaches are made of mild steel (a less ductile material, heavier than stainless steel) which is less effective in protecting occupants in the event of a collision.

However, the truth on the ground is that the LHB coaches can be overhauled only at a select few railway workshops which in turn creates delays due to long waiting lists at these workshops.

As of now, these coaches can be overhauled only at Western Railway’s Lower Parel workshop in Mumbai, Liluah Workshop in Howrah, West Bengal and Jagadhri Workshop in Yamunanagar, Haryana. Plans are afoot to build facilities for LHB overhaul at Lalguda Workshop in Secunderabad in Telengana and Dibrugarh workshop in Assam.

For example, the LHB coaches of Central Railway can be overhauled as per a railway rule at the Lower Parel workshop of Western Railway. The workshop has a capacity of overhauling 42 LHB coaches per month but there is a waiting list because WR has its own fleet of LHB coaches and also because it has to repair coaches of West Central Railway. Things came to a head two times last year due to a couple of derailments. On May 3, several LHB coaches of the CST-Ernakulam Duronto were damaged after a derailment at Madgaon. On September 12, another derailment, this time of the Mumbai-Secunderabad Duronto, left LHB coaches of the train damaged. In both cases it took over six months before the coaches could get a look-in at WR’s Parel workshop.

CR’s request to the railway ministry to allow it to upgrade its own Parel Workshop to overhaul LHB coaches made way back in May is expected to come in only by February next year, said officials. Meanwhile, as preliminary work the Parel workshop has overhauled three coaches in the past two months. However, officials agreed that the crunch will only increase at CR because it plans to increase its LHB coaches from the 220-odd to 450 by the end of March 2017. It is a problem that is haunting most railway zones that have LHB coaches. The railways added 1,248 LHB coaches in the financial year that ended in March 2016. This year the numbers could exceed 1,600 coaches.

The LHB Saga

The Railways makes about 450 LHB coaches against an annual requirement of 595. To meet the demand and speed up conversion, the Railways is augmenting facilities at its Rail Coach Factory in Kapurthala. It has spent Rs252 crore to make a 300 coaches per year facility at Integral Coach Factory Chennai. The Modern Coach Factory has been commissioned at Rae Bareli in Uttar Pradesh with a capacity of 1,000 coaches per annum. A new 400 coaches per year factory is on the anvil at Palakkad in Kerala and another 500 coach facility in Kolar Karnataka.

At present, 80% Coaches lack Crash-worthy Features

Making a suo moto statement on Monday, Prabhu said that old technology coaches lack the crash-worthy characteristics of modern coaches. “I had formed this House during the previous Railway Budget that such coaches will be progressively replaced and phased out. This will be expedited,” he said

The railways plan to replace the existing compartments on passenger trains with Linke Hofmann Busch (LHB) coaches. At the moment, the Indian Railways only has around 10,000 LHB coaches out of a total of 60,000 passenger coaches. LHB coaches are safer and more crashworthy than ICF coaches. The coaches, which are made of stainless steel, are also equipped with disc brakes as opposed to ICF coaches that have a thread-brake system, which impacts their stopping distance.

They can absorb the shock and impact of derailment more effectively than ICF compartments and, as a result, do not topple, thus reducing the loss of lives in case of an accident. The coupling system on LHB coaches reduces the relative motion between two compartments and also prevents one coach from ‘rising’ on the other in case of a mishap. LHBs also have better suspension, ride quality, significantly larger windows and sound reduction.

According to experts, LHB coaches are safer as compared to ICF coaches. “If we were to talk to this recent mishap, LHB coaches would have significantly reduced the number of casualties,” said Subodh Jain, a former Member (Engineering) of the Railway Board and former GM/Central Railway.

The railways had imported a set of coaches from Linke-Hoffman-Busch (now a part of Alstom) for testing and use in India in the late 1990s, and LHB coaches became popular once a few glitches were ironed out. Today, they are manufactured at the Rail Coach Factory, in Kapurthala, under a Transfer of Technology agreement. The LHB coaches are mostly used for the Rajdhani, Shatabdi and Duronto class of trains.