Fifty-Five and still on track...

By Shreenesh Raman

History in making, History Revisited

Chennai: In Perambur adjacent to the Arakonam – Chennai railway line is the shell unit of Integral Coach Factory (ICF). Seventy five work shops are housed in this huge factory campus. It housed a metal foundry till the early 90’s. Later, the unit came under the Chennai Corporation jurisdiction forcing the administration to shut the foundry, citing pollution with harmful effluents as reason.
The welding shop in Integral Coach Factory (ICF) has the most advanced facilities for coach making in the country. It comprises of the laser beam welding, arc welding and the traditional gas welding machinery for various types of metal sheets.
The factory inaugurated by the erstwhile Prime Minister of India Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru on October 2, 1955, was conceived in collaboration with a company called Swiss-car Maker & Co.  Planned for a capacity of 350 coaches, an indigenisation process was adopted by the ICF in order to bring down the manufacturing cost through technology transfer from various foreign vendors.
There was a time in the golden era of provincial railways, when third class coaches lighted with dim yellow bulbs and hard- to- sit wooden furniture were used by the Indians. The British travelled in first and second class coaches with plush interiors. Each coupe had a personal attender and an attached lavatory.
Workforce was a major hurdle for a manufacturing plant of this scale. It lacked the skilled labour. The ICF Administration, under guidance from Railway Board, setup a technical training institute. Aiming to give hands-on experience to the local youth, it inducted them into manufacturing sector.
The unfinished coaches were then transported to another unit called Furnishing Division to complete work on flooring, plumbing, furniture, wiring, lights, fans and air conditioners.  Traction motors were mounted to save energy. They were then handed over to the Indian Railways, to comply with the factory’s motto, “FOR BETTER TRAVEL”.

The late 70’s saw the introduction of trains like Rajdhani which are still considered as the fast trains in the Indian Railway network. It also inspired Bollywood director Ravi Chopra to make a film called ‘The Burning train’. The train in the film used the same colour code as Rajdhani coaches.
After a successful run for a decade, the manufacturer decided to snap foreign ties completely and began manufacturing coaches with ‘Made in India’ tag. According to A. Deveraj a retired works manager of the unit, ICF was the pioneer in adoption of new technology in coach manufacturing till the Chinese war in 1962. Those were the hard times, as the factory was stretched beyond its limits both in terms of manufacturing and manpower. Despite this, it continued to role out rail based medical vans and kitchen cars for the defence forces.
As a multi faceted and culture rich country, India maintained an iconic image. Indian Railways with the help of various tourism departments rolled out numerous luxury trains. In 1982, the ‘Palace on Wheels, a luxury train became the first of its kind in India, catering only to foreign tourists. It covered the regions of Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. This was followed by The Deccan Odyssey for the Konkan tourism belt in 2004. In addition to this, the recently rolled out Golden Chariot for the Karnataka Tourism Corporation, ICF showcased the luxury and extravagance of essence in the art and architecture of India. The Maharajas Express which is still under construction and is yet to be rolled out in the fall of 2010.
They got well trained carpenters who took efforts to handcraft wooden carvings and furniture for the compartments. All the luxury trains are now refurbished with more advanced passenger comforts. It includes entertainment systems like satellite television, LCD Televisions, Wi-Fi connectivity and personal media center. The long legacy of manufacturing luxury trains which started in 1981 continues till day. 
“Large enterprises face serious labour problems, and ICF is not an exception” said D. Gopal, a factory worker in paint shop. Labour problems cropped up during various phases. In spite of strict safety rules, labour unrest was caused due to in-plant accidents. Yet Integral Coach Factory maintains high environmental standards and is the first rail manufacturing unit in India to gain the ISO 14001 certification. India’s lone passenger rail coach maker reached a milestone of manufacturing 1000th coach in 1968. It also indigenously manufactured coaches for the Kolkata Metro in 1981. 
The farsighted government in 1950’s setup the factory at Chennai keeping in mind the accessibility to seaport for exports. Later, the vision was achieved in 1967, when it became a major hub for coach manufacturing in the Indian sub-continent. Export orders from African and Asian countries poured in, bringing money to the exchequer. The first export order for bogies was from Thailand, followed by the export to Burma. It is very fascinating to know that ICF exported bogies to Taiwan in 1971, when India was ahead of Taiwan’s economy.
The war-ravaged Sri Lankan Government signed a Memorandum of Understanding(MoU) with Indian Railways in 2009, under which Indian Railways would give technical expertise in track laying and signalling. ICF has bagged orders to manufacture 90 Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU) coaches. The shell is made ofcorrosion resistant steel to tackle the sea-facing railway lines, reducing maintenance costs. Unlike Inter-city coaches in India, Sri Lankan Railways operate short distanced trips and want to equip their coaches with Laverty in order to provide passengers with comfort.
From the days of importing major equipment in manufacturing rail coaches, we have come here to the present day of exporting coaches and technology. Times have passed; still, the ‘icon’ of Perambur remains unchanged. The factory has not gone into expansion mode after the Furnishing division expansion in 1962.

The Perambur unit celebrates its 100th year in 2055, hopefully churning out hi-speed coaches made of lightweight composite metals, carbon fibre, that has tolerance to fire and capable of running faster and smoother  with the ‘Made in India’ tag. So far it's been a smooth run of 55 years.


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