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Aluminium rail coaches likely soon
Fakir Chand in Bangalore | September 23, 2003 17:49 IST
If Indian Railways has its way, the day is not far when commuters would get to travel in much lighter and faster state-of-the-art aluminium coaches.
India's two largest public sector enterprises, the Bangalore-based Bharat Earth Movers Ltd and the Bhubaneswar-based National Aluminium Company Ltd will soon be building the country's first prototype coaches for trial runs by the Railways.
With the railway ministry endorsing the proposal of the Aluminium Association of India to manufacture aluminium rail coaches after conducting a techno-eco study recently, BEML and Nalco are set to sign a memorandum of understanding by this year-end to design and develop the prototype.
"We are waiting for clearance from the Railway Board to go ahead with the project. The railway ministry is scheduling a meeting with us in a fortnight for working out the modalities, cost structure and the potential," BEML chairman and managing director V R S Natarajan told rediff.com in Bangalore on Tuesday.
As one of the leading suppliers of freight wagons and passenger coaches to the railways over the decades, BEML has already expanded its product portfolio to roll out stainless steel metro coaches for the Delhi Metro Rail in joint collaboration with Rotem of Korea.
"Since aluminium coaches will be lighter than steel, traveling in them will not only be more comfortable, but also cheaper for maintaining and operating.
"Aluminium being lighter, its coaches will consume less fuel or electrical power as proven in developed countries like Korea and Japan," Natarajan stated.
Concurring with Natarajan, Nalco chairman and managing director C Venkataramana said though the initial cost of producing aluminium coaches would be 2-3 times more than steel, they will prove to be more efficient and cost effective, operationally and in the long term.
"The railway ministry has already responded positively to our proposal. As BEML has the expertise with an active R&D set-up and Nalco has the metal and technology, it will be a win-win situation to roll out the prototype aluminium rail coaches next year," Venkataramana told rediff.com on the sidelines of a Engineers Day conference.
Asked about the cost factor for manufacturing such coaches in volumes, as aluminium production is a highly capital-intensive industry requiring not less than $1 billion investment, Venkataramana said the initial high cost of the coaches, including their development could be off-set in the long-term with reduced operational and maintenance costs.
"Our game plan is to make aluminium rail coaches first for the suburban services where high-grade steel coaches are being used over the decades consuming more fuel or electric power.
"Hundreds of local trains, EMUs and pull-push trains are in operation daily in the four major metros (Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi and Chennai), besides other cities across the country. Substituting them with the lightweight metal (aluminium) coaches will drive down the cost of ownership for the railways in the long run," Natarajan asserted.
In the light of increasing use of lighter/composite materials and plastics in several products and components in place of steel and other heavier metals the world over, Venkataramana said the Aluminium Association was persuading the automobile and two-wheeler industries to go in for the silvery and more malleable metal, which is corrosion proof.
"Aluminium vehicles will be more efficient, light weight and consume less fuel. The metal's utility, durability and functionality are found to be more advantageous even in aerospace and space applications," the association president affirmed.
The consumption of aluminium in each automobile in India is about 20-25kg against 150kg in countries like the US, Japan, Korea, and Europe. The automobile and other transport sectors are yet to make much headway in designing and developing products with more aluminium.
"The potential is huge. With abundant resources and proven technology, Indian industries should harness them to double the aluminium content to catch up with developing countries such as China and others in the region," Venkataramana declared.
According to global industry surveys, the per capita consumption of aluminium in India is just 500gm against 2.9kg in China and 4-5kg in advanced countries such as the US, UK, Japan and Korea.
Venakataraman also ruled out the divestment of Nalco in the near future due to opposition from several quarters. He, however, admitted that the process of acquisitions, mergers and consolidation in the industry would continue as part of the global phenomenon in the alumininum industry.
With the government permitting foreign direct investment in the aluminium sector, the prospects of overseas players pitching for equity stake, joint ventures or green field projects are bright.
The total smelting capacity in India is still half of other countries. At 0.9 million tonnes, we are way behind China and Russia, which have 4.5 million tonnes and 5 million tonnes production capacity respectively.
Revival of the manufacturing sector, good monsoon and all-round economic activity are expected to double the Indian aluminium industry growth during the current fiscal year (2003-04) to 8 per cent from 3-4 per cent over the last two years due to downturn in the economy.Nalco is targeting an export revenue of Rs 2000 crore (Rs 20 billion) in the current fiscal, with a projected gross turnover of Rs 3500 crore (Rs 35 billion) and net profit of Rs 700 crore or Rs 7 billion.