With over 12,000 locomotives of both electric and diesel types, 50,000 coaches and 2 lakh wagons, plenty of wheel-sets are needed to keep them rolling on Indian Railways’ 65,000-km network of steel rails. Tata Steel (earlier called Tisco) and Durgapur Steel Plant can meet less than half of Indian Railways’ needs for new rolling stock and replacements for worn out wheel-sets. As early as in 1960s, it was realised that indigenous manufacturing capacity had to be built to save precious foreign exchange. At that time, Infosys, TCS, Wipro and a host of other cyber warriors, which today earn the nation millions of dollars, were not even a blip on the horizon. After much deliberation, the Planning Commission sanctioned Rs 146 crore in 1978 setting the ball rolling to build the first-ever wheel and axle plant in Bangalore (now Bengaluru), which was inaugurated by Indira Gandhi in 1984.
A bold decision to go in for cast steel wheels as against the prevalent standard for forged ones was taken to benefit from the very high productivity it offered. In a far-sighted move, a state-of-the-art technology from the best in the field—Griffin Wheel Company of the US—was selected. This technology for cast steel wheels conformed to the Association of American Railroads’ specification M208, while the axles were to be made to AAR specification M101.
The Rail Wheel Factory (RWF) in Bangalore forged its millionth axle by March 2008, and tapped its 75,000th heat by May 2009. It reached a peak annual output of 2 lakh cast wheels, 1 lakh machined axles, 70,000 wheel-sets, 75,250 forged axles, while 1,00,000th heat was tapped from its three giant arc furnaces exactly five years later in March 2013.
By 2010, it had set up in-house capability to generate oxygen for process requirements and managed to save the nation billions of dollars in foreign exchange over three decades. A long forging line of two Austrian-built GFM machines and associated furnaces to heat the billets and then normalise them post-forging, three axle machining lines with scores of CNC (Computerised Numeric Control) profile copying machining lathes, a giant 300-tonne hydraulic press to force fit cast wheels onto forged axles, and three giant arc furnaces which guzzle up to 12MW of electric energy each make up the major hardware at the facility, spread over 2,000 acres.
An 8MW diesel generator provides standby power for essential services. Mercifully, the current scenario in Karnataka is not too bad, with power outages being limited to one or two hours at the most, which the most critical piece of operation—the electric arc furnace—can sustain. A state-of-the-art laboratory equipped with spectrographs capable of analysing hot metal test pieces in a few minutes to carry out in-operation corrections to its chemistry has made RWF a technology powerhouse in the field of railways for forged special steel axles and cast steel wheels.
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So far, RWF has developed manufacturing regimes of cast steel wheels for no less than three sizes—for broad gauge (BG), one for metre gauge (MG) locomotives, eight sizes for BG and one for MG freight stock. Over the past decade, it has upgraded to cater to passenger (including LHB, EMU and Metro) stock with seven sizes for BG, and one each for MG and NG type. In its portfolio of axles, it boasts of 13 sizes for BG locomotives (both electric and diesel) and one for MG locos, three for freight stock and seven for BG passenger coaches.
Considering a new long forging line of a GFM machine and a single axle machining line of CNC lathes would now cost over Rs 300 crore each, an investment of Rs 140 crore for the entire plant made more than three decades ago to ‘Make in India’ wheels and axles for Indian Railways was a wise decision indeed. Akin to carrying coal to Newcastle, in December 1995, RWF exported a consignment of type CH36 wheels and F-Class axles to the US. Now armed with certification under ISO 9001:2000 for quality management system and ISO 14001:2000 for environment management system, major initiatives are under way to enter the export field, in line with the announcement made by railway minister Suresh Prabhu in his last budget speech of February 2016.