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The Heaviest Haul: A New Locomotive Factory Will Put This Indian State On The Fast Track

The Indian town of Marhaura isn’t on many tourist destination lists.

Located on the western edge of Bihar, one of the country’s most densely populated and least developed states, the town has an economy that’s based largely on harvesting mangos, bananas and sugar cane from plantations that fade out into a curtain of pale haze that never quite lifts. Just over 60 percent know how to read. “Bihar happens to be one of the least industrialized areas in India,” says Nalin Jain, the CEO of GE’s Transportation and Aviation businesses in the country.

Yet Jain is building a high-tech “brilliant factory” on the edge of town designed to produce a fleet of new locomotives for Indian Railways. It’s a heavy haul. The project involves moving a mountain of earth to raise the 67-acre lot where the plant will stand by 9 feet — the area is prone to flooding — but also installing basic infrastructure such as bathrooms for girls in local schools so that they can attend class and apply for jobs. “We aren’t building a factory on an island,” he says, “we are creating a whole ecosystem that will lift the economy in that state.”

Marhaura 3_Dec 2016

Above: “We had to raise the 67 acres where the factory will stand by 9 feet because the location is a bit prone to flooding,” says GE’s Jain. Image credit: GE Transportation. Top image: The new locomotives will start replacing 5,000 older engines — mostly from the 1970s and 1980s — that currently haul freight over the Indian Railways railroad network. Image credit: Getty Images

Last year, Indian Railways (IR) awarded GE Transportation a contract to build 1,000 new diesel-electric locomotives. These next-generation machines will start the process of upgrading the IR’s 5,000 older engines — mostly from the 1970s and 1980s — that currently haul freight over its railroad network. The state-run railroad operator, which holds a 26 percent stake in the joint venture, had already had Marhaura in mind. It typically opens new factories in underserved parts of the country. For example, GE also is building a maintenance shop for the new locomotives in Roza, Uttar Pradesh, a town in another populous state racing to catch up to the rest of the country. France’s Alstom, which won a large contract from IR for electric locomotives at the same time as GE, is building in Bihar. “They want these contracts to be catalysts for economic development,” Jain says.

The GE factory in Marhaura will be like no other in the state, suffused with software and connected to the Industrial Internet. Jain’s team is running the project on parallel tracks: building the factory, developing local talent, designing the locomotive to meet the specific needs of the Indian Railways and developing the supply chain. They all have to cross the finish line by mid-2018, when the plant is scheduled to open for production.

The team designing the locomotive sits at the Indian outpost of GE Global Research in Bangalore. The machine will be based on GE’s Evolution-series locomotives, which are best in class on fuel efficiency and emissions, but it will have to meet specific local requirements. For example, the six-axle locomotive can only weigh 22 tons per axle, while its heavier American cousins typically clock in between 25 and 30 tons. “You are talking about taking out as much as 48 tons for the whole locomotive,” Jain says. “That’s a lot of weight.”

Unlike in the U.S., the machines will also have a cab at each end and sport broad-gauge bogies. Unlike existing IR locomotives’ cabs, these cabs will have air-conditioning and a toilet. They also will be digitally enabled. “We will enable our locomotives with software and solutions like remote diagnostics and proactive predictive maintenance,” Jain says.

IR4500 loco_High_Res (003)

The six-axle locomotive can only weigh 22 tons per axle, while its heavier American cousins typically clock in between 25 and 30 tons. “You are talking about taking out as much as 48 tons for the whole locomotive,” Jain says. “That’s a lot of weight.”

The team will rely in part on GE’s new multimodal factory in Pune, India, which can produce parts for an array of machines, such as wind turbines and medical scanners. But GE also has encouraged its traditional suppliers to open outposts in India and has invited 300 local companies to learn about its needs for the project. “The response has been overwhelming,” Jain says.

But not everyone benefiting from the deal will be making parts for locomotives. Jain says that skill development goes beyond the factory. “In the construction phase, we will need masons and plumbers,” Jain says. “Later on, there will be a lot of ancillary development around the grounds that will require gardeners, janitors, guards and other professions.”

Says Jain: “We will deliver locomotives, but we will also set the region in motion.”

Collage-Groundbreaking at Bihar in June 2016

The team started building the Bihar plant in June. “We aren’t building a factory on an island,” Jain says, “we are creating a whole ecosystem that will lift the economy in that state.”

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