What makes this coach manufacturing factory in Perambur so special? “Everyone travels by the coaches we’ve made, no?” points out an employee.

Chugging through TNs Integral Coach Factory Indias oldest train-making facility
Features Trains Friday, May 18, 2018 - 18:45

The Integral Coach Factory (ICF), a ginormous coach manufacturing facility located in Chennai, was Indian Railways' first coach manufacturing facility to be set up in the country. Today, Indian Railways stands fourth in the list of the world’s largest train networks and the country has two other coach manufacturing facilities in addition to ICF - Modern Coach Factory, Raebareli, and the Rail Coach Factory, Kapurthala.

Yet, ICF holds a spot like no other. When the factory was set up in 1955, not many anticipated the way in which it would go on to transform the area. Today, ICF Colony in Chennai is one of the cleanest and best-planned neighbourhoods in the city. And the employees and residents here attribute the changes the factory and the neighbourhood has undergone in the recent past to their General Manager Sudhanshu Mani. 

Down the history track

ICF was the brainchild of an Indo-Swiss collaboration - between the Government of India and the Swiss Car and Elevator Manufacturing Corporation Ltd., and its construction began in 1952.

ICF’s first milestone came in the year 1957 when the facility flagged off its 100th coach. The factory was initially just a shell manufacturing facility. Shankar, ICF’s PR head, explains that a shell is just the outer casing of a coach - like a skeleton. “The shells were then sent to the zonal railways. Seven years later, in 1962, a furnishing facility was inaugurated at ICF and we began furnishing the shells that were manufactured here,” he adds.

Photos courtesy: ICF

Integral Coach Factory is not the kind of place you can leisurely amble through. The place is abuzz with people welding joints, cutting through sheets, beating down metal, cranking giant conveyors and manoeuvring backhoe loaders with heavy and sharp metal objects.

Referred to as the Mecca of Coach Manufacturing facilities, the factory is spread across 511 acres and employs 11,000 workers today. “At one point, in the mid-80s, our task force was over 14,000,” says Shankar.

Those who have seen the factory grow search for words to describe its transformation. R Shanmugam, one of ICF’s oldest residents and employees, says, “I was born here. My father, P Raju, joined ICF in 1955 itself, so I’ve literally seen the landscape change. Earlier, when Anna Nagar was just about coming up in the vicinity, you could see the Anna Tower from here. You didn't even have to climb up tall buildings, it was plainly visible. Now I cannot believe my own eyes.”

Factory today

While factories can be a dull mix of blue, rust and grey, ICF breaks away from this stereotype with colourful murals on its walls, sculptures fashioned out of metal scraps and grassy patches wherever possible. Vinoth, a PR Inspector at ICF and our guide for the day, shares that ICF was given a facelift a few years ago. The manufacturing units too underwent transformations in the last few years. ICF also inaugurated a new spring shop in April this year.

“We also have an exhibition space for artists to conduct art shows. While we’ve got artists commissioned to work on these sculptures, our own employees have also designed a few. Those were appreciated by many. Our current GM encourages such initiatives,” he says with a smile. They have also rejuvenated the lake in the vicinity and the residential colonies have inaugurated multiple sports facilities.

Vintage locos in the open-air museum

Sculpture made using metal scraps by ICF employees

Restored lake at ICF

ICF also has a museum that houses vintage engines and coaches, black and white photographs, wooden miniatures of famous trains like the Fairy Queen, art exhibits and a souvenir shop. This museum also has sculptures fashioned out of scraps and walls painted by employee’s children.

How are coaches made?

Taking us through the giant coach-like Linke Hofmann Busch (LHB) unit, Shanmugam explains that initially the coaches were made using wood and mild steel, following which only mild steel was used.

“Right now, we’ve moved to making LHB stainless steel coaches. These are so much better and stainless steel has good corrosion resistance. You have to  take into consideration the corrosion resistance of metal, mainly because...imagine! The train travels through different landscapes…From hottest and driest place to the coldest and rainiest parts of the country. These coaches will have to be corrosion resistant,” he explains.

An LHB coach has two main parts - the shell and the bogie. While the shell is the metal skeleton/frame of the coach, the bogie is the one on which the shell is mounted. The shell consists of the roof, underframe and side walls. The bogie houses the most crucial mechanism that keeps the train running - the wheels. “It is extremely important to check this mechanism before mounting the shell on the bogie. We have to make sure the brakes, the pins, the planks, the axle, the spring, the bearings, etc., function smoothly. Nothing can go wrong here,” explains Hameedudin, Senior Section Engineer at ICF.

While intense care is taken to beat down the shell’s frame (measurements are of supreme importance here), engineers are extra careful when it comes to the bogie. Weight tests, brake tests, etc., are done to make sure they’ve made the perfect bogie. The shell, now mounted on the bogie, is taken to the watershed where leak-test is done. Once the shell passes all the tests, it is then sent to the furnishing factory, where the coach is given its aesthetics.

And all this while coaches come in different types - sleeper class, First AC, Second AC, AC 3-tier, electric (EMU), MEMU, Kolkata metro and luxury coaches to name a few. ICF manufactures more than 170 varieties of coaches on the whole.

ICF Highlights

ICF also exports coaches to countries like Thailand, Burma, Taiwan, Zambia, Philippines, Tanzania, Uganda, Vietnam, Nigeria, Mozambique, Bangladesh, Angola and Sri Lanka. From manufacturing their 1000th coach in 1962, ICF churned out its 50,000th coach on July 6, 2015. Last year, 2017-2018, it set another record by manufacturing 2503 coaches (in 68 variants). “We plan to increase it to 3000 coaches this year,” beams Vinoth.

ICF also has an interesting line-up of projects in the pipeline. It recently rolled out a LHB 3-tier with continuous windows, giving AC coaches a swanky makeover. It also introduced the engine-less Train 18. “It will be almost on par with the European trains with a top speed of 160 km/hr,” explains Shankar.

LHB 3-tier with continuous windows, photo courtesy: FB/ICF

It’s perhaps time bid adieu to the dusty maroon and inky blue trains we are so used to. Antyodaya Express could be its replacement. ICF rolled out the country’s first paintless train on Tamil New Year this year. The 22-coach LHB will be operated as an unreserved train for “superfast service” on dense routes at a speed of 120 kmph. They’ve also got plans for Train 20 with an aluminium car body.

Even five years ago, many would have marvelled at the idea of an exclusive women’s team. While ICF has always had women employees, they never formed an exclusive team. “Women have always done all kinds of engineering works along with men. Now, under the Mahila Shakti team, we’ve formed an exclusive women’s team of 30,” explains Charulatha, Senior Section Engineer/ Shop 20 (Sidewall section), over the heavy noise of metal clanking and machines whirring. The youngest employee in Mahila Shakti, that was formed in February this year, is 22 years old while the oldest is 55.

Photos courtesy: ICF

All aboard!

Trains may not be the most magical modes of transport now, but they demand a certain kind of admiration for they way in which they’ve survived, outliving most of their Industrial Revolution peers.

A train journey in India can be life changing and are sometimes the perfect way to get to know cities, people and landscapes. And train journeys have been prophetic - what if Gandhi never took the train?

Several pairs of hands work in unison to complete one coach. KN Babu, Secretary at ICF tells us that one LHB coach spends around 15 days in the shell unit and another 10 days in furnishing (if it’s a simple sleeper coach) before it can be sent out. "AC coaches take another week extra," he adds. Several thousand workers toil through 8 hours of their shift every day to help India move.

ICF was initially just a railways residential colony and locals always referred to it as the Perambur coach factory. Today, ICF has its own pin code and is filled with proud residents and employees who vouch for how extraordinary it is.

So what makes this coach manufacturing factory special? “Of course ICF is unique. Everyone travels by the coaches we’ve made, no?” shrugs Shanmugam.

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