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Metro refuses to retire oldest rakes

- Transport lifeline seeks fresh extension for trains four years past lifespan

Metro Railway is aiming to squeeze two more years out of its oldest rakes after failing to place an order for replacements until two weeks ago.

The batch of seven has been in service since 1985, less than a year after Calcutta became the first city in India to get an underground Metro link. All seven rakes are already four years past their 25-year lifespan.

“We sent a requisition two weeks ago to the Integral Coach Factory for seven new air-conditioned rakes,” Rabi Mahapatra, a spokesperson for Metro Railway, said.

But sources at the coach factory in Perambur, Chennai, said on Tuesday that Metro Railway was yet to order new rakes.

“We had written to the Railway Board in January about the need to bring in new rakes. But with elections round the corner, the decision got delayed. The requisition for new rakes was sent after the NDA government assumed office,” a senior official said.

Even if the coach factory were to start building the rakes immediately, the earliest that they would arrive in Calcutta is in a year. Till then, the transport lifeline would find it impossible to maintain its daily schedule without the seven oldest rakes still in service.

A team of engineers from the Research Designs and Standards Organisation, a railways-owned advisory agency, will take a call on whether the rickety rakes can be used for a couple of more years without compromising passenger safety.

Metro Railway has 27 rakes, of which 13 are air-conditioned. The non-AC rakes include seven that were commissioned between 1990 and 1994. The rest of the fleet was to have been withdrawn by October 2010, but Metro Railway chose to keep them running like ageing rock stars who refuse to retire.

To maintain the five-minute frequency of trains, the Metro needs at least 21 rakes on any given day.

“If Metro Railway is forced to withdraw the seven oldest rakes, the strength of the fleet will be down to 20, leaving no room for snags and routine maintenance,” an official said.

Metro Railway hasn’t been able to avoid disruptions even with 27 rakes at its disposal because more than half of them are between 20 and 30 years old.

One such rake broke down on Tuesday afternoon, disrupting the Metro service for over half an hour. The Dum Dum-bound train was stranded at Jatin Das Park station from 1.06pm and had to be “evacuated”.

A Metro official said one of the four third-rail current collectors — a rod-shaped device attached to the train to transmit power from the third rail — conked out just as the train was about to leave the station.

The snag-hit rake was sent to the Noapara car shed for repairs after engineers found it unsafe to continue the journey.

By the time the Metro service resumed at 1.38pm, thousands of commuters were affected. “Such snags are common in ageing rakes. To maintain the Metro schedule, we have to make do with these old rakes,” a Metro official said.

Officials at the Noapara car shed said routine maintenance of rakes took a hit after the Metro route was extended in the south by 9km in two phases: till Kavi Nazrul (Garia Bazar) on August 22, 2009, and up to Kavi Subhash (New Garia) on October 7, 2010.

Apart from frequent snags in the third-rail current collectors, the old rakes are plagued by problems in the motor alternator that powers the fans, lights, public address system and compressors.

Doors refusing to open or close and damage to high-friction parts like axles — the rods that connect a pair of wheels — are also frequent.

“Trains earlier used to cover 16.45km from Dum Dum till Tollygunge. Post-extension, they run 28.14km from Noapara to New Garia. The extra distance has increased the average monthly run from 6,000km to 10,000km. Ideally, these rakes should undergo a mandatory thorough maintenance and inspection twice a month,” said an official in the Noapara car shed.

The current weekday schedule has apparently turned regular maintenance into a luxury that Metro Railway can’t afford.

“We try to run the older rakes less than the rest. That is the best form of maintenance they receive,” the official said.