INDIAN Railways (IR) has awarded a joint venture of Ramkrishna Forgings and Titagarh Wagons a contract to build a new factory capable of producing up to 200,000 forged wheels a year.

This forms part of a strategy to enable India to become self-sufficient in forged wheels for rolling stock, reducing its dependence on imported wheels, and to enter the export market.

The joint venture will invest Rs 10bn ($US 120.9) to build the factory, which according to IR will be the largest wheel plant in Asia. The new facility is expected to start production by 2025.

Under the terms of the contract, the joint venture will supply IR with 80,000 wheels a year over a 20-year period, representing a total of 1.6 million wheel discs for different IR rolling stock types.

The new plant is expected to supply wheels for the Vande Bharat EMU programme as well as the future fleet for the Mumbai - Ahmedabad high-speed line.

IR's cast wheel requirements have largely been met in recent by the two public-sector wheel manufacturing plants located at Bengaluru and Bela. However, IR has experienced a shortage of forged wheels, meeting its requirements by purchasing from foreign suppliers, mostly in eastern Europe.

In contrast, IR’s initiative to stimulate domestic private-sector wheel production has the declared aim of enabling India to become a major exporter in this market.

“The western world is reluctant to take up wheel manufacturing because it is energy-intensive and also considered as an environmentally dirty activity,” says Mr Subodh Jain, former Railway Board member for engineering.

“There is good potential for India to emerge as a wheel manufacturing hub.”

IR’s wheel requirements spiked from 2022 onwards, after it awarded major contracts for the manufacture of 90,000 wagons, 400 Vande Bharat EMUs and an increasing number of other EMUs, EMD diesel locomotives, metro cars and coaches.

After a three-year delay, the public-sector company Rashtriya Ispat Nigam (RINL) has begun manufacturing forged wheels at IR’s Rai Bareli plant, using state-of-the-art production equipment supplied from Germany.

This plant was set up at a cost of Rs 23bn and has capacity to produce 100,000 wheels a year. “But output has been low and the cost of production has been high because of a lack of expertise on the part of RINL engineers,” according to an IR source.

IR had been attempting to attract private investors to take over the RINL plant, but without success. Plans to sell off the plant appear to have been shelved.

“While the Ramkrishna-Titagarh plant will take two years to start production, manufacturing capacity at the RINL unit can be escalated from day one,” a ministry official said.

The Indian government could have provided subsidy to attract private investors, he pointed out. “Unfortunately, this was not done and the plant has been allowed to sit idle,” the official added.