Exclusive Interview with Dr. Sujatha Narayan, Sr. Vice-President, Wabtec India

Metro Rail News is an emerging publication that has a good update on the industry in general and specific to the Metro sector.

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Dr. Sujatha Narayan's interview
Dr. Sujatha Narayan's interview with Metro Rail News
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Metro Rail News conducted an email interview with Dr Sujatha Narayan, Sr. Vice-President, Wabtec India region for our Women’s Day edition. Dr Narayan talked about Wabtec’s manufacturing capacity, strategy and her professional journey so far. Here are the edited excerpts:-

Q.1. Please tell us something about your merger with GE transportation. Do you see the merger in 2019 as one of the major breakthroughs for the company?

Yes, of course. Wabtec doubled in size and moved ahead in the product chain from being a sub-system supplier to a rolling stock supplier which made us one of the largest Rail technology companies in the world. Wabtec and GE Transportation came together had tremendous synergies, which we are leveraging to our great success. This was not only in products and services but also in our people, processes and systems. Its been a great journey, especially in these tough Covid years, and we have emerged as a high performing One Wabtec!!

Q.2. Wabtec manufactures products for locomotives, freight cars and passenger transit vehicles. What other major capabilities do you have for railway industry disciplines globally?

Do note that apart from products for locomotives, Wabtec is the leading manufacturer of full Diesel locomotives in the world. In India, we manufacture and deliver to Indian Railways 100 locomotives a year have done so successfully for the last three years. In addition, we have state of the art maintenance sheds for these locomotives. These locomotives were designed in India, are largely localized from a component perspective and fully manufactured in India in our factory in Marhowrah, Bihar, which makes it even more special. Wabtec also has a large Digital Electronics business that helps railroads, shippers, miners, ports and terminals to improve efficiency, unlock productivity and create pathways to automated operations while enabling safer operations. You may not be aware of the fact that Wabtec also has a significant business in numerous areas such as:

1. RAIL INFRASTRUCTURE – Track Products & Materials, Signal Wayside Components, Vehicle Equipment, Electric Power Supply

2. MINING –

a. Digital Mine- Environmental Health & Safety, Advanced Monitoring & Sensing, Asset Performance Management, Operations Performance Management, Services Management, Value Chain Optimization, Workforce Transformation

b. SURFACE EQUIPMENT – Electric Drive Systems Power & Data Transfer;

3. DRILLING – AC Water Cooled Motors, DC Motors, Packaging Options

4. MARINE SOLUTIONS – Marine Diesel Engines, Marine Fenders, Onshore Power Supply

5. HEAT TRANSFER & ENERGY SOLUTIONS – Diesel & Gas Engine Cooling Generator, Motor & Transformer, Coolers, High-Temperature Applications

6. ELASTOMERS for Rail and Industrial Applications

Q.3. Wabtec is known for building new commuter and low-horsepower, low emissions switcher locomotives. What is the idea and concept behind it? Why in the fast-paced world still focus on low-horsepower locomotives. See for e.g. India is indigenously manufacturing 12K HP electric hauls for freight transportation?

Generally, Switcher locomotives are used in yards to move rail cars to form the train, conduct maintenance or perform light freight service. These locomotives are optimized for this application hence they’re not high on horsepower but have high starting tractive effort. Currently, the switcher fleet is pretty old around the world as operators have been focused on investing in the mainline fleet. As we see increased operators’ interest in cleaner technology in this space, we’re at the forefront of addressing this Market with very diverse product offerings. Our current products in this space include a wide range of zero-emission battery locos (will supply to UP), hybrid with battery & diesel combination (NYCT & Nordco shuttle wagons) as well as highly emission optimized diesel locomotives (supplying to Kazakhstan). These products also come with an option of a suite of onboard safety & remote monitoring digital solutions. As an innovation-driven and environmentally responsible corporate, we believe we’re in a leading position to help our customers modernize this space with greener, smarter and safer solutions.

Q.4. Please tell us something about your deal with New Delhi – based railway friction business, Masu recently. Should investors see your step as your efforts for consolidating your base in the Indian sub-continent?

The Railway friction business of Masu that we have acquired is a strategic acquisition for Wabtec as we are one of the world leaders in railway friction with a variety of brake pads and blocks to serve the needs of our customers. In India, while we were manufacturing all our braking systems, we did not manufacture friction products.

The acquisition helps us build local design and manufacturing capability to serve the unique needs of the Indian Market of Indian Mainline locomotives, coaches and wagons as well as Metros. We will also be able to serve the global markets from India. We are pleased that we will have now state-of-the-art friction manufacturing capabilities on every continent and will better serve operators and car-builders around the world, reducing operating costs while improving performance.”

Q.5. How do you see the Market in India? What in your opinion should be the major policy-level changes required for the growth and development of tech and locomotive industries operating in India?

The Indian rail transportation market is one of the largest and fastest growing markets in the world and is definitely the most exciting in terms of the modernization initiatives driving safety, availability, cleanliness, comfort, punctuality and sustainability in Indian Railways and the aggressive plans to introduce Metros in many Indian cities.

The National Rail Plan draft published by IR in the end of 2020 transparently shared the network information with its readers as well as the challenges faced today as well as the desire to develop capacity upto 2050 by 2030. The challenges and needs are clear and the strategies are getting put in place, and its now a matter of agile, unwavering and efficient execution. We saw the union budget allocation for Railways very much in sync with the NRP which was positive.

There are a few elements that can make these ambitions come to fruition. Firstly, it is vital that these strategies should not be changed with changes in Railway ministry or Railway Board. This has been a challenge in the past. Secondly, RDSO vendor approval, onboarding and inspection policies need to be revamped. I see this beginning to happen and I feel optimistic. I believe there is also a lot of confusion about procurement policies in the different production units and Zonal railways that should be cleared up. Also, tenders that try to bring in new technologies take too long to progress. Lastly, I feel, it is critical that Suppliers be treated more as partners than simply companies that bid and win tenders. We have a lot to contribute to the IR and Metro modernization journey, and we should be leveraged.On the Metro side, apart from Delhi Metro, we see concerns with ridership in the small cities and lack of progress on projects in cities like Mumbai and Bangalore due to various “non-technical” issues. 2021 for example, did not see a single Metro projected awarded. Projects that have been awarded to car manufacturers are being delayed or cancelled. Companies tend to lose a lot of money, and the Indian entity loses credibility with its global counterparts. The Ministry of Urban Development and Metro authorities need to figure out ways to avoid this if they want technology and investment to come to the country.

Q.6. How do you see the performance of Indian locomotive companies towards the efforts of Indian Railways trying to become a modern and better transport system?

I assume you mean Railway equipment companies who provide equipment for Rolling Stock. I think historically, these companies have played a critical role whether it maybe the Diesel locomotive fleets, electric locomotive fleets or LHB coaches produced by Indian Railways. These are all products that were brought to India by global Multinational companies and TOTs provided to Indian Railways.

On modernization, we have seen in the recent past with 100% electrification or replacement of all ICF coach production with LHB coaches, companies like Wabtec have majorly enabled this modernization by investing heavily and quickly scaling up to support IR. Companies have always been ready with technologies that can solve many of the problems but it took some serious clarity in strategy and an execution mindset that is making this now a reality. While ‘Make in India” and “Atma Nirbhar Bharat” are necessary for the country, only desire I would have is to not distinguish between “Indian origin” companies Vs “Multinational companies” that are heavily invested in India.

We see some disturbing trends to increase vendor base and onboard some Indian origin companies that are compromising on quality, due process for homologation as well as required financial strength to support IR in the long term. For companies like Wabtec who have strongly invested in India with >2500 employees, 5 factories, 2 maintenance sheds with a total operational footprint of >1M sq feet and an absolute focus on Safety, Quality and Compliance, the expectation is simply to have a level playing field.

Q.7. What other major initiatives and projects Wabtec Locomotives is working for in India. Is there any other private venture or project apart from Masu?

We should be simply referred to as Wabtec or Wabtec India. We have our hand in really everything going with rail transportation market in India. We are one of leading sub-system suppliers to Metros and continue to vie for every project that is ongoing. The recent highlight is our win of brake systems and a number of other systems for the prestigious first of its kind RRTS project. On the Indian railway’s side, apart from our locomotive project and the large brake systems business we have in LHB coaches and Electric locomotives, we have just introduced the High Reach Pantograph, which was a product designed in India specifically for the Indian market which we are proud of.

We are currently developing automatic doors specifically for LHB coaches and Trainsets. We anticipate that Trainsets will be a great platform for us for a number of our sub-systems. We have a long list of projects and products in India we are working on all the time. Globally, sustainability is a huge trend in railways, and we have some major innovations happening globally, including the first Battery Electric Freight Locomotive, Green HVACs and low dust friction products. With India’s and Indian Railways’ sustainability goals, Wabtec looks forward to contributing to this Journey.

The digital electronics business I mentioned before is an exciting area for us to bring to India as Indian railways are just starting their Digitalization journey. Products such as OMRS (Online Monitoring of Rolling Stock), ATP (Automatic Train Protection), Movement Planner,Machine Vision etc. form the Wabtec portfolio, I believe can bring a lot of value to IR and help our growth. I see a continued Win-Win relationship with the Rail Transport market in India.

Q.8. From being a health professional, working for 3M India heading the R&D and running the new product development function of the company to lead one of the largest locomotive companies of the world in India. Your career shows a multi-role diversity. Kindly share something about your education, career and future goals?

I was very fortunate to grow up in the IIT Madras campus as my Father was a Professor there. The campus and the school I attended afforded me a strong academic and extra-curricular environment which I believe moulded me for my future. I got caught up in the “Engineering or Medicine” culture of the time I grew up and decided to pursue an entrance into IIT. Fortunately, I cleared the JEE (Joint Entrance Exam) and joined IIT Delhi for a BTech in Textile Engineering.

That gave me exposure to Polymer Science and I went on to do a Master’s and a PhD in Polymer Science and Engineering which I absolutely loved. When I got my Doctorate degree, I joined a company called Roger Corporation, a speciality materials company, as a technologist developing products. I figured early that I was very passionate about delivering technology to solve problems in the Market. At Rogers, I developed multiple products and filed patents and then moved on to lead R&D for one of the three businesses of the company. In 2007, my family and I decided to move back to India for personal reasons and hence, I left Rogers Corp. Interestingly, it was my hardest and best life decision.

After settling my family down in India, I joined the 3M India R&D centre. I set up their healthcare R&D team and infrastructure. My highlight there was to build the 5-year product plan for the business which was a great success resulting in creating an entire manufacturing campus for the healthcare business of 3M in India. 2014 was a pivotal year in my career when I was offered to run one of their larger businesses and since then my career as a business leader has taken off. My career at Wabtec started as the Managing Director of the Transit business, also called Faiveley Transport. 2017-2021 were very exciting years with tremendous growth in the business. I learned so much during these years from my entire team as well as customers, suppliers and other external partners. In February 2019, when GE Transportation was merged with Wabtec, I was appointed as Regional General Manager for Wabtec in India along with being MD of the Transit business. In September 2021, I was appointed as Senior Vice President and Regional Leader responsible for Wabtec business in the India region, including India, Srilanka and Bangladesh. I have never really been ambitious for designations or roles but what really drives me is to have more and more impact on the organization that I work for and to have the influence on the company in a meaningful way.

Q.09. You truly are an inspirational figure for women’s empowerment. What would be your message to our readers on International women’s Day?

Thank you for the kind words. I believe “Empowerment” comes truly from inside of you, and I urge women to focus on the three “C” s – Competence, Confidence and Courage. Being good at what you do is the core foundation of professional success and there are no shortcuts. This comes from hard work and great work ethic and building subject matter expertise. Once you have this, you need to have confidence in your own capabilities and not doubt yourself.

Finally, you need to have the courage to take risks in your career by going after new opportunities with confidence in your competence. This entire battle of empowerment is to be fought inside of you, and you shouldn’t expect somebody else to make this happen for you. All of this is within you to drive and possible if you have faith in yourself.

Q.10. Please share your views about Metro Rail News?

Metro Rail News is an emerging publication that has a good update on the industry in general and specific to the Metro sector. The combination of offline and online also helps readers engage. We regularly are able to read updates in the sector on the portal.

This interview is published in our Metro Rail News magazine, March edition.

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