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  Caterpillar of hope-on, hop off

Caterpillar of hope-on, hop off

Published : Sep 4, 2016, 7:29 am IST
Updated : Sep 4, 2016, 7:29 am IST

Necessity is the mother of all inventions. But in 42-year-old Ashwani Kumar’s case, it was more altruistic, propelling his brain towards invention for the ultimate betterment of humankind.

Ashwani Kumar (Photo: Bunny Smith)
 Ashwani Kumar (Photo: Bunny Smith)

Necessity is the mother of all inventions. But in 42-year-old Ashwani Kumar’s case, it was more altruistic, propelling his brain towards invention for the ultimate betterment of humankind. The Indian Railways’ engineer recently won the global MIT Climate CoLab competition along with Emil Jacob, a renowned inventor, with plans for an elevated “Caterpillar Train” (cTrain) that hints at a new era for mass transit. Ashwani’s concept is more likely to be a groundbreaking response to the century-old question of how to integrate effective mass transit into an urban environment without creating eyesores or traffic congestion. The arch-supported elevated cTrain concept rose to the top of the 29 submissions in the transportation category of MIT’s challenge to win the award.

“While growing up, I just had a few options to look forward to after graduation,” says Dr Kumar, an IIT Delhi alumnus, adding, “One of the options was to apply for civil services or go aboard to pursue higher studies. I chose the former, and became a part of the Indian Railways family, making my father, a teacher, overjoyed. But getting into government services makes one feel fulfilled and settled. But at the same time, everyone goes through phases where aspects such as brain power, creative energy and thought power aren’t pushed hard enough, like when you are a student.”


The man who enjoyed being a bureaucrat says that his heart and mind was always geared towards challenges. “Learning is constant, if you don’t adapt or change, you aren’t dynamic — which then goes against the true nature of mankind. I felt, I needed to grow as a person, and it was this self-realisation that made me ask for study leave, and head to IIM Bangalore for higher management studies. In the second year, I came across several problems related to urban transportation. And that got me thinking. To cut the long story short — I came back from IIM, re-joined work but solutions to problems related to urban transportation were rare, so I wanted to go back to studies, do further research, and requested for another study leave. I enrolled into the The Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) Centre which is a major research enterprise established by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where they had a specific area called ‘future urban mobility’. I applied for a Ph.D, and focused on issues related to this problem. From Singapore, I got a chance to go to MIT to attend a transportation forum where I met Emil Jacob an inventor and designer, owner of Jacob-Innovations LLC. That was the turning point in my life.”


Talking about his innovation, Dr Kumar who is currently posted at the Centre for Railway Information Systems in New Delhi feels that unlike existing elevated railways, which are often composed of large concrete supports that block street-level view, the Mini Elevated cTrain concept seeks to minimise visual impact of urban mass transit. The cTrain design seeks rail cars that travel on a network of elevated tracks at an average speed of 62 miles per hour. The train infrastructure could be built quickly, at a low cost by using concrete poles connecting via arches on opposite sides of a sidewalk. That design improves accessibility for commuters to hop on and off without clogging sidewalks. He says, “Public transportation, should be a basic necessity, like air, land and water. Emil, an extremely simple man with a high sense of aesthetics, agrees. When we started exchanging ideas, we got so pally that we started to unanimously projecting ideas in the same direction. Destiny, I guess, works in the weirdest ways. We started to map out so many things and almost built an entire ecosystem through our collective imagination. I find it energising to work with fellow dreamers who see no limits to what they can create.”


The idea, which won the popular choice and the judges’ choice categories, was picked over 500 entries from across the world at the Climate CoLab contest. “The strength of the concept is its simplicity and its practicability. Some ideas are good on paper, but not practicable,” he says, adding, “Several key features are GPS-enabled trains, independent, individual door opening, light, low maintenance, low on pollution, high on safety, budget-friendly, easy to assemble and not requiring any excavation, no driver, no security issues, etc.,” he adds.

“Each time we hit a dead end,” he says, “we extended capabilities to do something, to make something greater. Knowing that the great technological innovations of tomorrow are incubating today, we worked so hard to come up with something futuristic, effective, problem-solving and helpful. The problem is that people design for people, but they don’t design with them. There has to be function over fashion.”


He is blessed to be a part of a system, and wants to pitch the idea to the government. “I don’t think I’ll be able to sit peacefully without seeing a remarkable change in the way people travel and commute. All it takes is an idea, dream and vision. The end product has to be left to God, and pumped by hard work. If we want to continue to live in a place that’s the envy of the world, we better redouble efforts to get all of our kids on the varsity team for thinking and creating.”