Connectivity postponed

South Asia’s second largest tunnel. Pic: Bilal Bahadur
South Asia’s second largest tunnel.
Pic: Bilal Bahadur

While the Northern Railways is adding one more train on the isolated track connecting south Kashmir and north Kashmir, the larger and ambitious proposal of connecting Kashmir with mainland India still remains a distant dream. R S Gull reports.

Northern Railways created a record of sorts by suspending work on the rail link between Katra and Qazigund, the most challenging stretch on the 287 Kms proposed Udhampur-Srinagar-Baramulla Railway Link (USBRL). The suspension happened on September 20 last year after Banglore based Indian Institute of Science submitted its findings. The report said that the track passed through a geologically unstable area and thus at of risk of damage to track and loss of life in case of natural calamities like earthquakes.

By then, in four and a half years, the railways had spent Rs 1500 crores on works either completed or reached advanced stage of implementation on the track.

Of the 138-km line – proposed to pass either after tunnelling the high-altitude peaks or bridging the razor-edged cliffs – involving 735 hectors of inhospitable and inaccessible land was being implemented by Konkon Railways (90 Kms) and IRCON (48 Kms). Services of 50,000 strong workforce were being utilised for the project.

The project implementation was based on a survey that had ignored geological realities of the region that came to haunt the project.

While a tunnel connecting Udhampur with Katra has sunken – it has a 20 meters hole – preventing running of train on over 25 Kms stretch for over three years, severe problems were reported on two other tunnels. In Sanghaldan belt, for instance, a long track came crumbling down within days as surveyors never knew the belt was a fossil slide.

Based on satellite imagery, the survey had skipped local geolgists’ involvement. In a state that falls in seismic zone–V, highly earthquake prone area, the challenging stretch is home to three major active geological fault-lines – the Main Boundary Thrust (between Udhampur and Katra), the Muree Thrust (between Baglihar and Sangaldan) and the Panjal Thrust (between Digdol and Mahu Mangat).

This Himalaya, points out Prof G M Bhat of the University of Jammu, is different because the rock types change after every half a kilometre.

The way out is a new alignment but it will take its own time. A six-member team led by V K Agnihotri, a former railway board member, was constituted to offer a new alignment.  It has T N Singh (IIT Mumbai), R P S Chauhan (DDG Geological Survey of India), Ravinder Kumar (Punjab University), P K Sud (tunneling expert) and Rolf Stadelmann (Amberg Engineering, Switzerland) as members. Again no local geologist is part of the team. The committee was tasked to study 70-Kms between Katra and Dharam – that is with Konkan Railways – and offer an alternative alignment.
The new alignment is going to be straighter, cutting down on 11 sharp turns, including two hairpin bends, in the single-tube tunnels.

Tunnels will have two tubes in the new alignment. Number of bridges will go down from 93 to nine and tunnels from 64 to 10 thus making a lot of savings. Abandoned alignment envisaged 42 major tunnels – totalling a distance of around 70 Kms – 41 major and 21 minor and special bridges.

Insiders in the Konkan Railways said they had laid 110 kilometres of approach roads (against the total requirement of 219 Kms) in inaccessible terrain, completed 10 kilometres of tunnelling at 16 spots when work suspension order was served to them in July. Besides, work on major bridges – including the one on Chenab that is taller than Eiffel Tower – was also half way through.

Chenab Bridge was not only a major challenge but a landmark on the track as well. Originally expected to cost Rs. 523 crores, this bridge would have been 1,315 m high and was supposed to consume 23000 metric tones of steel of which 7364 tons would go to 505 meters main arch.

Railways said it was to be the highest and the longest railway arch bridge to be built in the world.

Foreign sub-contractor Ultra-Afcons-VSL that was implementing the project had incurred expenses over Rs. 300 crores. The new alignment would take the wonder bridge 2.5 kilometres upstream from an unstable gorge to a wide valley.  Its height would be slashed by over half from 350 meters to 160 meters.

Using imported Austrian road header machines for the first time in India, Konkan Railways had tied up with IAF to fly its men and machinery to the most inaccessible areas for work. But the geological surprises were plenty. Against 200 meters of tunnelling a month, the average never exceeded 70 meters.

The proposed new alignment will reduce the track length from 125 to 70 Kms as resource requirement would fall from an estimated 7300 crore rupess to only 6500 crore rupees. But the engineers who were associated with the project say the new alignment would delay the project by over a decade and skyrocket the overall costs to over 30,000 crores. Budget estimate in February 2008 put the total cost of USBRL at Rs 12270 crore of which over Rs 6000 crore stands already spent.

The realignment means starting the entire work afresh. Investigating the geology, identifying the new alignment, acquiring land, formulating project and eventually assigning it for execution is a long process.

Interestingly the abrupt halt in the execution is being misread by many in Kashmir as a political decision. Already, a former chief minister drew parallels between USBRL and the Chinese ambitious railway project to Lhasa insisting the latter was a profound success.

Though the new alignment will save Rs 1000 crores, the railways will have to write off collapses and damages to the tune of Rs 700 crores and idling claims from contracts of Rs 1,000 crores. The railway board’s decision was opposed by the railways and the state government but the safety considerations of the track prevailed.

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