On track!

The Kashmir rail project has been plagued by bad planning, lack of proper survey besides cost and time overrun. Will the project meet its new deadline. A Kashmir Life report.

Getting rail into Kashmir after blasting the mountains and bridging the hilltops was never an easy option. Rulers thought of it since 1890 but decided against executing the project. Finally when the process took off in twenty-first century, it proved the point again. It is very difficult but not impossible.
When the work finally started, the project was supposed to cost around Rs 3000 crore, its costs are now being pegged at Rs 19565 crores.

Insiders in Northern Railways, IRCON, Konkon Railways and other related organisations, however, suggest it may take much more than that because time-overruns and cost-overruns go hand in hand. The new deadline for completing 273-kilometer Udhampur – Baramulla line is 2017. So far the central government has invested Rs 7719.68 crore and for the next fiscal 2011-12, the allocations are over Rs 1100 crore.

Completion of this project would be a milestone in strengthening the Kashmir valley’s bonds with India, Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh told a cheering crowd at Udhmapur on April 13, 2005 before flagging off the Uttar Sampark Kranti Express on the new 54.85-km track built at Rs 515 crores, connecting it with Jammu. Its implementation remained sluggish after Ms Indira Gandhi laid the foundation stone on April 14, 1983. Then it was supposed to require Rs 50 crore only. But the delay did not devour the stretch’s significance as being a technical wonder.

It has 158 bridges – 36 major and one of them 1.2 Kms long – covering a total of 5.14 Kms. The bridge over Gambir nullah that rests on two pillars is 13 meters higher than Qutub Minar.  This 284 meters long bridge laid jointly by Railways and Larsen & Turbo weighs 1735 tones and has the capacity to withstand earthquakes up to 6.0 on the Richter scale. Its 10.28 Kms pass through 21 tunnels of which the main one is 2.45 Kms long. Tunnels do have the fresh air supply – a first for the Indian Railways. Then there is a 42 meters high embankment.

But that is the step one. Talking rail to Baramulla was still a huge distance so it was sliced into three sections.

The 119-km tail end part connecting Qazigund and Baramulla in the Valley is the only section that is operational. Part of the infrastructure constructed on this stretch was damaged during 2010 summer unrest forcing railways to stop services for a few months. Right now, the train is actually running between Qazigund and Srinagar only after minor repairs were carried out on war footing. Comparatively easiest of all the three sections because it passes through the plains – it did slice Kashmir into Upper Valley and Lower Valley, it has 15 stations, 63 major and 748 minor bridges.

The initial 25.2-kms section linking Udhampur with the pilgrim town of Katra was in fact ready much before the Kashmir track. Well before its start, one of its major tunnels started sinking on about 800 meters. Soon after, the Railways detected seepage problem in three more. This forced a review and the Railways engaged an Austrian firm Geo Consult International (GCI) to salvage its three kilometres long tunnel. GCI was associated with Delhi Metro and has designed over 11-Kms long railway tunnel in Pir Panchal being implemented by IRCON. It is facing additional problems on the tracks in Sanghaldan belt as well where one of the tracks crumbled under its own weight.

With 38 bridges including the one which is 85 meter high and 154 meter long steel girdle-bridge – the first of its kind in India, the Udhampur-Katra track has seven tunnels covering 10.90 kms. Railways says the outstanding feature of this stretch is the 85 meter tall pier of a bridge at Jhazzar Khad which will be 13  meters taller than Qutub Minar (72 meters). However, the track could not be used as two tunnels suffered damages. With help from foreign companies and experts, the Railways is constructing a diversion tunnel and blocking the seepage in another tunnel so that the track is made operational. Nobody knows when the work will be over.

However, it is the 129-kms section between Katra and Qazigund that has emerged as the real challenge. Passing through the unstable mountains of Pir Panchal, as many as 103 kms of the track will pass through 36 tunnels and the balance length over 78 bridges. This stretch will have a 1.3 kms long bridge at a height of 359 meters with 467 meter long steel arch – an engineering marvel.

Railways has completed two tunnels on this section. In December last, the 1483-metre tunnel was completed in 28 months. Earlier in July 1671-metre tunnel at Sangaldhan was completed. The longest tunnel of the track 11.17 kms connecting Banihal with Qazigund will be ready by December 2011. Authorities hope this will extend the rail traffic to Banihal by 2013. This stretch initially pegged to require Rs 2100 crores is now expected to devour Rs 14800 crores. Of this Rs 957 crores will go into laying access routes alone.

In her recent budget, Railway Minister Ms Mamta Benerjee announced a bridge factory and a state-of-the-art institute for tunnel and bridge engineering for Jammu. She was candid in saying that the upcoming project requires a lot of bridges (around 750 kms) and tunnels (100 kms) so it is better that the state gets the twin facilities. “This industry will help in developing ancillary industries leading to employment generation in the area,” Ms Banerjee said in her budget speech.

Besides, she announced funding and completing the surveys on additional rail projects in J&K which include Baramulla-Kupwara, Jammu-Poonch via Akhnoor-Rajouri, and Kathua-Basohli-Bhaderwah-Kishtwar. While surveys will get completed in next fiscal, these projects would be taken up for implementation in the 12th Plan. Interestingly, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah reacted saying J&K should have got a rail coach factory. He understands it well that the twin initiatives could prove temporary unlike a coach factory.

Railway authorities had to lay 260 kms of access roads to reach the sites which eventually will connect 60 remote villages. Already 160 kms have been constructed. For taking men and machinery to remote belts, it has deployed IAF transport choppers as well. Railways offers  job to one member of each family whose three-fourth land holding was acquired for laying the track. While 418 have been appointed, the process has been initiated in 206 other cases.

For the massive cost escalation, according to reports appearing in Delhi newspapers, the Railways has admitted the initial alignment and cost estimates were based on a study “without filed verification and was not realistic”. The new estimates at 2009-10 price levels are projected as more realistic because the railway staff and experts have trekked the entire distance and identified the problems the men and machinery are facing.

They have attributed the cost escalation to four reasons. It includes massive construction of access roads that will take Rs 957 crores. IRCON and Konkan Railway Corporation are executing work on a “cost plus 10% basis” which offsets the costs. Good investment for setting up security infrastructure and finally spending Rs 301 crore for electrification of the line which was not envisaged at the DPR stage.

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