India-Kashmir rail link lurches forward
By Haroon Mirani
SRINAGAR - What could be Asia's most spectacular railway, or its most
dangerous, has made a renewed lurch towards completion thanks to a
recommendation that building should resume on the world's highest bridge - a
key part of the much-delayed project linking Kashmir and India.
India Railways board chairman M Ravindra and his seven-member expert committee
have recommended that work go ahead on the Chenab bridge after the group was
asked last December to suggest a possible new alignment in the section
following suspension of the work over concerns of safety and stability.
The contentious steel-arch bridge over the river Chenab would run for 1.3
kilometers, with a height of 359 meters, 16 meters higher
than the world's present highest vehicular bridge, the cable-stayed Millau
Viaduct in France. Almost half of the US$100 million Chenab bridge had been
built when construction was halted.
An Indian Institute of Science report warned that the bridge was liable to
collapse as the surrounding mountain would have been unable to bear its weight
(26,000 tonnes in steel alone).
Ravindra's team accepted there are serious problems in the present alignment
and recommended that 93 kilometers of the treacherous 125km link between Katra
and Qazigund, out of a total route length of 287km - be abandoned. But he
advocated that the large-arched bridge, to be built in an area where winds can
blow at 220km per hour, be kept in the plans. Around three billion rupees
(US$61 million) had been spent on the bridge before work was stopped.
The line, between Srinagar, summer capital of India-administered Kashmir, and
the nearest rail head in Udhampur, nearly 300km to the south, is hailed as one
of the most difficult railways lines to be built anywhere, spanning mountainous
and often uninhabitable terrain. Most of the line runs either through tunnels
(totaling 109km, the longest at 11.4km) or on bridges (783), many spanning deep
Almost half of the track passes through little-charted areas where there is no
habitation, power supply or roads.
Ravindra's recommendation is part of a war between the two powerful lobbies in
Indian Railways favoring two separate alignments.
The government suspended work on the line in September 2008 after a report by
the Bangalore-based Indian Institute of Science stated that the present
alignment of railway line is unsafe. Indian Railways proposed a new alignment
it claimed to be more secure.
Satish Kumar Vij, Railway Board Member (Engineering), the top engineering post
in Indian Railways, was instrumental in pushing for suspension of the work,
citing geological and security reasons. Vij retired on March 31, and a lobby
that wants to continue with old alignment gained strength.
Four days before retiring, Vij requested that Delhi Metro Rail Corp chief E
Sreedharan intervene in the matter. Sreedharan wrote to the government urging
it to immediately cancel the old alignment on the grounds that the line would
be unstable and going by the present pace of work it would take 20 years to
Sreedharan, already respected through his running of Delhi Metro Rail Corp, has
increasingly become a person others listen to after being among the first to
air suspicions of work linked to Satyam Computer Services when he was
consultant to the Andhra Pradesh state government for a metro project involving
Maytas, a Satyam unit. Weeks later, in January this year, it was disclosed that
Satyam had fudged its accounts to the tune of US$1 billion.
The proposed new alignment is based on a steeper gradient of 1-in-60 (a gain of
one meter height every 60 meters) compared with the earlier proposed 1-in-100.
In a bid to scuttle the change, Vij's successor, Rakesh Chopra, and Shri
Prakash, Indian Railways Board (Traffic), then ordered that the gradient should
in no circumstances exceed 1:80.
Some engineers say the proposed steeper gradient will make it extremely
difficult to run loaded freight trains, while the prospect of longer tunnels
has raised questions of access, ventilation and safety. One tunnel in the new
alignment would be 26km long.
Meanwhile, one grouping inside Indian Railways argues that the geography in
both proposed alignments is same and the existing problems will remain - so the
original line should be followed with minor modifications.
Construction is being led by two main companies, Konkan Railway and
government-controlled IRCON, involving around 50,000 people. Several foreign
companies are involved as sub-contractors, including a joint venture involving
India-based AFCONS Infrastructure, Ultra Construction and Engineering Co of
South Korea, VSL India Private Ltd, Gammon India and Archirodon construction of
Foreign consultants involved include Switzerland-based Amberg Consultancy Firm,
and Geo Consult of Austria, Consulting Kortes of Finland, and Leonhardt Andra
Und Partner, Germany.
The ambitious link has been under construction since 1994. Work speeded up in
2001 after the project was declared a national priority by New Delhi. The
federal government estimated that it would be completed by August 2007 on the
eve of India's Independence Day celebrations, but the work is nowhere near
Indian Railways is now considering the alternative route, running through
twin-tube tunnels rather than skirting the mountains and cutting the distance
by about 55km. Critics say it will push the deadline to 2025 and drive up the
project's cost to $10 billion from the present $2.5 billion.
Indian Railways had already invested more than $300 million in work done and
contracts awarded when work was stopped. Subsequent claims by contractors
following order cancellations, delayed deadlines and other legalities are set
to increase losses to $500 million if the old alignment is completely
The old alignment had a particularly difficult 140km stretch that snaked
through tunnels, across bridges or hugging landslide-prone cliffs. Building
about 350km of approach road, necessary before work could start on the actual
line, was made possible only through the help of the Indian Air Force, which
was called in to drop men and machinery to locations by helicopter. Adding to
costs, much heavy machinery had to be imported, as India lacks the necessary
As the project stuttered along, tunnels collapsed and landslides undid hard-won
progress. The executing agency, charged with drilling 200 meters of tunnel a
month, could get through only 70 meters - hence concerns the project would
require a further two decades to complete.
Indian Railways has been criticized for starting the project without surveying
the ground properly.
"What they did was they got some satellite maps of terrain, drilled at a couple
of places and okeyed the project," said a local geologist pleading anonymity as
he is not authorized to talk on the subject. "The region falls under highly
earthquake-prone zone V. Its rock structure is all dolomite and limestone,
which is fractured and is the main cause of landslides and tunnel collapses."
The area is home to three active geological fault lines.
Dithering over the railway alignment is costing more than money. More than
40,000 people across 150 villages were affected by the initial route, as
thousands of hectares of rare agricultural land was acquired with compensation
of little more than the promise of jobs and a better future thanks to the
improved links to the outside world.
"Now there is no land, no job and no train," said one villager Bhoori Ram, who
had given his land to Indian Railways.
The bureaucrats have other concerns. "The major problem is who will be
responsible for $500 million damages that will be incurred in case a new
alignment is considered," said a railway official on the condition of
As India struggles to coordinate its mega-buck project, it is not being allowed
to forget that China finished a similar high-altitude railway line in adjacent
Tibet in the remarkably short period of five years. As the Indian media have
pointed out, China started the work on the 1,142km section from Golmud to Lhasa
in 2001, just as India ordered faster work on the Kashmir railway. China
inaugurated the $3.68 billion track on July 01, 2006.
India's strategists, meanwhile, are dreaming of taking the railway line up to
the Tibetan plateau, in the Ladakh area of Indian administered Kashmir, but
given the track record in the present Kashmir project, the odds are heavily
stacked against such an adventure. The line would cost an estimated $4 billion.
In its favor, the extended line could be strategically important for India, as
it would help to supply hundreds of thousands of Indian soldiers posted in the
conflict zone of Kashmir bordering Pakistan and China. Their only transport
link at present is a single highway that is prone to landslides and is often
closed in winter.