The Indian Railways has fallen well behind on plans to urgently repair bridges even as a Special Railway Safety Fund, intended to make the fixes on a war-footing, has run out of its original time frame.
In all, the railways have not been able to finish repairs of over 148 bridges, forcing the government to now extend the safety fund’s mandate by another year.
The fund was set up in 2001, and was specifically aimed at helping deal with rejuvenation of vital railway assets, including bridges that were in urgent need of repairs.
The delay in repairing the bridges comes against the backdrop of a network that is increasingly seen as a successful turnaround of a public-sector organization, primarily on account of sharp increases in the amount of freight that is carried on the system.
Railway officials say that the dilemma and delays stem from the fact that repairs to bridges often means the entire line becomes unusable. “Bridge works are complicated because one has to ensure a regular flow of traffic even while carrying out the works,” said Thomas Varghese, general manager of southern railways.
A look at the projects for which the railways has drawn money from the safety fund suggests that some of them may not be completed even within the extended window of one year.
Take the case of Bhuswasal-Khandwa Tapti bridge in Madhya Prasesh. This line caters to three major power plants in Nashik, Bhusaval and Paras, as well as some other power plants in Gujarat. A consistent flow of rakes is critical for power plants.
But work on this important bridge has been moving at a snail’s pace, with only Rs7 crore of the anticipated cost of Rs19 crore having been spent so far.
Railway officials, who didn’t want to be named, said delays were happening because general managers in the various zones were concerned about slowing traffic on the lines.
“Bridges are the toughest among civil engineering works because it affects the working of the whole system and so it is difficult to finish these works on time" said an official at railway headquarters here.
Even the replacement of the Jubilee bridge across the Hoogly river in West Bengal is incomplete, with the railways expecting it would need to spend another Rs3 crore on top of the Rs106 crore it has spent so far.
The problem is acute in Kochi, where the ageing Venduruthy rail bridge, which links the city to the port, was hit by a dredger three weeks ago. The bridge has been declared unfit for use. Meanwhile, the construction of a new bridge, which was supposed to replace the 75-year-old bridge, had been delayed, and is now expected to take at least another year to complete. Until then, the Kochi port will not have a rail link, and freight needs to be transported by road.