Oversight derails Kashmir rail link

Oversight derails Kashmir rail link

New Delhi: A high-profile railway line to connect Kashmir with the rest of India is coming undone as it appears to have been rushed through without any geological surveys, resulting in significant delays and project costs that have already soared more than threefold to Rs11,000 crore from the original Rs3,000 crore estimate.

Several railway experts blame a fundamental oversight—lack of a detailed geological survey of the terrain—for the troubled project, as several key tunnels have collapsed even as they are being built, and other sections waterlogged.

The ambitious effort was sanctioned in phases beginning with the Udhampur-Katra line in 1995 and ending with the clearance for the Qatra-Qazigund section in 2002. The railway line was declared a national project in 2002 by then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. This meant that the project would have access to additional funds as and when required without any budgetary constraints. A deadline for 2007 was also set by the Vajpayee government.

But it now appears that the project may cost a lot more than the current estimate and could go well past the already delayed start date of 2012.

The aim of the Jammu-Udhampur-Baramulla rail link project was to link the northern most state of India with the rest of the country. The project, apart from helping people travel by train to Kashmir, was to also help in reducing freight costs of goods that are transported in and out of the state. Jammu and Kashmir is totally dependent on roads, which are often unusable for days during winters.

In the past 18 months, there have been at least three instances of railway tunnels, which were under construction, collapsing as the soil gave way under pressure. And at several other tunnels, workers and engineers were exasperated to find that the stretch they had blasted and drilled through for days getting waterlogged, preventing more work.

For a project in which 120km out of the total 292km of railway line, or 41% of the length, is expected to be in the form of tunnels—including India’s longest rail tunnel of 11km at Banihal—the inability to drill through the mountains spells trouble.

Several officers associated with the project said that in a hurry to get the line going, the railway ministry abandoned one of the most basic rules of construction: survey, plan and only then begin constructing.

“If detailed surveys for the project had been done, we would at least have known about the kind of hurdles we could expect with reasonable certainty," said J.P. Batra, who was chairman of the Railway Board until a couple of months ago.

Says another former railway officer, who headed the Railway Board: “The project was announced as a national project in 2002 during the Vajpayee regime and the government also promised to run trains through Kashmir by 2007. Once the announcement was made, the Railway Board then was in a hurry to show results rather than take a holistic view."

Railway Board chairman K.C. Jena, who took charge earlier this month, said he was yet to look specifically into the railway project in Kashmir.

“I will be reviewing the project when I visit Northern Railways and we will definitely be studying this issue," he said.

In a recent answer to a question in Parliament, R. Velu, minister of state for railways, said the reason for the galloping costs of the project was that “detailed survey could not be completed due to highly difficult, inaccessible terrain and adverse condition/situation of the area." He also said earlier estimates were prepared on the basis of aerial photographs.

Ironically, it appears that the current problems stem from the railways trying to lay track in precisely the same area that the minister said was too difficult to even survey.

The railways has also appointed an Austrian consultant for one particular tunnel in the Jammu-Udhampur stretch and has recently called for a tender inviting tunnelling consultants for some other stretches in the more difficult terrain of Reasi, in the Katra-Qazigund stretch. Meanwhile, the deadline for this 148km stretch has been pushed to 2012.

A former chief of the Konkan Railways, which is executing the 93km long Katra-Laole section of the project for the railways, said he had, during his days in office, prepared a report suggesting that a geological survey be done at the earliest. “The report also said that the line passes through a geological faultline, which meant that extra care should be taken...," he said. “The report said that the project should be studied in terms of vulnerability to earthquakes, too."

The report was submitted by a committee constituted under this officer and comprising experts from the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, NTPC Ltd, and the National Hydroelectric Power Corp. Ltd, all of whom have some experience in tunnelling in Kashmir. “However, the board merely accepted the report and did not act on it," said this officer.

Meanwhile, engineers working on the project are worried about the safety of their workers. Says an officer who was present when a railway crew blasted through rock in Udhampur to construct a tunnel and found it was waterlogged: “What was worrying was that loose material (stone and rock-like substances) was flowing down the sides of the cave with the water."

Northern Railways general manager Sriprakash, who goes only by one name, said, “We are confident of doing justice to the project schedules, despite the problems."