On track to disaster

By ignoring sound technical advice, Konkan Railway jeopardises the fragile Western Ghats environment

By Anthony Simoes
Published: Monday 15 January 2001

-- the Konkan Railways project was supposed to have been India's most ambitious railway project of the post-independence era. But we must ask ourselves how our democratic system allowed a massive fraud of Rs 4,000 crore to be perpetrated? How a few opportunistic technocrats, bureaucrats and politicians could take the people for a ride?

The state of the Konkan Railways ( kr) , a project that runs through coastal western India, linking Mumbai to the Konkan region of Goa and Mangalore is deplorable. They called the project a dream but it has turned out to be a nightmare. They said it would be one of the wonders of the world but it has turned into a big blunder. They called it a national project but what we have is a national disaster.
On track to disaster For six days in July 2000, the entire kr was inoperative. Earlier, the Mangala Express from Nizamuddin, Delhi, to Ernakulam, Kerala, had got derailed at Canacona in Goa because of a major landslide. Fortunately, the train ran into the rubble on the track at a slow speed. Seven people were injured. On July 12, 2000, the local media again reported 30,000 cubic metre of earth and rock sliding on to the tracks, pushing them laterally by eight metres. Even as the earthmovers removed the collapsed material, more rubble slid down.

In six days in July 2000, there have been more than 50 rock-falls on the tracks between Khed in Maharashtra and Karwar in Karnataka. The beginning of June 2000 witnessed record rainfall in the Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra. This had come as the first monsoon shock of the year 2000 to the Konkan Railway Corporation ( krc) . Rocks had fallen onto the tracks at Khedshi, Bhoke and Pomendi. Boulders and mud had fallen onto the tracks near the Talwade tunnel in Lanja taluka. A 32-wagon goods train, from Mumbai to Margao, had run into the rubble fallen on the tracks, leading to the derailment of two wagons. The rail route had remained shut for nine hours and all trains running on this line were immediately halted at the nearest stations. In the Khedshi tunnel, water logging and flooding had caused water to enter the train coaches through the doors.

At some places, the embankments were washed away, leaving the tracks and sleepers dangling in the air. Due to the tremendous damage suffered by the kr the rail line was closed to traffic for five days at a stretch.

The krc officials blame it all on the heavy rainfall and the laetrile soil. But are these explanations valid? In the Konkan, this kind of monsoon is a common occurrence. The lateritic soil could have been avoided by planning the route through the hinterland, along the lower contours of the existing terrain. This was the original plan, as given to the krc by the Indian Railways' experts.

B y choosing to ignore the Indian Railway Engineering Code, krc has dug its own grave. My only objection is why should they bury others in it?

Whenever trains pass through a mountainous terrain, it demands building the track by carving out valleys in the mountain formation. This is called cutting. The krc computers were programmed to insert tunnels wherever the cutting depth in mountains exceeded 18 metres. But at one point on the track, in Goa, the krc has constructed a 25-metre cutting because they were afraid to tunnel through the weathered lateritic soil, which gets waterlogged and acts as a water reservoir for the dry season. They have compounded their ignorance and arrogance by ignoring their own computer software.

Now, they claim that the people should expect some failures for five years or so. They know that public memory is short. The krc also knows that its core competence was never railroad construction. It's always been adept at making tall claims, managing public relations and manipulating the media. Corruption and the misuse of public money too have not been beyond their purview.
Incidents or accidents? Where are the krc top brass like E. Shreedharan, Ambi Krishnaswamy Somnathan, S.V. Salelkar and B. Rajaram, those responsible for this entire fiasco? They wielded tremendous authority when they were constructing this abortion of a railroad. They should be made accountable for the disaster. Since the so-called 'commissioning' of the Konkan Railway on January 26, 1998, krc has been dogged by a series of disasters.On the day of the commissioning itself the first train derailed near a tunnel. It delayed the prime minister, three chief ministers and the other dignitaries by five hours. The media of course did not mention anything about the accident while reporting the 'dedication' of the railway.

In the two-and-half years since January 1998, the krc has witnessed over 400 rock-falls, embankment washouts, cases of collapsing tunnels and derailments. The krc and the media are so used to these occurrences that they no longer call them accidents. These are now referred to as mere 'incidents'. And only when people die or are injured are these 'incidents' reported.

Technical problems
Why did this much-hyped railroad turn out to be such a pathetic example of civil engineering? There are many technical reasons for this. One of them being that krc ignored the basic tenets of the Indian Railways' engineering code. The krc top brass became victim of its hubris. They almost always went in for high-tech solutions. The result was avoidable high costs. The alignment, based on a location survey, given to the krc by earlier railway officials had 28 kilometre (km) of tunnels and 23 km of bridges. The krc drew up its own route map which now has 88 km of tunnels and 89 km of bridges.

This difference literally ruined the kr even before it began. Tunnels and bridges generally cost 15-20 times more than embankments and cuttings. They also call for different skills and are time-consuming besides being dangerous. The krc made the impossible promise of completing its project in four years. This created all kinds of ecological problems. For example, they used explosives to open the cuttings. The soil was predominately weathered laterite, it developed deep fissures, this made the cutting highly unstable and unsafe to work in. Even today the rainwater filling up these fissures tend to destabilise the cutting, resulting in slippages at regular intervals. krc tried to evade explanations by blaming these collapses on the half a dozen mild tremors experienced in the first half of the year 2000. The epicentre of these quakes was 300-500 km away from where incidences of rock falls occurred.

The alignment chosen by the experts had avoided the 6.5 km long Karbudhe tunnel and the 67 metre tall Panvel nadi viaduct in Maharashtra. krc contracted firms like Larsen and Toubro for both these massive jobs and also added 16 new tunnels in the Ratnagiri stretch. Similarly experts had advised 10 tunnels in Goa with a total length of 3.4 km. Today the Barcem tunnel in Goa alone is 3.4 km long.

Because of the judicious choice of alignment, the railway experts had envisioned a 213 metre long bridge across the Zuari river in Goa. The krc chose such a poor location that they had to build a bridge with a total length of 1.8 km. The Mandovi bridge today is 20 times longer than that suggested.

The present alignment instead of using the lower contours of the hilly hinterland has come into the low-lying coastal plains. The embankments have to be built at a height in soft soil paddy fields that are sometimes below sea level. The high embankments in soft soil make a perfect recipe for disaster. Then, tunnels and bridges have all been built for single tracks. There are 92 tunnels and about 2,000 bridges that prevent construction of two-track railroad. The end result is that trains have to be run at slow speeds. Every time a train encounters another train on the track, one of them has to be taken on a siding. Leave alone the goods trains, even passenger trains are at risk due to the sinking embankments. In dozens of places men are deployed to patrol the tracks and warn the train drivers of oncoming trains. This is krc's high-tech response -- a manual early warning system.

krc had promised 120 trains per day on these tracks. Today they can run only 15 trains per day. Things will grow worse. As wear and tear increases, the operation and maintenance costs will go through the roof. The people will end up paying for the goof ups. Sometimes with their lives.

The author is a cost engineer working for the Goa Foundation

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