Delhi HC gives centre 1 month to reply on alleged faulty Rail Line in J&K

Rail link to J&K may just have turned more distant as High Court concerned about safety of Katra-Banihal section. Delhi High Court orders for a stringent investigation and action against the officials involved in construction of Katra-Banihal Rail line.

New Delhi: The dream of an unbroken rail link between Jammu & Kashmir and the rest of the country became a bit more distant with the HC on Monday expressing serious concern about the safety of the alignment being pursued by the government on the Katra-Banihal section. The Delhi High Court today gave the centre one month to spell out its stand on the contentious Katra-Banihal railway line. The court which was hearing a petition by the Centre for Public Interest Litigation (CPIL) seeking a realignment of the existing track due to safety considerations, today said that “it’s only concern was the safety of citizens and not the cost” .

It asked the railways to change the alignment of the 124 km section, running through the Himalayas, as suggested by an Expert Committee headed by former Delhi Metro Chief E.Sreedharan.  The railways, according to sources at Rail Bhavan, had rejected the report submitted in February, saying it was too late to change it. They had already spent Rs 10,000 crore on the 124 km section in question over last 13 years – already running eight years behind schedule.

Speaking on behalf of CPIL, senior advocate Prashant Bhushan drew attention of the court to audio recordings of a review meeting of the rail project in which a former senior officer who was incharge of the project is heard saying “Do you want to go back and tell him (the PM) it’s a national project, he will have to be consulted and cabinet will have to be consulted, will you go and tell sir we b****** well made a serious mistake! Can we afford to say this?”

Reacting to this, the Delhi High Court observed “there was a different PM then and today, there is a new PM , so why should they be afraid of him?”.

The Udhampur to Baramulla rail link is the railways most ambitious project however it has been dogged with problems and is eight years behind schedule with a huge cost escalation from an initial 1,500 crores to 20,000 crores.

In February this year, an expert committee headed by Dr E Sreedharan, Delhi’s former metro chief had, in a scathing indictment of the ongoing project, said that it was unable endorse the current project due to “reservations about the survivability of the present alignment” and “particularly the arch bridge across the Chenab”

The Delhi High Court today said that “this route is not as safe and must be considered in the wake of the recent events in Nepal”. The court has also asked the government to spell out its stand on the issue and asked the centre to file an affidavit in a month’s time.

The report had endorsed the new alignment, saying that “the biggest concern regarding the existing alignment is the poor survivability of the tunnels, bridges and cuttings against the threats of landslides, earthquakes, and the security risks arising out of the nearness of the line to the LOC.”

The Court castigated the Indian Railways for their lack of concern over safety issues. When the railways, represented by Additional Solicitor General Maninder Singh, argued that so much money had already been spent and it was not feasible to change alignment at this late stage, the Court said that it did not want “railways to throw good money after bad.”

Some of the bridges and tunnel portals on the section had already collapsed. The alignment envisaged 62 tunnels, 96 bridges and nine stations. One of the most challenging parts of the section was to be the 1.35 km-long mega arch bridge across river Chenab. Sreedharan had pointed out in the report that “the foundations of the arch are located on the steep slopes on geologically weak rocks dipping towards river bed on Qazigund end.” He also found it to be a security risk.

If the railways accept the new alignment, they will have to carry out extensive geological investigations on ground with new location surveys and bridge designs.

The bench, headed by Justice Badar Ahmed, was hearing the PIL filed by Prashant Bhushan’s Centre for Public Interest Litigation. Bhushan sought implementation of the Sreedharan report by the railways. He told that the government should not hesitate to change the alignment when it was clear that the existing alignment was not safe.

The section, part of the railways’ most ambitious Udhampur-Srinagar-Baramulla-Rail Link (USBRL) project, was flagged off by Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2002 with a deadline of five years for completion. The Katra (in Jammu) and Banihal (in Kashmir) is the most critical and technically most challenging section.