Geokno (GMR Group) wins bid for Aerial LiDAR Survey of 500-km Bilaspur-Manali-Leh Railway Line

Its a double win this week for Geokno (GMR Group) having secured bids pertaining to two prestigious Aerial LiDAR Survey projects of the country – one being the 500 Km Bilaspur-Manali-Leh Railway Line and the other being the 571 Km Thiruvananthapuram-Kasaragod semi-HSR deal. The strategically significant 500-km BML Rail line will be the World’s Highest when complete and is scheduled to be operational by 2022. Geokno will be using Helicopter for LiDAR Survey of the entire corridor.

NEW DELHI/HYDERABADMove over Qinghai-Tibet Railway. By 2022, India hopes to snatch the record for the world’s highest railway line. At a height of 5,360 metres above the sea level, the 500-km Bilaspur-Manali-Leh broad-gauge line is one of the four crucial rail lines that the Indian Railways is building to fortify the country’s border with China. Tourists, too, have a lot to look forward to since this all-weather railway line will halve the travel time between Delhi and Leh to 20 hours.

The tender for the aerial LiDAR survey on the proposed alignment of the project published by Indian Railways had undergone multiple technical and pre-qualification criteria, and M/s Geokno India Pvt Ltd (an IIT-Kanpur spin off, eventually taken over by GMR Group) had successfully won the bid in the open tender scenario for conducting the Helicopter based Aerial LiDAR Survey over the proposed route.

Bilaspur(Himachal Pradesh)–Manali–Leh line is a proposed high-elevation all-weather 1,676 mm (5 ft 6 in) broad gauge railway track that is planned to connect Bilaspur in Himachal Pradesh to Leh in Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir state of India. It would link to the Indian railways network via an extension of the Kangra Valley Railway to Mandi, which would be converted to 1,676 mm (5 ft 6 in) broad gauge. It would become the highest railway track in the world, overtaking the current record of the Qinghai–Tibet Railway. The Railway Budget 2011-2012 announced that the project would be taken up in the next year’s budget. The next year’s Railway Budget announced that the project was sent to the Planning Commission for appraisal. As of September 2016, Northern Railways has begun the process of acquiring land for setting up office in Leh.

The requirement of Railway line to Leh from Bilaspur via Manali was first ideated by the Himachal Pradesh State Government. After thoroughly understanding the commercial, economic and defence perspectives, the state government had approached the Government of India to extend railway connectivity from Bilaspur to Leh through Mandi, Manali and Keylong. This would increase not only tourism in Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh but also facilitate quicker movement of troops and equipment to the geographically most difficult part of India. Following an examination of the feasibility report for the proposed Bilaspur–Manali–Leh Railway line, the Ministry of Railways forwarded the recommendation to the then Planning Commission of India for its approval.

Subsequently, Office of the Chief Administrative Officer/Construction of the Northern Railway had been assigned with the task of construction of this most challenging Railway line. The tender for the route survey for the project had been done published and M/s Geokno India Pvt Ltd (an IIT-Kanpur spin off, eventually taken over by GMR Group) had participated in the open tender and won the deal for conducting the Helicopter based Aerial LiDAR Survey over the proposed route. As part of the job, Geokno would be undertaking the job using LiDAR technology (Aerial mode) for the Survey of the entire section to retrieve the complete Digital Elevation Model, Digital Terrain Model, Digital Surface Model, L-Sections, C-Sections, contour, topographical mapping, vegetation mapping under the forest regions, hydrographic/sonar/bathemetric surveys wherever required and submit the processed Geographical Data to Railways for engineering design of the entire length and lateral construction activity. It may be pertinent here to note that M/s Geokno had also earlier bagged and successfully completed the aerial LiDAR Survey for the 510 Km Ahmedabad-Mumbai Bullet Train corridor.

Initial estimates peg the cost of the Bilaspur-Manali-Leh line at Rs 83,360 crore. This is the most difficult project undertaken by the railways, which wants it to be declared a national project since the railway line will help the armed forces as well as lead to the socio-economic development of the region. The advantage here is that a major chunk of the project funding will be borne by the central government.

The project will include 74 tunnels, 124 major bridges and 396 minor bridges, according to the first phase of the survey. In fact, 52% of the 500-km length will pass through tunnels, the longest of which would be 27 km long. The line will also boast India’s first railway station inside a tunnel – the Keylong railway station in Himachal Pradesh.

As many as four mountain passes – Rohtang La, Barlacha La, Lachung La and Taglang La, ranging between 3,976 mts and 5,360 mts – will be connected by this line. The highest railway station on this line, and globally, will be the Taglang La railway station reportedly at 5,359 mt above sea level.

The world’s highest, Bilaspur-Manali-Leh rail line, which is scheduled for completion by 2022, will have coaches specially built for high altitude with an oxygen mask for every passenger. The Railways plans to use aircraft-like pressurised coaches in its trains for this line – another first – to maintain the oxygen levels. This is to ensure that passengers do not face breathing difficulties on board given the high altitudes covered in the journey. Such coaches are currently used only in China’s Qinghai-Tibet Railway Line, with its highest point at an altitude of 5,072 mts.

The coaches will also boast heaters since the temperatures in winter can fall to well below freezing point.

Last year, the railways proposed to start work on the 51-km long section between Upshi in Himachal Pradesh and Phe in Leh immediately. This stretch boasts a gentler gradient compared to the rest of the project and is expected to take two years for completion at an estimated cost of Rs 5,000 crore.

The line, once completed, will connect important locations between Bilaspur and Leh like Sundernagar, Mandi, Manali, Keylong, Koksar, Darcha, Karu and other important towns of Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir en route. When complete, trains on Bilaspur-Manali-Leh line will run at a speed of 75 kmph. It will reduce the distance between Delhi to Leh from the present 40 hours to 20 hours.

The other three strategic rail lines are Pasighat-Tezu-Parsuram Kund-Rupai that would stretch for 227 km, North Lakhimpur-Bame (Along)-Silapathar ( 249 km) and Missamari-Tenga-Tawang (378 km). The construction of all the four lines is expected to cost more than Rs 2 lakh crore.

Strategic importance

Once this railway line is completed, Leh will be directly connected to Himachal Pradesh and the rest of India by railway. The distance between Bilaspur and Leh will be about 500 km. When the railway lines to Bilaspur and then to Leh are completed, the time taken to reach Leh from Delhi will be reduced to less than two days compared to about four days by the existing highway from Manali. Personnel and equipment will be transported more easily to Leh, a strategic military base. This is one of the four important railway connectivity along China border identified by the Defence Ministry.

Challenges

Indian Railways had initially estimated that the entire project is estimated to cost INR 22,318 Crore. The railways are short of funds to the extent of more than four hundred billion rupees for the existing projects in hand as of 2013.

The Bhanupalli (Punjab) to Bilaspur rail link is currently under construction but almost no progress was made as of 2013. There has been a demand to lay the railway line to Bilaspur from Kalka railhead instead of laying it from Bhanupalli. Therefore, the alignment and the fate of the proposed railway line to Leh is very uncertain. After Jammu–Baramulla line, Bilaspur–Manali–Leh line will be the most challenging railway project in Indian Railways due to high mountains, a large number of tunnels and high bridges and severe cold weather. According to the survey report, cost of construction of this 500 km (309 mi) long all weather broad gauge railway line has been calculated at Rs 83,360 crore with a negative rate of return of 4.46%.

The 500 km Bilaspur-Manali-Leh rail project has been expedited and the Final Location Survey for this is been undertaken at a cost of Rs.345 crore. The railway had requested the LAHDC to provide adequate land for setting up a camp office, and the required infrastructure. In April 2017, Government said that the Final location Survey (FSL) for these will be completed by the October 2020. In June 2017, foundation stone was laid for final location survey by the then Railway Minister Shri Suresh Prabhakar Prabhu.

Taglang La Railway Station

Taglang La railway station at Taglang La is expected to become the highest railway station in the world at 5,359 m (17,582 ft) above the sea level overtaking the current record of Tanggula Railway Station in Qinghai, China at 5,086 m (16,686 ft).

Indian Railways, before manufacturing these Coaches, will study the specification of coaches used in the Qinghai-Tibet rail line in China. The Qinghai-Tibet rail line in China is at an elevation of 2,000 metres above sea level. The coaches will be pressurised and will not have sleeper class. Moreover, there will be heaters in every coach since temperatures will fall below freezing point. Additionally, in order to keep the service running, the national transporter is also working to tackle challenges such as landslides, cloudbursts and avalanche.

Another railway official who is part of the project said that the railways will have the equipment to clear snow immediately. As 50% of the railway track is going to be underground, the railways is not expecting interruption even during extreme weather conditions. The official further added that even if the need arises to close the section, it will not be for more than 2 to 3 hours.

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