नई दिल्ली New Delhi: In a jolt to the ambitious project of building the world’s highest mega-arch bridge on river Chenab on the long-pending rail link to the Kashmir valley, an official committee headed by E Sreedharan has expressed “serious reservations on the safety and stability of this bridge”.
In its report submitted to railway minister Suresh Prabhu on February 4, the four-member committee unanimously said that “on this score alone, we are unable to endorse” the critical section across the Himalayan barrier from Katra to Banihal leading to Kashmir.
Though it was touted as a “signature bridge” for what was declared in 2002 by the then Prime Minister A B Vajpayee as a “national project”, the committee gave eight reasons regarding the 359-metre high bridge’s “inadequate” safety factor. The 31-page report underscores the dangers posed to the mega-arch bridge by earthquakes, landslides and the proximity to the line of control.
“If this bridge is damaged, its restoration will take a minimum of five to six years ,” the committee observed. “As a result, the link to Kashmir Valley may remain disrupted for years together,” it said in its report. This damning expert opinion comes at a time when railway engineers have not been able to start constructing even the foundation of the mega-arch.
The unviability of the mega-arch is a major reason why the Katra-Banihal section, originally due to be executed by 2007, is nowhere near completion even after Rs 4,000 crore has so far been spent. The committee, therefore, recommended the scrapping of the present alignment of 126km between Katra and Banihal, skirting along the mountain slopes and geological fault lines.
The alternative it suggested is a shorter and straighter alignment of 70km cutting through the mountain ranges, shifting the location of the Chenab bridge from the gorge to the floor of the valley and thereby reducing its height from 359 metres to 120 metres.
Designed by railways’ chief engineer Alok Verma, the alternative alignment “cutting across mountain ranges and folds at right angles or near right angles and tucked deep into the mountains away from dangerous slopes,” the committee said, “is the right solution”.
The committee went on to say that this steeper gradient alignment was “undoubtedly superior” on considerations of “constructability, stability, survivability, safety in train operations, quick and easy evacuation of passengers from tunnels, saving travel time, more capacity, etc.”
Though the practicability of Verma’s alignment was being questioned by the engineers engaged in the project, the committee found it to be “a practical and adoptable alignment, which could set the trend for similar railway projects being contemplated by the government in the Himalayan region”. It added that “the new proposed line can be constructed faster and possibly at a lesser cost than what it would take for the balance works on the existing alignment to be completed”.
In a stinging indictment of the railway board, the Sreedharan committee said that if “the present pattern and style of implementation is followed”, the project already delayed by eight years, would not be completed “by any stretch of imagination” in another eight years. It said that “if the government wants to complete the project early, the present system and style of construction management will have to be changed”.
Accordingly, the committee recommended that the execution of the new alignment be “entrusted to a dedicated, fully government-owned company” which can take decisions on its own without any reference to the railway board. Without mentioning Sreedharan’s association with Konkan Railway, the committee recalled that a similar set up had been successfully tried for executing the project along the Western Ghats.