Railways’ Himalayan Blunder


No groundwork, flawed planning, bureaucratic ego tussles, all contributed to make the Kashmir rail link a failed project costing crores to the exchequer. Sai Manish reports

Tunnel vision Partly collapsed portal of a tunnel. A testament to the loss
Tunnel vision Partly collapsed portal of a tunnel. A testament to the loss

CHINA CONNECTED Lhasa in Tibet to Golmud in its Western Qinghai province in five years. By 2013, it will extend the same line to Zhangmu on its border with Nepal. But in India, the Kashmir rail link sanctioned by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA government in 2002 has seen less than 10 percent work completed.

Besides difficult terrain, progress on the crucial rail link has been stymied by fissures within the Railway Board. By the board’s own admission, the most crucial and challenging part of the project — the 126 km rail link from Katra in Jammu to Qazigund, close to the famous Jawahar tunnel, which leads to the Kashmir Valley — finds itself in such a mess that it may take another 15 years to complete. As of date, with only 10 percent of the work done, the route is littered with tunnel collapses, slope failures and bureaucratic roadblocks.

The line is being built in the imposing Pir Panjal mountain range. Called the middle Himalayas, the geology of the mighty ranges has bushwhacked the railways. What is worse is that realisation dawned late on the railways about many of the structural flaws in the project, in fact, so late in some cases, that work had to be abandoned. And after a good nine years of starting work, it’s back to the drawing board for the railways to redesign almost three-fourths of this crucial link.

TEHELKA studied documents, records, judgments, minutes of meetings and met several retired officers associated with the project to understand how such a critical railway link came to be in such disarray. Inadequate planning, ego clashes, red tapism, power play and an utter failure to grasp the challenges on the ground led to a situation where work came to a standstill. RR Jaruhar, former Railway Board member, was caught on record telling an expert committee during a brainstorming session: “Can you go and tell the PM that we made a serious mistake? Can you afford to say that?”

There have been many Himalayan blunders along the way that have made the project come to this stasis. First, Northern Railways started work without any geological mapping, ground surveys or consultation with companies that had executed a project of such magnitude elsewhere in the world.

Second, there were differing perceptions of safety, especially of tunnels and bridges. And it is still not sure about the skirting slope method employed, with repeated tunnel collapses.


The Kashmir rail link project was conceived by the NDA government in 2002

The link was designated as a project of national importance with no cost to be spared

Net progress of the project so far is 5 percent. The work should have been completed by 2007

93 of the total 126 km, ie threefourths of the work, has been abandoned due to tunnel collapses and faulty alignments

69 portals (where the train exits a tunnel) are on blind curves

Total face value of the contracts awarded was Rs 4,000 crore. Contracts worth Rs 1,500 crore were terminated due to delays

Konkan Railway and IRCON, PSUs involved in the project, admit that they started construction without any ground survey

Chief Engineer AK Verma was transferred when he raised concerns about the handling of this critical link

Railway Board members did not change their plan for fear of incurring the PM’s wrath

The revised deadline is now 2017. Railway engineers say even that is not feasible

Third, engineers cast doubts on the alignments chosen by the railways — the Delhi High Court observed that certain board members attempted to subdue their voices. Finally, there has been great reluctance on the part of the Railway Board to retrospect and learn from tragedies of the past. Even the Chinese spent 17 years planning the Tibet line and then the next five executing it. The Railway Board continued its ‘plan as you build’ assumption leading to pilferage and safety hazards.

Then there is the financial aspect. The PSUs executing these projects —Konkan Railway Corporation Ltd (KRCL) and Indian Railway Construction Company (IRCON)— were assured a 10 percent profit margin. This, according to Railway Board member AK Verma, led to a situation where the cost estimates have been inflated by local contractors by as much as three times, with claims close to Rs 1,500 crore pending when work amounting to only Rs 450 crore has been done on the ground.

Click to zoom

In 2002, the Vajpayee government,smarting under the Kargil intrusion and the Parliament attack, had reviewed various strategic projects across the country to facilitate troop mobilisation. The Kashmir rail link, designated as a ‘project of national importance’, was supposed to be operational within five years. Northern Railways took up the challenge of executing the project and roped in three PSUs — IRCON, KRCL and Rail India Technical and Economic Services (RITES) — for design, construction and survey. However, in spite of the expertise available, no fresh field surveys were undertaken to study the topography of the treacherous Katra- Qazigund section.

ACCORDING TO Verma, construction was started on the basis of a 15-year-old survey done by Consultant Combine in 1985. Northern Railways decided to stick to the rule book for building a railway track in a terrain that was classified as Zone V seismic area. The area has deep gorges, highly unstable steep slopes and snowclad peaks. Failure to adapt to such conditions made them choose an alignment (or gradient or slope) of 1:100 for the entire stretch cutting across the Pir Panjal mountains. This means that for every 100 metre of travel, you gain a height of 1 metre. A gradient of 1:50 or 1:40, therefore, is much steeper, indicating that you have to travel much less to reach the same height.

‘Can you go back and tell the PM that Sir, we made a mistake?’
RR Jaruhar, Former Railway Board member
‘Alignment is unstable and high bridges are vulnerable to terror attacks’
E Sreedharan, Chairman, DMRC

At the time the work started, Rakesh Chopra was the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) of the Kashmir rail link project. Almost one year after commencement, B Rajaram, MD, KRCL in a letter dated 19 September 2009, wrote to Chopra expressing fears about the project. “Calling of tenders and committing national resources without a proper ground reconnaissance and on the basis of partial surveys and ground details is causing serious concern to me. We may end up with infructuous expenditure and at the same time are not even giving the nation a true picture in terms of either time or cost,” the letter said. “I see no reason why a steeper gradient of 1:50 cannot be managed when our surveys have shown that it would reduce the distance by one-fourth and lead to a saving of at least Rs 3,000 crore.” The letter highlights one instance when the issue was flagged at the beginning of the project. Intervention at that stage would have meant that the damage could have been repaired and at a far lesser cost.

But since KRCLwas just a contractor for Northern Railways, there was no obligation to even consider Rajaram’s views. Work was carried on in the same manner. Chopra defends his decision of not going in for a review in the early stages. “I don’t think Rajaram raised any safety concerns,” he told TEHELKA. “He wanted to go in for a steeper gradient of 1:60, 1:40, etc. Now my problem with that was that if we go with that gradient, we need a catch-and-slip sliding. Konkan Railways flouted railway rules by not factoring that in. But I was in no mood to break rules at that point of time. If we had to construct catch-andslips, we would have had to acquire more land — you need catch-and-slips for a kilometre on either side. With 10 stations, it would have added up to 40-50 km to the length of the line.”

A tunnel portal 2 km from the Chenab. The hill collapsed after work had been completed Site of a collapsed tunnel 1 km from the bridge over the Chenab Collapsed tunnel portal at Tunnel No. 1 near Katra

It might be wise to remember at this stage that this rule dated back to 1968, when catch-and-slip slidings were mandatory for gradients steeper than 1:80. Modern-day wagons have air brakes, regenerative braking systems and disc brakes that are designed to arrest the downward slide of an out-of-control train. The expert committee formed to review the alignment in 2007 had also mentioned that the Research Designs and Standards Organisation (RDSO) of the railways was planning to do away with slidings.

Meanwhile, KRCL, executing the Katra- Banihal rail line, was on a reckless contractawarding frenzy. This hastiness would cost it dear when it started work on a stretch with 62 tunnels and 96 bridges. Between 2005 and 2007, five tunnels collapsed while boring through the Pir Panjal. Additionally, a landslide wreaked havoc and the railways was forced to abandon a 1,000-metre stretch between two tunnels.

After all this tunnel trouble, a bureaucratic witch-hunt ensued. Chief Engineer AK Verma decided to oppose the entire plan calling for a complete change in alignment and reviewing the entire project for its safety. His first opposition to localised changes in alignment was made in December 2005. Interestingly, in a letter to RR Jaruhar, promoted as Member Engineering of the Railway Board, Rakesh Chopra, who had been opposed to contractors calling the shots in the decision process, decided to approve the localised changes proposed by KRCL.

‘Sreedharan’s views on the Kashmir rail link made very little sense at that time’
Rakesh Chopra, ex-CAO, Northern RailwaysAgainst
‘There is no point in moving in the same direction when it will not take us to our goal’
SK Vij, former member, Railway Board

In November 2007, Verma, who was not associated with the project any more, was called to make a presentation by the Railway Board. In that, Verma slammed the current planning. He contended that the present alignment of 1:100 and the way in which KRCL and IRCON’s contractors were executing the work seriously jeopardised safety, security and comfort. He stressed that the gradient be changed to 1:50 with 1:44 on some stretches of the Katra-Banihal rail line.

Verma’s views had an impact on then Member, Engineering, SK Vij and CAO, Northern Railway, BP Khare. Even as all these bureaucrats were deliberating on the basics almost five years after the project started, KRCL and IRCON continued construction in a haphazard and unplanned manner. The bills of their contractors were piling up. According to Verma, out of the Rs 704 crore of claims that KRCL had accumulated from its contractors, Rs 600 crore pertained to the stretch where several of the major collapses had taken place. KRCL and IRCON were finally forced to abandon work because their contractors refused to do work till their dues were paid.

Another collapsed tunnel closer to the Chenab bridge site High slope cutting in at Anji, where the tunnel of the left bank collapsed Site near Sangaldan where an under-construction tunnel collapsed

VERMA WAS sent on administrative training first and then transferred to South Eastern Railways — a move that even the Delhi HC has said was done with mala fide intentions. So bitter was the bureaucratic war that a note highlighting the safety hazards of the current plan sent by Vij and incorporating Verma’s views was removed from the office of then Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee in 2009, allegedly by those opposing their concerns.

In this bitter boardroom war, the PSUs entrusted with the work too were bungling. By 2009, they realised that they were headed for serious trouble. While IRCONwanted a change in the alignment to 1:60 at various stretches for a total of 10.2 km, KRCLwanted 15.64 km to have a steeper gradient. This request for local changes were just the beginning as both entities also mentioned that they would be forced to make more changes as they completed surveys along the route.

This was actually déjà vu. Even on 15 July 2008, all work on the Kashmir rail link along the Katra-Banihal alignment was stopped till the time an expert committee filed its report on the progress. To make matters worse, the railway ministry under Lalu Prasad took another four months to even approve the appointment of a new chairman. Finally, a committee was formed with retired Rail Board Chairman N Ravindra as its head. It submitted its report to the Railway Board on 10 June 2009. The report said that it did not see any reason to change the alignment.

‘Railways will be announcing to the world that we were wrong. We can’t afford that’
Anurag Mishra, Former MD, KRCLAgainst
‘I have been victimised for pointing out an impending disaster’
AK Verma, CE, Northern Railway

Interestingly on 19 May, a month before the expert committee gave its final report, ‘Metro Man’ E Sreedharan had written to Ravindra expressing shock at the technicals. “The resultant alignment will not be stable and the high bridges will be highly vulnerable from the security point of view,” he wrote. “The project will take another 20 years and the cost will go up four-five times. Not only can the length of tunnelling be brought down, but the number of bridges and total haulage length can also be reduced. However, that would necessitate a ruling gradient of 1:40.” Sreedharan’s words had no impact on the board. In its final report, it decided to place a limit of 1:80 with a few exceptions and also appointed Amberg Engineering, a Swiss construction company, to review the present alignment and suggest localised changes.

“I respect Mr Sreedharan personally. But I don’t think he has any knowledge of either the geology or the requirements in Kashmir,” Rakesh Chopra explained to TEHELKA. “I had consulted him in 2002- 03 when the project had started as I considered him to be my mentor. He was talking from the experience he had with Konkan Railway. Now, Konkan and Kashmir are totally different in terms of geology and requirements. I can’t stop a person from writing a letter but to my mind Sreedharan’s letter did not make much sense at that time.”

Other officials shared this view and were loathe to accommodate anything to the contrary. “I was always in favour of 1:100 alignment with minor variations. Verma and Sreedharan raised doubts that were considered in the expert committee meeting,” says Jaruhar, former Rail Board member who was part of the committee. “But we abandoned them due to unfeasibility. I agree there was little planning but the positive side is that we were the men who had the courage to go into that inhospitable terrain to start the work.”

After Amberg was given the brief to review the line, it submitted its final report on 29 March 2010 in which it suggested abandoning 94.7 km of the Katra-Banihal link. In effect, this would have meant abandoning 76 percent of the total work done on the line.

No lesson learnt The Alps Transit project in Switzerland has two tunnels with escape routes every 300 metres
No lesson learnt The Alps Transit project in Switzerland has two tunnels with escape routes every 300 metres

In a letter to the secretary of the Rail Board on 27 April 2011, Verma wrote that the main reason for the poor quality of work done by Amberg was that its engineers and geologists did not visit the tunnel and bridge locations in Kashmir, preferring to make a paper alignment based on satellite maps. Within days of Amberg giving its report, the contract was closed. The railways were again in a fix. Worse, IRCON was asked in September 2009 to fix the alignment on the ground within three months, a job that took 18 months.

Between the indecision and the delays, a renewed attempt was being made to get the project back on track. Verma was vociferously opposed to the current alignment because apart from being a more serpentine route, it had security implications. The changes proposed by Verma would reduce everything — number of curved tunnels, high bridges, even the cost — by around Rs 10,000 crore.

CM Omar Abdullah tweeted: ‘Katra to be opened along with Banihal in 2013. Let’s wait and see’

THERE ARE few examples of international projects constructed with similar challenges. The only worthwhile comparison of the Kashmir rail link would be with the Alps Transit project in Switzerland where two single- track tunnels exist instead of one. Both the Gotthard and the Lotschberg tunnels have an escape route every 300 metres to the adjoining tunnel. In the event of a derailment inside a tunnel it is easier to rescue people and save lives. In the present Kashmir rail link, with its mind-boggling curved tunnels, there is no escape route. The expert committee failed to learn from the Swiss example and only suggested a small road along the tunnels to be used by railway personnel and a few helipads. Both measures are aimed at retrieving the dead rather than minimising casualties or speeding up rescue in the event of a derailment inside a tunnel.

The rail link could have been the pride of India. But now, nobody is sure when it will see the light of day even though 2017 has been fixed as the new deadline. And although the present state of the project has not inspired confidence in those who have seen its progress, J&K CM Omar Abdullah tweeted: “Katra to be opened along with Banihal in 2013. Now let’s wait and see.”

What should bother India more is that China with its technological prowess and brutal efficiency is reaching closer to Indian borders and integrating the South Asian region with Central Asia through its railway networks. A bureaucratic mindset is the last thing the crucial Kashmir rail link needs.

Sai Manish is a Correspondent with Tehelka.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Comment moderation is enabled. Your comment may take some time to appear.