Railways launches main arch of Chenab: World's highest rail bridge an impressive feat but are celebrations misplaced?

After a scorching summer that saw many frightful accidents, the Indian Railways has a reason to cheer this autumn.

Work on erecting the foundation pillars of the Chenab Bridge – designed as the world's tallest rail bridge connecting the critical Katra-Banihal section of the Udhampur Srinagar Baramulla Rail Line (USBRL) project – has been completed. In the presence of new Railway Board (Engineering) member MK Gupta on Sunday, the challenging task of putting up the steel arch was inaugurated.

At three-hundred-fifty-nine metres above the river bed, the Chenab Bridge will approximately be five times higher than Delhi's Qutub Minar and 35 metres higher than the Eiffel tower. Once complete, the all-weather train journey from Jammu to Srinagar will be completed in approximately five and a half hours – dashing across the Chenab River at a design speed of 100 kilometres/hour. The torturous and bone-jangling road journey between the two cities takes an excruciating 12 hours.

View of the Chenab bridge project from U/S end. Image courtesy Srinand Jha

View of the Chenab bridge project from U/S end. Image courtesy Srinand Jha

Though the prospect is splendid enough, it does raise a pertinent question: Are the celebrations somewhat misplaced?

Since the award of the contract in July 2004, stipulating a 30-month deadline to complete construction, four extensions have been sought and granted. A fifth such request is said to be currently under process. The construction costs, meanwhile, have climbed from the originally allocated Rs 550 crore to Rs 1,198 crore.

Even after 14 years of non-stop activity, the bridge is far from completion. This 'achievement' of Indian rail engineers compares unfavourably with global benchmarks. For instance, the Sydney Harbor Bridge – with a bigger span length of 503 metres – was built in less than four years. Eighty years back, the Bayonne Bridge in New York – having a span length of 504 metres – was completed in flat 38 months. The New River Gorge Bridge in West Virginia was built in 40 months in 1977.

Sure enough, the Chenab project has been hit by peculiar Indian problems. In the initial days, the land acquisition for the project had been a problem, while struggles and demonstrations from local groups demanding better compensation for their land continued to persist. A Public Interest Litigation (PIL) questioning the safety and stability of the line also remains pending.

The Chenab bridge is 1,315 metres long and situated 359 metres above the river bed. Image procured by Srinand Jha

The Chenab bridge is 1,315 metres long and situated 359 metres above the river bed. Image procured by Srinand Jha

Alignments and designs have been reworked on more than one occasion, while contract work on different stretches has been routinely awarded and cancelled. "The major issues have now been overcome. We will certainly meet the 2019 target of completing the bridge construction," said Anurag Sachan, USBRL chief administrative officer.

The two committees of experts that evaluated this prestigious "national project" have, in the past, flagged serious concerns about the safety and stability of the line and the bridge. In its report of June 2009, the Ravindran Committee accorded "conditional clearance" on bridge construction, "subject to further examination and detailed analysis".

Based on the recommendations of the Ravindran Committee, the Railways had to abandon 93 out of the total 125 kilometres – approximately 75 percent of the alignment on the Katra-Banihal section.

In his report of December 2015, India's 'Metro man' Dr E Sreedharan raised the red flag on alignments and gradients proposed by the Indian Railways. "The committee has reservations about the survivability of the present alignment, particularly the major arch bridge across the Chenab River. Therefore, we are unable to technically endorse the present alignment," the committee noted.

The Chenab bridge is 35 metres higher than the Eiffel Tower. Image courtesy Srinand Jha

The Chenab bridge is 35 metres higher than the Eiffel Tower. Image courtesy Srinand Jha

The Dr Sreedharan Committee report further noted: "Progress of work on the present alignment is very poor on all fronts. In the last 12 years, the physical progress of tunnels is at 32.32 percent and only 23 percent for major bridges. The financial progress of the project is at 30.53 percent, based on an estimated cost of Rs 13,260 crore. We feel that the project cannot be completed by any stretch of the imagination by December 2022. The cost of the project is also likely to escalate astronomically."

Sreedharan's idea was that the project be entrusted to a dedicated, fully government owned Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) empowered to take all financial, administrative or technical decisions without the interference of the Indian Railways.

Sreedharan's suggestions were papered over, with the Railways informing the committee that it would engage a US consultant on stability studies. The report of the US consultant has not been made public so far. "The report is of a technical nature. Therefore, it cannot be shared," said BS Tomar, the USBRL's chief bridge engineer.

Details of the Chenab Bridge project (highest rail arch bridge in the world):
- It is 1,315 metres long and 359 metres above the river bed.
- Designed to run trains at a top speed of 100 Kmph, having a design life of 120 years.
- Designed to cope with a wind velocity of 266 Kmph at deck level.
- Designed by Ms WSP (Finland), Ms Leonhart Andra and Partners (Germany) and IIS Bangalore.

Status of the Udhampur Srinagar Baramulla Rail Line (USBRL) project:
Total length:
326 Km.
Total cost: Rs. 19,564 crore (Expenditure until May 2016: Rs.13, 546 crore.
Katra-Banihal (111 Km): Work in progress; target for completion in 2019. This section will have 27 tunnels, 37 bridges including 97 kilometres of tunnels and seven kilometres of bridges.
Udhampur-Katra (25 Km): Work completed and commissioned in July 2014.
Quazikund-Baramulla (118 Km): Work completed and commissioned in phases until October 2009.
Banihal-Quazikund (18 Km): Work completed and commissioned in June 2013.

Updated Date: Nov 06, 2017 18:45 PM

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