Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Railways flunk monsoon test...

Railway track covered with mud. Photo Courtesy: Samayik Prasanga

The early onset of rains in Barak Valley and the adjoining Dima Hasao district has plunged the region’s railway connectivity into uncertainty. The double derailment of Poorvottar Sampark Kranti Express within a week and the subsequent landslides at Phiding have yet again raised serious questions about the capability of this newly laid section to tackle incessant rainfall. 

NF Railway’s Chief Bridge Engineer, Alok Kumar Verma in a recent internal communication had said that, “Operation of passenger services between New Haflong and Ditokcherra stations should be suspended with immediate effect on account of distress in the bridges, tunnels and cuttings”. Subsequently, a high level inspection team of NF Railways had inspected the New Haflong – Ditokcherra section and announced it suitable for operations. However, within a week of this development, the engine of the Poorvottar Sampark Kranti Express derailed. 

Interestingly, this section never quite received the go ahead from the Commissioner for Railway Safety (CRS), who in his report had raised multiple issues pertaining to the viability of operating safe railway services on the hill section.  In his report the CRS had said, “The Line cannot be opened for passenger traffic without danger to travelling public”. He had further recommended that “the railway administration engage experts in the field of technology, structural engineering to critically review the present status and recommend suitable preventive measures.”

The cracks visible inside tunnel number 10 are now proving the doubting thomases right, though the railways have not yet made any official comment about the extent of damage inside the tunnel. Austrian tunnelling experts who inspected the tunnel recently did not look satisfied at all with the construction quality. One shudders to think what may happen if the tunnel collapses someday with a train full of passengers inside it.

To add to the problems, landslides are not only confined to the New Haflong – Ditokcherra section, also known as the ‘diversion stretch’, though most of the observations regarding safety were raised for this section only. Rather, the recent landslides have taken place at Phiding between New Haflong and Mahur.

Prior to the commissioning of the broad gauge section, the railways had the experience of running metre gauge trains on this stretch for about a hundred years. They were completely aware about the geotechnical challenges that would be confronted here. Were all those factors considered when the line was being constructed?

Many media reports have claimed that due to continued insurgency and difficult terrain, the geotechnical survey of many stretches on the corridor were not carried out properly. Geotechnical surveys reveal the soil strata and therefore determine the machinery and materials to be used for any construction work. If the surveys were not carried out as per rules, it must have been very difficult for the Railways to carry out construction work as per quality.

Repair work in progress. Photo Courtesy: Samayik Prasanga
While many engineers and experts, both from within the Railways and outside have expressed serious concerns about the quality of the construction work, some other experts and Railways insiders have also suggested that landslides and structural wear and tear is a common feature in all hilly terrains. Both railways and roads tend to get damaged due to rainfall, snowfall etc in all parts of the country in hilly areas and there is very little that can actually be done. NF Railways’ General Manager VS Jaggi also seemed to suggest the same during his recent visit to Silchar.

It would indeed be impossible to keep the line open on all days during the monsoons but the Railways should at least ensure that their rescue and repair teams are on vigil all the time so that repair work can be started immediately after any landslide. In addition, adequate arrangement for food, water, medicines for stranded passengers must be made every time there is a disruption.

The Silchar – Lumding broad gauge is a dream come true for the people of Barak Valley and the adjoining states. Even as the services continue, the Railways must carry out very stringent quality checks of the materials used for construction and structurally check every single bridge and tunnel. If they find any inadequacy, they must address the same immediately.

The margin for error is very low for such hilly areas where the top soil is loose and disintegrates early in comparison to the Himalayan hills. Any oversight as regards safety can prove extremely dangerous and result in massive loss of lives. Let us hope the Railways will handle the crisis with competence and minimise disruptions as much as possible.

It is appalling that the Assam government does not maintain the road links to Barak Valley at all. Both the highways via Shillong and Haflong are in a pathetic condition and fail to provide a viable alternative in the event of disruption in rail services. Indeed, there would be very few such pockets in India where connectivity is such a hassle. Let us hope the new state government will have something better to offer!!

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Silchar through the Lense