Kashmir Rail Link: Way out of line

On the most expensive railway line ever built—Rs 35,000 crore and counting

The Srinagar to Sangaldan train service was flagged off (virtually) by PM Modi on 20 February 2024 (photo: Getty Images)
The Srinagar to Sangaldan train service was flagged off (virtually) by PM Modi on 20 February 2024 (photo: Getty Images)

Rashme Sehgal

Former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee inaugurated the 111 km Kashmir Rail Link (KRL) from Katra to Banihal in 2003 with the brave words that it would be completed within the next five years.

Two decades later, we are witnessing the spectacle of prime minister Narendra Modi inaugurating a 48 km section between Banihal and Sangaldan. A key section of this rail line remains incomplete; it will probably take another year.

The KRL is one of the most wasteful rail projects implemented in India’s railway history. The Katra–Banihal section, which according to initial railway estimates was to be built at a cost of Rs 1,500 crore, has already cost the railways around Rs 35,000 crore. The last estimated cost of this stretch (provided by the railways in 2015) was Rs 21,652 crore.

If an annual escalation cost of 5 per cent were added to this estimate, along with additional expenditure incurred because of landslides, etc, the cost is likely to be around Rs 40,000 crore by the time it gets completed.

Not only has the cost escalated almost 25 times, the key question to ask is why there has been such an exponential jump from the initial estimates for a 105 km stretch (50 km as the crow flies) between Katra and Banihal?

The answer lies in the nature of the agreement drawn up between the Indian Railways and the Konkan Railway Corporation Limited (KRCL) and IRCON, which annually received 10 per cent of the net profits for every paisa spent on this project. Probably the Vajpayee government agreed to these generous terms in order to encourage infrastructure companies to come forward to construct a line in such hostile terrain.

But such an agreement has been criticised both by the Central Vigilance Commission in 2010 and the CAG (Comptroller and Auditor General), who pointed out that the ‘Railway Board seems to have foregone responsibility on this project’, given that such an arrangement suits vested interests that stand to benefit financially by prolonging it. The arrangement was subsequently discontinued.

Observations by officials of the Northern Railways (NR) in June 2012 were equally damning. An internal report noted that PSUs were given an advance of 30–35 per cent of the cost of construction. Since the money is already available with them, ‘the PSUs do not come back to Northern Railways for any review. Hence, NR has no control over expenditure. PSUs get 10 per cent profit in addition to D&G (Direction & General) charges which are in the range of 10 to 12 per cent. Thus, the cost of [the] project is inflated by 16 to 22 per cent which is quite substantial’, the internal report stated.

Sadly, no corrective measures were undertaken by the Railway Board on a rail link that has been beset with problems from the start.

A hastily prepared DPR adopted a sharp 1 in 100 steep gradient formula in a mountainous and earthquake-prone terrain

The DPR alignment was prepared without detailed hydrological and geological studies of the rock structure and soil composition. This resulted in large sums of money being squandered on subsequent remedial action.

Alok Verma, retired chief engineer with the railways, was brought in to prepare a fresh alignment. His team took four years to prepare it (2004–2008). This alignment was different from the conventional slope-skirting type of alignment that had been prepared earlier.

Work was suspended on the Katra– Banihal line in August 2008 and the Railway Board brought in a committee of external experts to examine Verma’s proposal. However, as happens in government departments, Verma and his team were abruptly transferred.

The E. Sreedharan expert committee brought in to review the project strongly recommended that the technically flawed alignment be abandoned and the alternative alignment prepared by Verma be adopted. In fact, the Sreedharan committee went to the extent of stating it would cost less to build a double line along Verma’s suggested alignment than it would take to complete the present single line.

The Delhi High Court headed by Justice Badar Ahmed also indicted the Railway Board as a result of a PIL filed in 2013 by Prashant Bhushan’s Centre for Public Interest as did the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament (2012–14). Both bodies asked the Railway Board to fix responsibility, but the railways functions so opaquely that this never happened.

Verma points out, “The failure to take corrective measures has resulted in the cost of construction being to the tune of Rs 400–700 crore per km of route length, which is about 8–10 times higher than the average cost of construction in our mountainous regions. It has also resulted in reduced line capacity. They have compromised on the number of stations and loop lines, which means only 8 to 10 trains can run on it per day, which is half the capacity of the existing lines in our hilly terrains such as the Konkan railway.”

The most alarming aspect of the KRL has been the construction of two bridges across the Chenab and Angi rivers. Verma, who also served as chief bridge engineer in the railways, says, “Both are built close to the LoC (Line of Control) with Pakistan, which makes them vulnerable to enemy attack.”

What is more, the railways decided to “build a massive arch bridge over a 359-metre-deep gorge without studying whether the slopes had adequate stability to carry the load of the bridge”. The Chenab bridge was scheduled to be completed in 2006, but nine years later, the railways were still struggling with the stability analysis which had not been completed when the Sreedharan committee met in 2015, Verma points out.

The Sreedharan Committee members had “serious reservations about the safety and stability of this bridge and were therefore unable to endorse the present alignment. They further observed that the rock slopes of the gorge and the site conditions are so adverse and complex that stability of slopes cannot be established with the most advanced design techniques globally available”, Verma says.

The most shocking aspect of the design was that if these bridges were to collapse due to earthquakes or enemy attacks, the line would remain closed for the next seven to eight years.

The Railway Board has not conducted a serious review of the DPR. Six subsequent lines being built in mountainous terrains in the north-east, and one in Uttarakhand (the Rishikesh–Karnaprayag line) are proceeding using the outdated approach of building on steep gradients, and then spending huge sums of money on slope stabilisation. There seems to be no learning curve for the railways.

The KRL has witnessed 12 incidents of tunnel collapses. There was a tunnel collapse in Tunnel 13 at Sawalkot and another major collapse near the Sangaldan township. The 3.2-km Tunnel 1 near Katra has been under construction for the last 20 years, and is still incomplete, as it is being built across a major geological fault.

Under the present circumstances, it seems unlikely that the tunnel will be used to facilitate troop movement. The Indian Army, unlike in the north-east, had put in no request for a construction of a rail link in Kashmir. The railways could have easily put in a double line at half the cost in order to facilitate troop movement.

No official has yet been brought to task for squandering so much public money.

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