A Himalayan fiasco: Silkyara tunnel crisis was long in the making

Ignoring scientific evidence and expert advice, approving broad gauge rail and wide roads in the Himalayas, and the tearing hurry to meet deadlines decided by political bosses proves costly

Workers trapped in the collapsed Silkyara tunnel seen with the help of  an endoscopic camera (photo: National Herald archives)
Workers trapped in the collapsed Silkyara tunnel seen with the help of an endoscopic camera (photo: National Herald archives)
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Alok Kumar Verma

One of the lessons from the Silkyara–Barkot tunnel collapse in Uttarakhand is that politics is too serious a business to be left to politicians. Ignoring scientific evidence and expert advice, approving projects for broad gauge rail lines and wide roads in the Himalayas without waiting for adequate ground surveys, and being in a tearing hurry to meet deadlines decided by political bosses is costly. The nation pays the price.

The planning and execution of projects in challenging terrains should be left to engineers. The politician’s role is best confined to project approvals and progress reports, so that lapses caused by negligence and ignorance can be spotted before it is too late.

The projects of widening existing roads in the Himalayas are recent compared to the 25 years of planning and execution that went into mega railway projects. While the engineering challenges are similar, the Railway Board, the apex authority of Indian Railways, doesn’t seem to have learned from experience. For a proper understanding of the unfolding crisis, we must look at the big picture.

The recklessness seen in the execution of the Char Dham project is evident in various railway projects in the Himalayan region. I was intimately connected with all the ongoing projects approved in the last 20 years — one each in seven Himalayan states. Not one of them has been completed, yet.

During this same period, China has been able to construct a number of remarkably high-capacity train lines in terrain that appears to be as difficult as the Himalayas. The Chongqing–Lanzhou, Chengdu–Kunming, and Nanning–Kunming lines are much longer and operate at a much higher speed than anything we are constructing on our side.

China is also building a 1,629-km line from Chengdu to Leh (the Sichuan–Tibet Line) that would run close to the border with India. International experts are describing this as the most challenging railway project in history. China has also finalised plans to connect Lhasa with Hotan in the far-west that will pass through the disputed Aksai Chin territory.

While the nation prays for the rescue of the 41 trapped workers at Silkyara, little or no attention was paid to the lives of 80 workers who died in Manipur and Mizoram when a railway cutting and a railway bridge collapsed during construction at Tupul and Aizawl, the latter as recently as August this year.

In 2017, the Railway Board approved plans for two of the biggest projects so far in the Himalayas: a 456-km line from Bilaspur in Himachal Pradesh to Leh in Ladakh, and 327-km Char Dham lines to link Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri in Uttarakhand. Both these projects had serious flaws, which I had pointed out in a series of detailed articles. Seven years down the line, the Railway Board seems to have shelved both the projects.

Strangely, the Leh project report had failed to account for the impact of high altitude on feasibility and cost of construction of long tunnels and large bridges. At that elevation — 3,500–5,000 m above sea level — oxygen supply gets restricted and people have trouble breathing. The cost of transporting material and equipment to that height was also not factored in, as I had pointed out in my published articles.

The last three years have, in fact, seen a surge of approvals for the construction of five mega road tunnels at those very same high altitudes in Ladakh. Nowhere is it clear if the alignment plans for these tunnels have taken into consideration the impact of high altitude. (I might also add here that a new alignment I had suggested for one of the projects in the Himalayas turns out to be similar to what China has opted for in the region).

The recklessness in the execution of the Char Dham project is also evident in many railway projects in the Himalayan region
The recklessness in the execution of the Char Dham project is also evident in many railway projects in the Himalayan region

The outcome of starting construction without workable alignments is starkly clear from the following trends:

1. Extremely high cost of construction at Rs 400-700 crore per km of route length, which is about 8 to 10 times higher than the average cost in other mountainous regions of the country.

2. With compromises made in mid-course changes in the alignment in order to deal with geological surprises, the line capacity stands at a maximum of just 8 to 10 trains per day, which is half the capacity on existing lines, such as the Konkan Railway, in other mountainous regions.

3. The stupendously high bridges that these flawed alignments require near international borders — like the much flaunted Chenab Bridge (‘world’s highest railway bridge’) at 359 m above the bed of the Chenab river), the Anji Bridge on the Kashmir line, and the Noney Bridge on the Manipur line — will be easy targets for the enemy in times of war. A major collapse could result in closure of the lines for years.

4. Massive slope-stabilisation measures of doubtful longevity are being carried out at a total of around 40 huge bridges and 35 tunnels of 5-to15-km length, in order to glue and stitch together the crushed, fragmented or rubble-like rock strata. Many 50-to-100 m high slope cuttings that are being built will pose a grave risk to the safety, stability and survivability of each of these lines in major earthquakes and excessive rainfall events that are common on the southern face of Himalayas where these lines are being built.

The above features are proof of what happens when projects are approved and construction started on alignments designed without essential ground investigations of the geological, geotechnical and hydrological conditions on the alignment.

Such problems were faced on the comparatively less challenging Konkan Railway project, where the alignment having been prepared without ground studies had to undergo many changes during construction to deal with geological surprises.

In the note put up to the Cabinet Committee for approval of the Kashmir Rail Link in 2002, the Railway Board had recorded that with the experience gained on the Konkan project, it was confident of building the line in five years.

The most important lesson — namely, that construction should not start without a properly surveyed and designed alignment — was not learned, and so the blunder continued with the Kashmir project. Worse, it was repeated in each of the remaining six projects.

For four years now (2019-23), the Railway Board has been considering a plan to construct a 200-250 kmph semi-highspeed line on standard gauge in Kerala, ignoring the deeply flawed alignment based on inadequate and unreliable ground surveys, warnings from the international consultant, and widespread public protests.

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My own experience on the Katra-Banihal rail link project in J&K is instructive. Once construction started, and the flaws in the alignment became apparent, my team and I took four years (2004-08) to develop a new alignment — actually, a new type of alignment different from the conventional slope-skirting type of alignment — for the line.

The Railway Board suspended construction in August 2008, and set up a committee of external experts to examine my proposal to abandon the existing alignment and start construction afresh on the new alignment.

With the posting of a new member (engineering) and member (traffic), the review was scuttled and I was transferred out of the project. About 75 per cent of the alignment was still changed, but with the sole aim of somehow completing construction, regardless of the cost, time, safety and sustainability of the line.

In September 2010, the Delhi High Court held that the new members had colluded in self-interest to scuttle the review. A PIL was filed, which resulted in an order by the HC to the Railway Board to appoint a new expert committee to examine my proposal for a change of alignment.

By then, Rs 5,500 crore had already been spent on construction. In 2012–14, the CAG and the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of Parliament also examined the performance audit of the project. PAC asked the Railway Board to fix responsibilities for the loss incurred due to changes in the alignment.

The new expert committee submitted its report in February 2015, and unanimously recommended that my alignment be adopted, as it offered the most cost-effective solution for a high-capacity, stable, safe and reliable line. It recommended that other projects in the Himalayas might follow this new type of alignment as a model.

However, the Railway Board insisted that construction would be completed by the middle of 2018 and refused to alter the alignment. It also blamed the government’s insistence on a speedy start and evidence of progress on the ground for its inability to design an appropriate alignment. This was a blatant misrepresentation because the Railway Board had approved the alignment five years before the government approved the project.

Such being the games that governments and government agencies play, projects in the Himalayas and other challenging terrain like Kerala raise uncomfortable questions that warrant a closer scrutiny.

Alok Kumar Verma (IRSE, retd) is former chief engineer, Indian Railways

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