Rail­ways has ig­nored many red flags and put us at risk

The rail­ways is adamant on ig­nor­ing a se­ries of red flags and con­tin­ues to re­peat the faulty track align­ment in hilly re­gions. The re­sult is a grave se­cu­rity risk

Governance Now - - FRONT PAGE - Pankaj Ku­mar

Once is a mis­take. Twice is a pat­tern. and thrice is a habit. The work­ing of in­dian Rail­ways re­flects all three at the same time. Yes, it is one of the busiest net­works in the world and trans­ports more than eight bil­lion pas­sen­gers a year, so the pres­sure is un­doubt­edly im­mense. But some of the dead­li­est rail ac­ci­dents in in­dia, over the last few decades, have been due to mis­takes that were more de­lib­er­ate in na­ture form­ing a well-de­fined pat­tern.

con­sider this: For the past ten years the Rail­way Board – the top de­ci­sion­mak­ing body – has been act­ing as if only the rail links project in Jammu and Kash­mir has suf­fered be­cause of the mis­take of not tak­ing into ac­count the ex­tremely ad­verse ge­o­log­i­cal con­di­tions that are en­coun­tered in the moun­tain­ous ter­rain of the Hi­malayas.

Two ex­pert pan­els (the Ravin­dra com­mit­tee which gave its re­port in 2008 and the com­mit­tee headed by the ‘metro man’ e Sreed­ha­ran, ap­pointed on or­der of delhi high court), the cag re­port tabled in par­lia­ment in de­cem­ber 2012 and the pub­lic ac­counts com­mit­tee (PAC) re­port tabled in par­lia­ment on novem­ber 2014: all acted on the as­sump­tion that it was only the Kash­mir project that was suf­fer­ing be­cause of the Board’s fail­ure to take into ac­count the ad­verse ge­o­log­i­cal con­di­tions while de­cid­ing align­ment.

The Board has re­peat­edly claimed that it had learnt lessons from the mis­takes on the Kash­mir project and would not tol­er­ate their rep­e­ti­tion on the other projects.

How­ever, the facts speak of a dif­fer­ent nar­ra­tive. Records which have now come to light re­veal that in fact dur­ing 2002-12 align­ment on six other projects for build­ing rail lines in ex­tremely land­slide-prone moun­tain­ous ter­rain was also de­cided ig­nor­ing the ad­verse ge­o­log­i­cal con­di­tions.

as per their orig­i­nal tar­get dates, these six projects (see ta­ble) ought to have been com­pleted by 2015, but con­struc­tion on five projects is strug­gling to take off be­yond the stage of prepara­tory ac­tiv­i­ties like build­ing ac­cess roads, store de­pots and of­fices. On the Kash­mir project to­tal progress in the past 15 years is less than 20 per­cent while on the Jiribam-im­phal project in ma­nipur progress is about 30 per­cent.

These per­cent­ages for the Kash­mir and ma­nipur projects do not ac­count for the fact that the progress achieved is in the por­tions where the ge­o­log­i­cal con­di­tions are less ad­verse. For ex­am­ple, rail­way engi­neers are still strug­gling to build the foun­da­tions for the much touted, record height mega arch bridge on the chenab, and most of the progress re­ported is ac­tu­ally in build­ing the short span and low height viaducts on the ap­proaches to the bridge. last year, the rail­ways shelved the plan to build the sec­ond mega arch bridge on the gorge of the anji river.

in 2009, the board had re­jected the rec­om­men­da­tion of the Ravin­dra com­mit­tee to aban­don the plan to build this

mega arch bridge. The com­mit­tee had sug­gested a smaller bridge at an al­ter­na­tive lo­ca­tion.

in 2015, though no work was done at the site of the bridge for the past many years, north­ern Rail­way engi­neers claimed full con­fi­dence about fea­si­bil­ity of the bridge. There is prac­ti­cally no progress at any of the other im­por­tant bridges. in re­spect of the tun­nels, most of the progress is on short tun­nels (less than 2 km long) and small bridges (less than 20 m span).

Re­cently, the north­ern Rail­way ter­mi­nated the con­tract for the 11 km tun­nel near San­gal­dan. con­tracts for two other long tun­nels were awarded more than a year ago, but the work is yet to start.

in light of these rev­e­la­tions, there is an ur­gent need to re­view past de­ci­sions, in­clud­ing the de­ci­sion on the Sreed­ha­ran com­mit­tee re­port. Re­cently in an in­ter­view to the in­dia Today mag­a­zine, Sreed­ha­ran re­it­er­ated that the align­ment for the Kash­mir project should be changed. in its re­port which was sub­mit­ted to the Board on Fe­bru­ary 4, 2015, the Sreed­ha­ran com­mit­tee had unan­i­mously rec­om­mended that the ex­ist­ing align­ment should be aban­doned and the al­ter­na­tive align­ment which was pro­posed by the study in 2007 should be adopted. But the Board promptly re­jected the re­port.

The com­mit­tee had cau­tioned the Board that the is­sue of align­ment is very im­por­tant as it could have vi­tal bear­ing on the fu­ture projects that rail­way will be re­quired to ex­e­cute. a bench of the delhi high court had in Septem­ber 2010 passed stric­tures against two mem­bers of the Board for scut­tling proper con­sid­er­a­tion of the al­ter­na­tive align­ment which was pro­posed way back in 2007.

The Rail­way Board con­ceded be­fore the Pac that it had failed to carry out nec­es­sary ge­o­log­i­cal in­ves­ti­ga­tions, but sought to ex­plain this lapse say­ing that it hap­pened be­cause of pres­sure from the gov­ern­ment to quickly show progress on ground. Pac did not ac­cept this ar­gu­ment and ad­vised the Board to learn lessons and not re­peat such fail­ures on other projects in fu­ture.

The Pac re­port says: “The com­mit­tee are not con­vinced with the con­tention of the min­istry as de­tails of ac­tive thrust and faults could be as­cer­tained only af­ter de­tailed geotech­ni­cal in­ves­ti­ga­tions which was not done due to in­ac­ces­si­bil­ity of the sites, as per the min­istry’s own ad­mis­sion. The min­istry have fur­ther rea­soned that pre­vail­ing po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion cou­pled with se­cu­rity is­sues and ex­pec­ta­tion of pub­lic ne­ces­si­tated early com­mence­ment of work as soon as pos­si­ble so that work is vis­i­ble on ground to as­suage the ex­pec­ta­tion of pub­lic.”

it adds, “ap­pre­ci­at­ing the min­istry’s con­cern, the com­mit­tee are, how­ever, of the con­sid­ered opin­ion that req­ui­site field in­ves­ti­ga­tions and tech­ni­cal fea­si­bil­ity stud­ies should have been car­ried out be­fore tak­ing the crit­i­cal de­ci­sion on se­lec­tion of the align­ment, more so con­sid­er­ing the dif­fi­cult and un­ex­plored ter­rain of the re­gion.”

mean­while, the cen­tre for Pub­lic In­ter­est Lit­i­ga­tion (CPIL) filed a pub­lic

Records which have now come to light re­veal that in fact dur­ing 2002-12 align­ment on six other projects for build­ing rail lines in ex­tremely land­slide-prone moun­tain­ous ter­rain was also de­cided ig­nor­ing the ad­verse ge­o­log­i­cal con­di­tions.

in­ter­est lit­i­ga­tion (PIL) in the Delhi high court, draw­ing at­ten­tion to the faulty align­ment. The Board re­peated the same ex­pla­na­tion as it sought to as­sure the court that the mis­take of ig­nor­ing ge­ol­ogy would not be re­peated. Its af­fi­davit said: “it is re­spect­fully sub­mit­ted that much of the prob­lems that arose ini­tially on the project were a con­se­quence of in­com­plete and in­ad­e­quate in­ves­ti­ga­tions and sur­veys in ini­tial stages as there were sud­den di­rec­tions from the Govt. to com­plete the project in five years from Ud­ham­pur to Bara­mulla. The works were started af­ter such ‘quick’ in­ves­ti­ga­tions. Hav­ing learnt the lessons in hard way on this project, Rail­way Board shall not let the same mis­take hap­pen again.”

Se­nior ad­vo­cate Prashant Bhushan, who ar­gued the case for the pe­ti­tioner, says, this mat­ter “shows the bank­ruptcy of the Rail­way Board in terms of their abil­ity to change the pol­icy af­ter study­ing the is­sue. un­for­tu­nately, those in charge did not want their er­ror to be ex­posed. This shows that of­fi­cers in the Board put their ego and their rep­u­ta­tion above na­tional in­ter­est and pub­lic safety.”

The Pac also noted that the Rail­ways had suf­fered a loss of ₹3,258.92 crore as of 2010 on the Kash­mir project due to the poor plan­ning and im­pressed upon the Rail­ways to fix re­spon­si­bil­ity. But the rail­ways min­istry has in­formed par­lia­ment that the fail­ure to carry out a proper sur­vey was a sys­temic fail­ure, so no in­di­vid­ual can be held re­spon­si­ble.

“Pri­mar­ily it is be­cause of the in­flu­ence of the of­fi­cers who had pro­claimed in 2003 that the slope-skirt­ing type of align­ment of the Kash­mir project was the best pos­si­ble align­ment and who were in­stru­men­tal in scut­tling the re­view of that align­ment in 200709 – some of whom con­tin­ued to be in top po­si­tions as late as 2016 – that the fun­da­men­tally flawed slope-skirt­ing align­ment con­tin­ues to be fol­lowed on these eight projects to this day,” says alok Verma, whose study of the align­ment on the Kash­mir project started the de­bate.

Three months af­ter the Board re­jected the Sreed­ha­ran com­mit­tee re­port, the com­mis­sioner of Rail­way Safety (CRS) of North East Fron­tier (NF) Rail­way con­cluded that a line in as­sam which had also been built ig­nor­ing the ge­o­log­i­cal risk fac­tors was un­safe and de­clined to give clear­ance for run­ning pas­sen­ger trains. The Board promptly re­jected the re­port by the CRS also and went ahead to per­mit run­ning of pas­sen­ger trains with dis­as­trous con­se­quences of two ac­ci­dents in­volv­ing a pres­ti­gious ex­press train and clo­sure of the line for three months all due to land­slides caused by heavy rains.

SK Vij, a for­mer mem­ber (en­gi­neer­ing) of the Board, says, “The Rail­way board should re­view its de­ci­sion and gra­di­ent should be de­cided on the ba­sis of a sci­en­tific study and ge­o­graph­i­cal lo­ca­tions. There is noth­ing wrong in re­view­ing de­ci­sions as ex­pe­ri­ence in the Ka­tra and Bani­hal project in Jammu and Kash­mir and the Lumd­ing-silchar line in the north­east is not sat­is­fac­tory.”

it was by sheer co­in­ci­dence that the full mag­ni­tude of the align­ment fi­asco was re­vealed. alok Verma was posted by the Board on nf Rail­way as chief bridge en­gi­neer (CBE). Within a week of tak­ing up the as­sign­ment, he was urged by the CRS to ex­am­ine the sta­bil­ity of the lumd­ing-silchar line which nf Rail­ways was propos­ing to open for car­ry­ing pas­sen­ger ser­vices. it was ba­si­cally a project for con­ver­sion of the old me­ter gauge line to broad gauge pass­ing through dif­fer­ent ter­rains, and in­cluded a 62-km stretch through a ge­o­log­i­cally frag­ile moun­tain­ous ter­rain.

in his re­port to CRS, Verma pointed out that the root cause of the in­sta­bil­ity was that the align­ment had been pre­pared ig­nor­ing the ge­o­log­i­cal risk fac­tors, and rec­om­mended a de­tailed ex­am­i­na­tion to as­cer­tain the level of risk. in its re­port dated June 14, 2015, the CRS de­clared the line un­safe for pas­sen­ger train op­er­a­tions and em­phat­i­cally ob­served that the rail­way should ap­point a com­mit­tee of ex­perts, in­clud­ing out­siders, to carry out an in-depth ex­am­i­na­tion of the in­sta­bil­ity risks on the line and pre­pare a de­tailed short­and long-term ac­tion plan to ad­dress those risks.

in oc­to­ber 2015, Verma sub­mit­ted a de­tailed re­port to SK Virdi, gen­eral man­ager (GM) of NFR, point­ing out that the ge­o­log­i­cal con­di­tions were ig­nored while pre­par­ing align­ment for the other projects in the north­east too. He also re­ported that the ge­o­log­i­cal con­di­tions had not only been over­looked at the stage of pre­par­ing the align­ment but

Land­slide on Im­phal line, April 2016

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