Man’s endeavour to cross even the most difficult terrain with railway lines has produced some of the most stunning marvels of engineering of the modern age. In the golden age of the railways (mid-19th to the early 20th century), at a time when the technology was rudimentary, requiring a great deal of human labour under tough working conditions, the 20 kilometre-long Simplon Tunnel was built (1898-1906), remaining, for more than 70 years, the longest railway tunnel in the world. Closer to home, the 97 km-long Kalka-Shimla line, with its iconic multi-tier arch bridges, was built from 1898 to 1903 in less than five years. More recent achievements include the 1,142 km-long Tibet Line (2001-05), which traverses the permafrost region of the “Roof of the World”, and the 51 km-long undersea Channel Tunnel (1988-94), which connects the British Isle to the European continent. The one thing that these achievements have in common is foresight and immaculate planning that made it possible to complete construction and start train services in just about four to eight years.
The government of India’s ambitious project to build the line to link the Kashmir Valley with the nation’s railway network is in serious trouble because of poor planning and lack of foresight. The project was declared a national project in 2002 by the then prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and construction of the Katra-Qazigund section began with August 15, 2007 as the scheduled date of commissioning the link to Kashmir. This stretch, packed with high mountain ridges and deep V-shaped valleys, is arguably one of the most difficult mountainous terrain ever taken up for building a railway line anywhere in the world.
Chinese engineers have spent years finding solutions to the problems of building a railway line on permafrost ground at altitudes above 4,000 metre. But the Indian Railways rushed headlong with construction on an alignment decided without a proper appreciation of the problems of building of tunnels and bridges through the fragile mountain slopes of the young Himalayas. The engineers, in fact, deliberately adopted a strategy of carrying out ground investigations and construction simultaneously. By placing an unnecessary restriction on the slope being less than 1:100, the alignment chosen was serpentine, which ran along the fault and fold lines of the mountains and led to a large number of unsafe curved tunnels.
The result of this haphazard execution is that 93 km of the old alignment lies abandoned, having been found infeasible. continued…