WARNING OF “catastrophic disaster”, the Commissioner of Railway Safety (CRS) concluded in the middle of 2015 that the Lumding-Silchar broad-gauge link in Assam, a key arterial track in the Northeast, posed a “danger to travelling public”. This was the first red flag. Documents examined by The Indian Express show that at least three other senior Railway officials cited the safety warning to raise objections over the line. But the Railway Ministry opened the line to passenger trains in November that year. Just four months later, the line had to be shut for three months following two back-to-back derailments of passenger trains amid landslides and rainfall — there were no casualties.
The line was re-opened in August 2016, after some corrective measures were taken, and the track has been in operation since then.
When contacted, H K Jaggi, general manager, Northeast Frontier Railway Construction Organisation (NFRCO), which built the line, said, “There were derailments due to slippage in the ghat section, which is common. The line has been functioning without any incident for over a year now. Now we have identified 14 locations for patrolling… instrumentation in many places has also been done.”
The link has 79 major and 340 minor bridges, and 21 tunnels. In his report, submitted in July 2015, S Nayak, the CRS, wrote: “Having inspected the Broad Gauge line…and having various technical discussions with Railway officials including detailed correspondences made with Railway Administration, I am of the opinion that the newly converted BG single line between New Haflong-Ditokcherra-Badarpur-Silchar can’t be opened for passenger traffic without danger to travelling public…”
The clearance by CRS, a statutory safety regulator under the Civil Aviation Ministry, is mandatory for opening any line for passenger operations.
On April 19, 2016, eight months after the CRS report, the Chief Bridge Engineer shut the line for two days for passenger trains, citing safety issues. On April 23, the Poorvottar Sampark Kranti Express from New Delhi to Silchar derailed between Ditokcherra and Banderkhal. On April 26, the train, on its return leg, derailed between Mahur and Phiding.
The 210-km section provides subsequent connectivity to Manipur on one side and Mizoram on the other. Lumding and Silchar were originally connected by a metre gauge line. The broad gauge project started around 1997, as part of a Rs 3,500-crore National Project. However, around 52 km of the new line was diverted through a geologically challenging stretch in the hills of the Indo-Burma range.
Stressing that any corrective measure would only bring “limited relief”, Nayak’s report stated: “The stability of the formation, tunnels, bridges, need to be holistically reviewed by a team of experts in geo-technology and structural engineering both in-house and from outside to formulate Action Plan for immediate short term and long term satisfactory performance… any failure in the critical section [New Haflong-Ditokcherra hill section] has potential for a catastrophic disaster, Railway Administration is urged to consider every possible risk and systematically address its mitigation.”
Following the CRS verdict, the NFRCO sent a letter to the Railway Board claiming that Nayak’s observations had been complied with. But this letter, sent within a week after the CRS report was received, did not include the consent of two key officials concerned — the Chief Bridge Engineer and the Chief Track Engineer.
On July 29, 2015, records show, the Railway Board sanctioned the opening of the line by “condoning” some of the relatively minor issues flagged by the CRS, such as non-standard length of sleeper and non-provision of “catch-siding and slip siding”.
Then came the second and third red flags. The then general manager of Northeast Frontier Railway, R S Virdi, refused to open the line stating that the CRS stipulations had not been fully complied with. R K Gupta, who succeeded Virdi, refused to move on the line, too, citing the same reason.
Following Gupta’s departure in October, the line was opened after a safety certificate was obtained from the new zonal general manager, based on a report from the NFRCO, which asserted that stipulations laid down by the CRS had been complied with.
However, within a few months, a fourth red flag came up, this time from the Chief Bridge Engineer of the Northeast Frontier Railway, Alok Kumar Verma.
In January 2016, in an internal note to the general manager, Verma wrote: “…the conditions for stability are most unfavourable and there is a serious threat to the safety of trains from the instability of the bridges, tunnels and high cuttings/embankments which together comprise 90 per cent of the route length… Unfortunately, geology has been cursorily dealt with in deciding the location and alignment….”
Officials told The Indian Express that the old meter gauge line was on the Meghalaya Plateau, where the tracks had “a solid footing”. Parts of the new “diverted alignment”, between New Haflong and Ditokcherra, is on an area mainly formed of shale, the soft sedimentary rock formed from consolidated mud or clay, they said.
When contacted, V K Gupta, the then Railway Board Member (Engineering), who is credited with completing the gauge conversion, denied that safety issues were overlooked.
“It never happens that the CRS says the line is unsafe and the Railways overrules it. The CRS might make certain observations, but they are complied with following which the lines are opened,” he said.
“The general manager signs the safety certificate and it carries signatures of at least 25 other senior officials of the zonal railways. If point A has to be connected with point B, many things can come in the way, be it folds, be it faults,” said Gupta.
“The area in question sees rainfall for six months during which time there might be landslides and other things. But there is a difference between a line being structurally unsafe and routine maintenance issues. The old meter gauge line used to be shut for months,” he said.
Official sources claimed that the Railway Ministry was “in a hurry” to open the line because the Assam assembly elections were due in April 2016, but Gupta denied this charge. Incidentally, after his retirement from service in 2016, Gupta was appointed as an advisor to Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Aditya Kumar Mittal, who succeeded Gupta as Railway Board Member (Engineering), said, “The matter you are referring to happened much before I took charge, but I can tell you generally that the Himalayas have an unpredictable geology and there can be surprises. But that’s a natural phenomenon everywhere. Now if you see, the line is functional without any problems.”
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