Tuesday 25 September 2018

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Infrastructure | Railways

Commissioning by Feb may remain a pipe dream

 

Is it really possible to commission the long-awaited 760 km-long Konkan railway from Roha to Mangalore in next three months ? Will the dream of coastal population of western India come true at last ?

Hopes are raised high because the Konkan Railway Corporation Ltd (KRCL) has overcome its financial crunch, the major hurdle it was facing all these years. The Bank of America granting a huge loan of $ 70 million is definitely a boost for the hard-working KRCL chairman E Sreedharan. The union finance ministry permitting them to float tax-free bonds worth Rs 200 crore is also a big relief.

"We will commission the whole line by February '97", claims Sreedharan. He has been now visiting the state every fortnight, personally monitoring the works. Railway Minister Ram Vilas Paswan's visit to the Goa sector on Sunday would also help in activating the demoralised engineers working tirelessly on the sites.

But the real situation is quite different from what is being projected by the KRCL authorities. Neither the financial problem nor any mass protests over realignment, but purely a technical problem would not allow the enthusiastic engineers to commission the whole line by February # probably the tenth deadline set in last six years.

The problem exists nowhere else but along the 105 km-long Goan sector. The KRCL did not find it so hard to soften the protests of hard-core environmentalists in the tourist state. But to pave its way through the soft soil of the coastal terrain is stuck as a hard nut. To be precise, the 20 km stretch between the two tunnels, from Old Goa to Pernem, is going to hold the longest ever project of the country at ransom.

The solution found to overcome the sinking embankments in the marshy land at Cortalim in South Goa, building three small bridges, has also posed a big question mark in meeting the new deadline. No doubt the bridges would be ready by the month end, but whether the remaining embankments between the bridges would sink or not is not known yet.

"The whole line is almost ready, except little work of laying the tracks along 20 kms in the Goa sector. We have also overcome the problem of two tunnels in Karnataka - Baindoor and Bhatkal - and two in Goa - Verna and Padi. The remaining two tunnels would be completed by February", claims Sreedharan.

After commissioning the line from Chiplun to Sawantwadi last week, he is planning to bring it upto Sawantwadi - the last station in Maharashtra - by December 15. Similarly, the railway would start running from Kundapur upto Canacona - the first station in Goa from southwards - by December and upto Old Goa by January end. The whole 760-km line would be fully commissioned by February end, as per his plans, after Old Goa - Pernem line is opened.

No doubt the engineers have been working with new vigour to meet the deadline. But that may not solve the problem of sinking embankments in Cortalim, situated on the banks of Zuari river, located centrally in the state. People working at the site still doubt whether the three newly built bridges would be the end of the story.

As the embankments washed away in June with the onslaught of monsoon showers and the fields along the river bank getting flooded, the KRCL was compelled to construct a bridge over the marshy land. While 400 mts of bridge was already built earlier, it decided to extend it for 230 mts more. Working on warfooting in last six months, the three small bridges - 165 mts, 43 mts and 22 mts - have already come up, leaving embankments of 20 mts each in between.

"We have built the bridges only where the marine clay cannot stand the embankments. It will also help in dividing the load of the trains", say the site engineers. But whether the embankments in between would stand firmly or not would be known only after a goods train is run over it for testing, they add.

And when would be the testing done ? In January or February ? The reply is a laughter, followed by a simple question. How can it be tested in this season when embankments sink during monsoons ? There lies the reply that the railway could run over Cortalim only after monsoons and not in January as is being claimed !

The story of the two tunnels is also not so enthusiastic, though optimistic. Due to series of collapses and casualties caused at Pernem and Old Goa, several contractors left the work halfway. It is now being taken up as a challenge by the KRCL. "It's a pity that this country can't produce a single contractor who can dig through the soft soil", says Sreedharan.

After struggling for four and a half years, the KRCL has been able to dig through 440 mts from both the sides of the 542 mt-long tunnel at Old Goa. The progress for the first four months, from November '92 to February '93, was quite commendable with completion of around 98 mts in four months.

But the work was stalled for nine months from March onwards due to the realignment controversy. Instead of digging into further from November '93 onwards, the contractor had to waste five month only on filling a cavity in the tunnel, which got created during the suspended period. The work then restarted only in May last year, completing 119 mts till the monsoons arrived this year.

As rains lasted till September this time, the work has just begun at Old Goa at a very low pace. The water is still seeping out, say the site engineers, due to which there is hardly any progress from the North side, though they have dug 12 mts more from the South.

According to the experts, the target of February can be achieved only if it could dig 2 mts every day. But the figures at the site office speak otherwise. The digging rate has come down tremendously as the work is becoming more and more risky. While it took 12 months to dig 119 mts, one wonders how the engineers would complete the remaining 102 mts in just three months.

"We have brought new AM 50 road header machines which would speed up our work. We also expect to find hard rock in between to help us complete our deadline", says Sreedharan. The geologists have found 200 mts of hard rock at Pernem tunnel, but the irony is that the Old Goa tunnel is full of soft soil.

Pernem was the first tunnel in Goa to start work on. But perhaps it would the last tunnel to be completed along the whole alignment, which has even three and four km - long tunnels in some sectors. After struggling hard with the soft soil in the 1.5 km-long tunnel for last five years, the KRCL has succeeded in digging through 1120 mts, leaving 380 mts to meet the target of February.

Simple calculations indicate that the digging took place at an average annual rate of 224 mts, around 0.65 mts per day. The site engineers in Pernem are happy that they have been now able to dig through two mts every day. But even at this pace, it would take minimum six months to complete the remaining stretch.

While expressing hope, Sreedharan however also admits that every collapse delays the work for two months as the workers get scared to enter the tunnel. It is difficult for anybody to state that the collapses would not continue, whether in Pernem or Old Goa. Why the KRCL is making itself a laughing stock by giving false hopes and impossible deadlines to be met with is still a wonder.






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