“The 210 kilometre Lumding-Silchar line in Assam – as also five other lines under construction as ‘national projects’ in the weak and unstable mountainous terrain in North-eastern India – suffer from alignment and design defects. This poses threats to passenger lives and could even lead to a major catastrophe”.
These concerns were flagged both by the Commissioner of Railway Safety (CRS) and the Chief Bridge Engineer (CBE) of the Northeast Frontier Railway (NFR) in reports to the Railway Board in the last two years, according to documents accessed by HT.
Railway Board Member Engineering, A K Mittal said the designs were finalized on the basis of recommendations of various committees and experts. “However, some issues might be there, as the Northeast is a challenging terrain”, he told HT.
Six projects costing about Rs 50,000 crore for the construction of 403 kilometres of rail tracks in the seven north-eastern states have been under various stages of survey and construction since 1993-94.
A month ahead of the assembly elections of Assam in April, the Lumding-Silchar line – which links Assam to the adjoining states of Tripura, Mizoram and Manipur – was hurriedly opened.
“The arbitrary decision of the Railway Board to start commercial operations on the line violates the Railways Act as the observations of the CRS were ignored”, then CBE, Alok Kumar Verma said.
Within months of its inauguration, about 20 major landslides have happened along the route leading to two derailments and several instances of suspension of train services, including one for two months. Since July 2015, trains have been running at an average speed of 10 to 20 kmph against the design speed of 70 kmph in the critical 52 km long mountainous section.
The then safety commissioner, S. Nayak, said in his report of July 2015 that he was “not satisfied that the newly opened line could be opened for passenger traffic without danger to the travelling public, as the stability of formation and structures were suspect”.
Nine months before the start of operations of the Lumding-Silchar line, Verma informed the Railway Board that three-fourth of the alignment was on “Talus slopes” of shale, which are among the most unfavourable rock formations for building railway lines. Heavy rainfall and high seismicity of the region aggravate the conditions for stability of tunnels and bridges.
He said that vital geological risk factors have been ignored both at the time of survey and detailed design and that the other new rail line projects in the Northeast were also facing similar challenges. Mega high bridges were being built on pile foundations as on the lines to Imphal and Aizawl.
“Some railway engineers have ignored the geological risks and have handled these projects like a surgeon performing a complex surgery under the influence of a hallucinatory drug”, Verma said in his July 20 letter to the Railway Board Member Engineering.