Express News Service
The Railway Board and the Kerala government have continued to ignore the intense criticism that the plan for building SilverLine as a standalone line on the (British) standard gauge is technically infeasible. It is the Centre’s responsibility to provide efficient rail transport across the country. So, it is perplexing why the state government agreed to the Board’s condition that the state bear full cost of this mammoth, technically complex railway project and also its profit and loss.
Man’s endeavour to climb to the top of Mt Everest, reach the south pole or circumnavigate the earth by sea couldn’t have succeeded without a good understanding of the challenges that lay ahead. The Golmud-Lhasa line to the roof of the world, traversing about 1,000 km of permafrost ground, is a result of years of research on how to build an all-weather line on permafrost. A line to carry trains at 200 kmph — twice the speed of existing lines in the region — along the adverse terrain of mid-highlands of Kerala on a track gauge significantly narrower than the Indian Broad Gauge would undoubtedly be very challenging.
As per the plan prepared by the Kerala Rail Development Corporation Ltd’s (K-Rail) general consultant (GC), a company based in France, SilverLine will be full of high embankments, cuttings and bridges/viaducts and more than 100 tunnels, most of them on weak ground and unstable slopes of a complex terrain of alternating wetlands and highlands that has seen devastating floods in three of the past four years. Due to the high speed, the line has to be built to high precision of track geometry and stability.
The GC had engaged the author as the lead consultant to guide its team of experts to prepare the preliminary feasibility report. The report cautioned K-Rail against building SilverLine on standard gauge, taking stations to the outskirts of the main cities — which means taking the line deeper into the mid-highlands region — for the sake of real estate development in and around the stations. However, after the author left, K-Rail succeeded in getting the GC to overlook the recommendations and prepare the (final) feasibility report without the mandatory ground surveys and ridership survey, and used the inaccurate topographic data of Google Earth to prepare the alignment. The feasibility report was prepared in less than 50 days.
Though the report was prepared in violation of its codes of practice, the board granted in-principle approval that carries with it permission to spend up to `100 crore on pre-construction activities, including preparations for land acquisition. So much for diligence in the planning of this extremely challenging line.
If the line is built on broad gauge, the Railways Ministry will have to bear most of the cost and profit/loss.
The state plans to finance SilverLine with a 30 to 50-year loan with repayment starting after 10 to 15 years. It begs the question: Should the state build a line which, considering the facts of the entire planning process, would be a white elephant whose burden will be borne by future generations.
(The author retired from India Railway Service of Engineers and was the team leader who conducted the preliminary feasibility study of SilverLine)
Due to the difference in gauge, SilverLine will have no linkage to the Railways’ broad gauge network for interoperability of trains. As opposition to the project gained momentum and fudging in preparation of feasibility report and DPR was revealed, the Railways Ministry refused to share any financial liabilities for the standalone line.