Today the Konkan Railway, wends its fast and safe way
through scenic country not despoilt by the pieces of engineering created
for it. In fact Konkan Railway is an Indian triumph in many areas:
engineering, efficiency, innovation, economy, speed, environmental
awareness, public relations, aesthetics and service. A 760 kM rail path,
laid on fairly flat rails over rivers and valleys and through mountains
and gorges, it was designed and built by Indian engineers in a record time
of eight years! It is a feat of civil engineering that the British had
contemplated a century ago and abandoned as being too formidable.
Its story is worth telling in some detail.
Mr. George Fernandes on his first day in office in 1989 as the Minister
for Railways flagged off the Konkan Railway Corporation Ltd [KRCL]. Its
mandate: raise your own funds and construct with speed and economy a
railway connecting Mumbai with Mangalore and pay off the loans in the
promised time. It was a sweeping challenge and it met its hero in Dr. E.
Sreedharan, a veteran railway man known for brisk efficiency. Fernandes
persuaded him out of his retirement and made him the Chairman and Managing
Director of Konkan Railway.
Sreedharan faced this 'to-do' list:
~ 760 kM of rails to be laid with little gradient.
~ 2000 bridges to build
~ 92 tunnels totaling 83kM to bore
~ 42,000 landowners to deal with to acquire 4,850 hectares of land
~ 4 state governments to interact with
~ Rs.2250 crores to be raised
~ Life-styles and environment to be least disturbed
A near flat track [-- a gradient of less than 1 foot in 150 feet] and a
curvature of 1.25kM radius was to be maintained if the trains were to
reach the target speeds of 160kM per hour. The problem was that the entire
scenic Konkan coast is full of rivers, mountains, ravines, valleys and
human settlements. The only way the flat and fast track could be laid was
by boring long and numerous tunnels through mountains, building tall
viaducts through the valleys, creating high embankments, making deep cuts
between peaks and building several bridges over water courses.
Satellite images were used to decide on the alignment. When proving
trips had to be undertaken into inhospitable terrain, the Corporation did
away with the cumbersome government practice of ploughing through with
jeeps. Instead, newly emerging diploma holders were recruited, glorified
with the designation 'Engineer', given brand new motorcycles and all the
petrol and a daily allowance of Rs.100 each, no questions asked! These
bikies roared down harsh terrain, mapped it and when the time came, marked
and pegged it. They had powered themselves on huge doses of motivation and
as a result of their trips the original length of 830kM was shaved by
Pricing the trees:
In the meantime land acquisition was proceeding in the three states of
Karnataka, Goa and Maharashtra. The approach was human and not official.
The benefits of the railway to the region's economy was explained. They
were reassured that their environment and ways of life would not be
disturbed. Where they were to be displaced alternate spaces of their
choice were to be provided. In Goa the bikies were at it again,
fraternising with the local folks and explaining the project objectives.
The Corporation acted fair. In many cases landowners had neglected the
paper work. The Corporation did a lot of hand-holding and when the papers
were set right, they were paid a fair price. A mango tree was valued
between Rs.2,000 and Rs.10,000 jack-fruit trees, Rs.2000 and cashew trees,
Rs.1000. Heritage , community and religious structures were left alone.
Displaced farmers were helped with transportation and rehabilitation. Near
Dasgaon a new burial ground was built and bones and remains from the old
ground transported with reverence. Payment cheques were door-delivered!
All these were done in twelve months in a highly bureaucratised India!
Sreedharan had divided the length of 760kM into 7 sectors of
approximately 100kM each. Each had a Chief Engineer with full freedom of
decision making. And with the freedom came, in not so small a print, a
definite time target. Four concrete sleeper plants were set up at Chiplun,
Madgaon, Kudal and Murdeshwar to manufacture the 1.3 million sleepers
required for the project. Besides this cement, steel, explosives, rails
and a hundred other things had to be delivered through harsh terrain.
Depots were created for these. Wherever possible design was standardised
to be built with pre-stressed parts cast elsewhere. International norms
were followed in evaluating and short listing contractors. Their bids were
decided upon within 72 hours of opening. Independent quality assurance
inspectors were appointed.
For all these preparations the ordeal on the ground was not in any way
mitigated. Many hair raising adventures -- some that nearly killed them --
were encountered. In 1994 the Mahad sector had floods that stood 12 feet
above road level! Four workers building the Byndoor tunnel were blown back
60 feet by a sudden gush of water. At Ukshi an entire mountainside buried
the works and equipment. Engineer Kapoor building the Pernem tunnel was
nailed by a boulder on his foot and buried chest deep following a soil
collapse. He was rescued by his colleague Jayasankaran in an act of daring
that won him a bravery award. Engineers stayed away from homes for months.
And last but not the least, snakes and tigers had to be respected and
given a wide berth.
For the first time in India funds for the project were raised without
touching the government coffers. The authorised capital of Rs.800 crores
was pooled together by the railways and the states of Kerala, Karnataka
and Goa and Maharashtra. This was leveraged by means of public bonds to
the extent of Rs.2250 crores. These bonds carried attractive rates of
return, tax breaks and guaranteed repayment. The project also employed the
least number of people in its management: at its peak a mere 2400, all in.
From the beginning the Corporation had set its mind on extensive use of
information technology. Consider this in conjunction with the fact that in
1990, IT had just about begun to make its presence felt worldwide. An
international record in tunnel boring was set: the Natuvadi tunnel's 204
metres per month beat the previous 187 metres. And, a report by SIDA,
Sweden asked: Would not Sweden sort out much of its tunnel boring problems
by sending its engineers to Konkan railway?
Finally, to the amazement of disbelieving Indians, the project was
completed in a mere 8 years, which is a bare wink of an eye in India.
Today many of the bridges, viaducts, and tunnels are a feast to the
eye. The journey -- by itself -- is becoming known as a tourist pleasure.
Rarely have nature and man's artifice blended so harmoniously. The
clockwork operations are a pride for all Indians longing for their country
to modernise. You can log on right now at the Konkan
Railway website to find out where their trains are this moment!