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The Konkan Railway is an ornament to nature.

Indian engineering skills go poetic and heroic in the Western Ghats

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.

The numbers:

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 77kM.

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!

Avoiding tigers:

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.

Many 'firsts':

When the railway was opened to the public on Jan 26, 1998, it had scored many firsts.

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!