In my previous article I talked about the Project Unigauge which is arguably the biggest project that Indian Railway has undertaken till date. But there was another railway project that took the cake when it came to transforming the image of the rail transportation in India which was aptly named Konkan Railway as it was laid along the Konkan region of Western coast. Prior to the construction of this line the Konkan region was an isolated stretch of land and as a result no major development took place in the whole region.
Konkan region is a 720 km long coastline which consists of the coastal districts of Maharashtra, Karnataka and Goa. The whole region is sandwiched between the mighty western ghats and the Arabian Sea. It is flanked by the two of the biggest ports on the western coast namely the Mumbai port and the Mangaluru port which are also the end-points of the Konkan region. Before the construction of this line both the ports were connected through only sea route or the inland railway line which not only delayed the transportation of goods but also increased the cost. Plans to build this line were mooted as way back as in 1960s but no progress could be done on it and only small stretches of lines from Mumbai and Mangaluru were built. Finally in 1984 and 1988 Indian Railway performed a survey to initiate work on this line which was completed in 1998 and with flagging off the first train on the line on 26th January by the then PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
After the Independence increase in the route length of railways was very slow and one of the main reasons was the difficult terrain that engineers had to tackle in order to lay the lines as all other major regions of the country already had railway connectivity. Konkan was also the similar case. With it lying in the shadows of the Western Ghats the engineers had not only to face harsh topology which could give unique challenges to them but also the climate of the region as it receives heavy rainfall during the monsoon season making the construction of the line during monsoon almost impossible. Regardless of the challenges the construction of the line was started under the leadership of E. Sreedharan.
For this project land acquisition process was completed within one year owing to the support that it received from the locals because they understood the importance of this project and thus willingly gave up their lands. With over 2,000 bridges and 91 tunnels it was perhaps the biggest and most dangerous project on the Indian subcontinent. While most of the hills on the stretch had hard rock for their base hence to build these tunnels hydraulic tunnelling machines were imported from Sweden. But the main challenge came forward in the form of hills which had soft soils as their base. Tunnelling through these hills was a major challenge that even threatened to derail the whole project and if not for them the project would have been completed much earlier. The clayey soil in the hills was saturated with water due to high water table in the region and any tunnelling attempt resulted in the collapse of the tunnel. In order to complete these tunnels hard and slow manual process was adopted and painstakingly was completed with a loss of 19 lives and 4 years were lost in making these 9 tunnels and overall 74 people lost their lives to construct the whole line. Being a region receiving heavy rainfall this line experiences many landslides resulting in disruptions of the railway traffic and a danger of possible accidents. There have been measures taken in order to prevent landslides from falling on the tracks but in front of fury of nature these measures also go down the drain. Landslides have caused 2 major rail disasters on the line which resulted in lowering of speed of trains during monsoon and release of a separate time table for monsoons.
Today Konkan Railway is counted among one of the best lines of the world due to the scenic beauty that it offers along its route. This line has not only brought an inaccessible region on the tourist map but have also developed the whole region. This line has not only saved money for the passengers but have also decreased the time taken considerably. For e.g: anyone going from Mumbai to Kerala had to go through the Chennai line and had to travel for almost 2 days which has now been reduced to within 20 hours. The freight response on this line was lukewarm and to offset the costs of building the line the Konkan railway started a unique road-rail synergy system named as Roll On/Roll Off (RORO) trains. These trains carried trucks loaded with goods from Maharashtra to Goa and Karnataka and vice-versa. This service became very popular among the truck drivers because they could not only reduce their transit time but also reduce the cost of the journey by bypassing the toll taxes and lowered consumption of Diesel. This service also bailed out the line from its financial mess and made it one of the profitable lines of Indian Railway.
Today after 18 years of starting this line initiative is being taken by the government to double the line and to electrify the stretch in order to increase the traffic and speed along the route and to make it more environment friendly. Konkan Railway Corporation Limited (KRCL) which handled the whole project is now one of the top railway companies that is capable of building railway lines through mountainous regions. The first 3 decades of this century are for getting all the mountainous regions of the country on the railway map and KRCL due to its expertise is the first choice to execute such projects. KRCL is already responsible for building Kashmir Railway, a project that is even bigger in scale and importance than Project Unigauge and Konkan Railway. Konkan Railway has truly changed the lives of people that it touched and it has also brought in a confidence among the engineers that such difficult projects are not just dreams that can never be realised but are very much within our grasp.